Colossus: A story for our times

Jenny and I speak regularly over the phone. She at home in country Victoria, me at work in Fitzroy.  Sometimes we talk about country life, something we have in common, but mostly we talk about Craig, her adult son, my client.


We talk about his evictions and abandoned tenancies, substance use, gambling, mental and physical health and his squat at the back of a car park on Wellington St where he goes when things fall apart, which is pretty often.


Jenny’s speech is always composed, considered, eloquent. She whispers, is always polite and grateful. I have never heard her pause or stumble even when discussing Craig at his lowest like when she feared he would die out there over winter, or from an overdose, or an infection from an untreated injury.


Craig is timid and ghost-like. I pictured Jenny as a woman of presence: tall, statuesque, with more than a memory of beauty. Long blond, greying hair.


After the voices started in Craig’s head and the health system in the bush couldn’t help, they bought him a house. He trashed the place and the yelling at night scared the neighbours, so Craig ran and landed in Melbourne’s inner north, like many others, where drugs and services are in almost equal supply. it’s merry-go-round. A dealer can be found as easily as a social worker.


Many families surrender and abandon addicted and mentally ill members because it’s too relentless and heartbreaking to watch them slowly die. Or keep living. They lie and steal, they’re violent. They can’t see the impact they have on those around them. Humans can’t feel empathy until they feel safe.


Jenny and Gary speak with Craig most days. They have control over some of his money but are accustomed to him dropping off the radar each fortnight on pay day until resurfacing to beg for money. The first time I met him he was on the phone to his mum abusing her for not putting $30 in his account.


He tells me he likes me because I’ve always treated him well and I’m not the bastard who sticks a bloody big needle up his bum every month as part of his Community Treatment Order. Bottom line is, I’m useful to him: I organise emergency accommodation and coffee.


We talk about soccer, footy and cricket. Craig was a champion junior sportsman back in the day.


When he’s travelling ok and the delusions are happy, Craig tells me about opening the batting for Australia and when he was the youngest player to pull on a Carlton guernsey. Once, he gave me a dirty scrap of paper with an all-star soccer team scratched on it in pencil. He named himself up front alongside Messi.


There are times when the mental illness is tearing his head apart. One day the two of us were sitting in Craig’s flat and the delusions were so out of control he swore there were others in the room punching him. He held his hands up to his head to protect himself.


Craig got through winter in the squat. We provided occasional respite in a local motel. He was  injecting himself with anything he could find and spent a week in StV’s having an abscess treated. Once discharged he stopped attending outpatient appointments.


Recently, Jenny and Greg bought him a bedsit near the city. His name is on the lease and he pays rent which means his Social Housing application will be cancelled. If this fails, he’ll be back in the squat or queuing each morning at an access point for a bed in a dodgy rooming house.


Jenny drove to Melbourne a few days before settlement. They picked up the keys late on a Friday and visited my work.


It was the first time Jenny and I had met. Physically, the impression I had created in my head couldn’t have been more wrong.


Jenny is tiny and as she sat on the edge of her chair in reception she looked like a little bird. Her features are small and contained like Craig’s and her hair a conservative, brown bob.


I sat beside her and could see her eyes red with exhaustion. Thin lines arced from cheek bones to the edges of her mouth.


But her life force is resilient. She has a strength sensed not seen. She is indefatiguable. Unbowed. Colossal.


We watched Craig through the window as he sucked on a cigarette and squinted into the spring sunshine. She had cleaned him up – shower, haircut, new clothes.


‘We’re not too confident about this’, she said. ‘But we’ll give it a go. I just hope he would develop some insight into his life.’


I headed for the train and Craig to his new home. Jenny booked a nearby motel room to keep a watch over and hope he’d get through his first night.



Please, if you, or someone you know, may have any concerns, support can be found by contacting the following:


Lifeline (and hyperlink the word Lifeline to: ) is a free and confidential support service which can be reached on 13 11 14.

Beyond Blue (and link that to can be reached on 1300 22 46 36.
















  1. Colin Ritchie says

    It’s not only the person with the illness who suffers but also family and those offering and providing support who suffer just as much, if not more. Your story certainly brings out these factors loud and clear.

  2. Eloquently told Andrew. So hard to know what help helps in these situations. For parents, friends and support workers alike. After initial essentials to keep someone alive and connected, I generally try to work out if the person has some capacity for insight and change.
    I want people to meet me/life at least part of the way. But some are too damaged by trauma or mental illness or drugs/alcohol to have much personal autonomy. Some are expert manipulators.
    Some sense of personal pride, contribution and autonomy are crucial to any change and growth.
    Col – addicts don’t have relationships; addicts take hostages.

  3. An enlightening piece, Starkers.
    Particularly for those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to deal with mental illnesses and other unfortunate problems. There but for the grace of God…
    I have great admiration for you – and for Jenny.

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