The first time I met Ben Cousins, I was six years old. It was at Asthma Swim, he was there with David Wirrapunda. I got a photo with him. He was very kind, his hair reminded me of Tom Cruise. He couldn't have been older than 17.
Then in Summer last year my girlfriend and I were digging into bento boxes at a Japanese place in Palmyra. There were only two other men in the place. They were talking frantically—defensive hand gestures, anguished expressions, a sense of sadness. One was lecturing the other, giving a low-key Perth version of the I coulda been a contender speech.
"That's Ben Cousins," I said. My girlfriend, not much of an AFL fan, had no idea whether it was actually Ben Cousins or even what he looked like. Still, she looked at him alarmed. The name Ben Cousins alone carries a sort of notoriety.
A few weeks ago, Ben Cousins was hospitalised after "directing traffic" on the Canning Highway. The West Australian front page exclaimed "COUSINS IN FREEWAY ARREST." For the image, they chose to photoshop a police car and an ambulance under a shot of Cousins circa 2006, buoyantly wearing his Brownlow, looking ecstatic.
From assaults, to breakdowns, and slow-speed police chases, Cousins has crumpled into that form of failure that WA treats with particularly acerbic scorn. Our former champion, Perth's golden boy—the rogue and the rebel—now turned mad and frightening, now only allowed to be seen as a cautionary punchline.
I feel strangely connected to Ben Cousins. Not as some sort of witness to his self-destruction but as a fellow traveller. From when I met him as a six-year-old, through my own years battling mental illness in a city that doesn't understand, I feel we've lived divergent yet parallel lives, both skirting the shoals of madness.
I've never fitted the Australian perception of masculinity. I'm not a bloke. I'm scared of footballs. Yet I went to every Eagles and Dockers homegame between 1993 and 2005, just to prove to my father that I could be "one of the guys."
I was always eccentric. I twitched, I fidgeted, I spoke a million words a minute. I sang Gilbert and Sullivan. But as I got older, my eccentricity blurred into illness. I fell into a delirious spiral into madness and public embarrassment that, when I was 16, was diagnosed as bipolar. I've written extensively about what happened next. If you're curious, read this.
My diagnosis in 2007 came around the same the time Cousins began his own long fall from grace. He'd pop up in the news every now and again, climbing houses, being assaulted at family picnics, having psychotic breaks. The mood of his hometown was usually: "Well, that's what he gets." Mine was "is that what I'll get?"
Perhaps it's the isolation, perhaps it's the sunshine, but I find the uncertain dichotomy of Australia's macho complex more apparent in Perth than anywhere else. Perth is a city, sure, but it's one with a very small town mentality. Nowhere is failure handled more weirdly than in a small town.
Ice is frighteningly popular in Perth. In this trend, Cousins has been somewhat the canary in the coal mine. Somehow though him being the first high-profile Perthonality to fall into its grips has been treated with a cool disconnect.
We don't want to see our former champion's addiction troubles as a greater reflection of the pervasive drug culture that permeates our city. We don't want to see his madness as the byproduct of our taunting, bullying, headlining, joking, sneering, our post-mining insecurity and our hypocrisy. Ben Cousins is the human embodiment of the West's shortcomings. He is our failure.
I've recently been asking myself a question: should anything ever happen to this young man, will we see shades of blood on our hands, or just keep joking? I saw Ben Cousins again late last year at the burger shop up the road from the Japanese in Palmyra. He was nursing a baby.
He looked exhausted. He looked scared. But he winked at me when he saw the shimmer of recognition fall over my face. After all, he'd been one of the best ever.
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