Before you judge him, here is what I want to tell you about my brother

Date

Julie Stevens*

We've ended up somewhere very different in life and neither of us is wholly responsible for that.

We've ended up somewhere very different in life and neither of us is wholly responsible for that. Photo: Stocksy

One day when I was little, I remember coming home and seeing my brother - then perhaps 6 or 7 years old - sitting on the edge of his bed, hands clasped between his knees, rocking backwards and forward.

He had a gash above his right eye.

When I asked what had happened, he just looked at me like he wanted to tell me but his mouth would not co-operate. He didn't have the words. He didn't have the words to tell me of his shocked disbelief at a world where my stepfather could throw a spanner at him just because he walked past a motorbike my stepfather couldn't fix. He had no words to explain the pain, disappointment and incomprehension he felt. Which meant those feelings sat there.

None of my brothers have ever had the words to explain what it was like to be beaten until you wet yourself, to learn to read with the threat of having your fingers chopped off for stumbling over words or being held over a duck pond for wetting the bed.

I, on the other hand, always had words.

Words that may have been said in the privacy of my diary but still words that put together allowed me to process, make sense of, or even just express much of the awfulness that was sometimes, too often, happening in our lives.

I figured out through writing that our mum was flawed but loved us, that my stepfather could act in evil ways without being entirely evil and that there was so much grey and no black and white in drug addiction.

I had words that allowed me to do well in school, gain the approval of teachers and keep my feet, or at least one foot, in the world which venerates achievement, 'righteousness', job prospects and 'success'.

And now I'm 'successful'. I'm a lawyer representing children accused of crime, children that too often don't have the words.

And my brother sits in gaol.

He is a better person than I am. I watch him babysit my children. He has so much patience. He negotiates and distracts them out of their tantrums. He plays with them, properly, not just pretending to while he watches the clock because there is too much to do, like I do.

He is fun and funny. He would rather lose deliberately than see someone disappointed, unlike competitive me.  He avoids confrontation.

He is the most selfless person I know but as a drug addict also the most selfish.I know - know, know, know - he would give anything to be drug free forever. But he struggles. And I know I would too, if I was him with our memories and history and without my words and teachers and support and positive steps built on positive steps.

We've ended up somewhere very different in life and neither of us is wholly responsible for that.

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My Aunt thinks of my brother as a junkie. He is. But is that all we should think of him? Does it make a difference in your assessment of my brother when you read of his childhood? If you know he was born addicted to opiates? That he first started smoking marijuana when he was around 12 after he had run away to Sydney to find our mother who abandoned us for a new life in another state?

That it was during his first sentence of imprisonment that he progressed from smoking heroin to injecting it? That he was raped in gaol? That he came out more damaged than when he went in? That when there was a heroin shortage his dealer gave him cocaine freebies to keep him on the books?

What about my mother and father? My mother grew up in a nice middle class family, learning the piano and studying ballet. She started using heroin with my father and his friends and has said that the first time she put a needle into her arm she did so with tears running down her face but with the feeling that she now 'had a place to be.'

What is your assessment of her if I tell you that my mother was a wonderful and a terrible mother? That she cried in the shower so we couldn't hear her, was beaten, sold drugs, helped with homework, neglected us and comforted us?

Is my father more culpable? He was medicated from the age of 6, a little pill in his lunch box each day. For what I am not sure.  A very clever man, he started smoking opium during his travels to China. He came back to Australia addicted.

What is your assessment of him if I tell you that he roamed the streets of Sydney looking for my brother, offering him all the support he could to get him drug free and yet at another time introduced him to cocaine because, to use his words, he "thought he could make some money from it." My father who told us he loved us, was demonstrative, interested in us, generous and funny like my brother, how do we judge him?

My answer is that I don't know. It seems so easy for some to use words like 'choice' and 'personal responsibility' without context. So easy to label people as 'good' or 'bad' and bandy about words like 'soft' and 'hard' to describe our options for dealing with drug addiction and related criminal activity. To see the grey can be overwhelming. But that is what I ask here. See the grey, debate the issues, and insist on responses that work. It is too simplistic to simply describe my mother, father or brother as 'bad' and deserving of punishment.

I listened on Tuesday morning to Jackie Lambie touchingly refer to the battles of her son with ice addiction. She has said she is no longer talking to her son but the drug. I listened in sadness. The brother I described above disappears when he is on ice. If he hadn't been on ice he would never have committed the offence for which he is currently sitting in goal, an offence of which he now has very little recollection.

But at the end of the day he has committed an offence, or indeed a number of offences. They are not offences of violence but offences of dishonesty involving goods of significant value.  How do we respond? He is before the court for sentencing this week and I feel overwhelmed at the thought of a sentence that could seek to punish him into compliance but in reality just set the stage against his rehabilitation.  A sentence that ultimately protects no one.

Again, how lucky am I that I have been given words to work through the anxiety, how lucky that my drug of choice is a glass of wine rather than something else to assist. That been said, I still haven't found the words to write to the Judge. And I know my brother won't have the words. I can see him already. "I am so sorry," he says. And he is.

But is this relevant? Is it relevant that he has tried desperately over the years to get a spot in a rehabilitation unit without success? Is it relevant that with support and an appropriate program he was able to stop using heroin a decade ago and it follows that with support the hold ice has over him could perhaps also be beaten?

The court will have to decide whether to sentence my brother to a program aimed at his rehabilitation, that is, a sentence of detention but at the Compulsory Drug Treatment Centre where the focus is on treatment, rehabilitation and re-integration. Or, whether to sentence him to a gaol term of perhaps three to four years that he will serve at somewhere like Silverwater Correctional Centre.

If the latter happens, while there will be no offending for that period of time, he will be faced with the same issues and complexities upon release.

As for me, I will go back to visiting my brother at a place that makes me cry and knowing that all I can do is hope that when he is released he can still smile and his big blue eyes still show who he is and who he can be.

*Names have been changed