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Opinion: The Bondi Junction attacker could have been my brother

Image of a pre-teen brother and sister sitting happily in a dinghy with a Fijian island in the background.

Bondi Junction is my second home, my backyard for almost 50 years. Every local, if they weren’t there themselves as the now-famous chaos unfolded last month, knows someone who was, or who could have been, or should have been. Even my 89-year-old father was up there and, that day, chose ‘this way’ not ‘that’ for his groceries.

The bizarre stabbing deaths of six unwitting Sydneysiders in Bondi Junction on 13 April 2024, have been devastating for the entire local community, the shockwaves of which will continue to radiate for the weeks and months – and for the victims’ families, years – ahead.

But as police search for a motive, and as we naturally collectively seek to order what happened in our own minds, it’s been a bitter pill to swallow the persistent commentary around Joel Cauchi’s ‘targeting’ of women.

That is absolutely not to diminish the epidemic of violence against women in this country. But a schitzophrenic or schitzoaffective person in the midst of a psychotic episode is not making ‘decisions’ as you or I know what ‘deciding’ looks like. 

The Joel Cauchi who packed his bag with a knife and God knows what else that fateful morning wasn’t him.

I should know. I have lived alongside this frightening illness in my once tender little brother for over 20 years and can tell you – it is scary. Scary enough that my very first thought when I heard the news, as my elderly parents live across the road from where the attack took place and he’s menaced them at home in the past, was ‘Oh my God, what if it’s him?’

Scary enough that my parents keep their front grill locked ‘just in case’. Or that my brother king hit Dad in a bank a couple of years ago in front of shocked staff and customers over some perceived financial slight. Or that he once had a stroke without realising it. Or that one time he threatened to kill me while brandishing a steak knife in a restaurant at a family dinner. Or the fact that he’s been evicted from what feels like every bedsit, studio flat, boarding house, and group home you can imagine (and some you’d rather not) across metro Sydney and beyond.

The list goes on.

Yet as scary as he can be, I love my little brother so much.

I Iove my brother. When we were little we were so close we’d dress as ‘twinnies’, playing shop with the contents of Mum’s pantry and coins from her purse. We’d give each other soothing back tickles. Get up before dawn to watch the cartoons on TV. Explore the far reaches of Centennial Park together on weekends.

As a teen, he was a gifted rugby player until a tragically-timed knee injury and reconstructive surgery in Year 11 just as GPS selections were taking place killed his dream of ever donning the green and gold. A popular, gentle, loveable oaf, he cruised through his HSC at our selective high school, even starting (but not getting very far with) a Journalism degree in Canberra.

With so many years between us and our two older brothers, and 70s and 80s kids anyway being mostly ‘free range’, we had a bond I thought was unbreakable. 

Until he got sick. Over time, his brain began to scramble and the voices in his head began to blur his reality.

Finally, after years of deterioration (the kind you only see looking in the rearview mirror) and chronic drug use, he suffered his first major psychotic break in the early 2000s while he was in his mid-20s. A year more or less at St Vincent’s Caritas Acute Mental Health Unit followed. Eventually, he was diagnosed with schitzoaffective disorder, a rare but devastating mix of schitzophrenia and bipolar disorder.

His life has been a pathetic jumble of addiction, unemployment, social isolation, and vagrancy ever since. But as his family, what choice do we have but to keep on trying to love this person and support him through the chaos around him and in his mind? My brother is ‘lucky’ – his family has the motivation and means to keep it up. Many don’t.

Psychiatric illness is ugly, so we don’t talk about it.

I believe there’s a lot of shame involved. Psychiatric illnesses like my brother’s are messy. They’re chaotic and ugly, so we don’t talk about them. They’re not the kind we share openly with friends or over the water cooler, or even with our GPs or on mental health helplines. Faces like my brother’s with his sunken eyes, pallid skin, and rotting teeth, aren’t the ones you see featured in ad campaigns for depression and anxiety or on the feeds of social media influencers.  

For my parents, I feel it’s also just about pragmatism. I’m a parent, too, I get it. Shit happens. You just get on with the job of parenting. My parents are also British (not both by birth but very much in nature), so that tendency towards a stiff upper lip and never, ever airing your dirty laundry, runs deep.

My brother is supposed to avail himself once a month for an injected cocktail of antipsychotics, mood stabilisers, and anti-depressants. But who knows if he does or doesn’t? No one. There’s no centralised care or support system for people like him. He doesn’t have a neighbourhood GP or assigned social or mental health worker. And even if he did, when you’re itinerant like he is (or like Joel Cauchi was in his final months) who’s going to keep up with you?

As a community, are we really expecting someone who, most of the time, doesn’t know what day of the week it is, let alone keep a diary, to manage his own medical care? Now that’s madness.

Families are left to cope on their own.

Our healthcare system and its relationship with law enforcement is — tragically — woefully ill-equipped to deal with psychiatrically ill people, leaving families like mine, like the Cauchis, to cope on their own and, as stated by Cauchi’s father in one of his desperate TV interviews, psychotic people to manage their own medication, often on top of (in my brother’s case anyway) other complex drug and alcohol addictions.

It’s a spin cycle I’ve watched helplessly for two decades along the lines of: skip medication, health deteriorates, spiral until you go off the psychiatric deep end and commit a crime (non-violent, to date, thank God — Dad never pressed charges), get put back into the system, be reassessed and/or hospitalised, re-medicated, achieve some semblance of stability (believe me, it’s relative), and repeat. 

For me, after turning my brother’s throwaway death threat at the family dinner over in my head for a few days, I eventually decided to report what happened to the police. ‘Just in case’ I thought, naively, not realising that within hours there’d be a formal ADVO against my brother taken out on my behalf by NSW Police.

Though I was reluctant to officially even file the complaint, when the officer interviewing me asked, prophetically it seems now, ‘So if you came face to face with him at [my local shopping centre] tomorrow, would you feel safe?’, I thought about it for a moment and realised, actually, that anything was possible. Ashamed, the truth was, sadly, ‘No.’

Was I supposed to feel relieved once the ADVO was writ? It was a familiar crossroad. Objectively, yes. But subjectively? I was distraught and actually felt really guilty having dobbed him in. And besides, beyond ADVOs, which we have seen time and again – when the shit hits the fan – can be as useless as the paper they’re printed on, the police’s hands are tied.

There’s no real protection, and really, what more could they do? My brother is a chameleon. I’ve seen him shapeshift before my eyes behind a thin veil of sanity – in a doctor’s office, in front of a judge, to our mum (who will insist that, over a coffee or a sandwich, he seemed ‘lucid’ or ‘normal’). It’s how this illness works. Catch me if you can.

And really, doesn’t that describe us all in a way? Putting on our different faces, doing what’s asked of us, what we need to do to fit in, to get by, what we think we need to be or do or say in different roles, in different parts of our lives?

For me, the infinite conundrums are a) that unstable, severely psychiatrically ill people are truly not able to make the best or right choices for themselves, and b) there’s no continuity in their care.

Plus, people like my brother are often thoroughly anti-social, lacking friends or any real community. They’re estranged from their families. They’re unemployed. And so they’re marginalised. Add being between 3 and 26 times more likely to be experiencing homelessness into the mix, and what chance do they stand?

The psychiatric care system’s hands are tied because it’s decentralised and inadequate. Law enforcement’s hands are tied until a crime is committed.

Nobody wins.

This drama isn’t ever linear. What drama is? I felt every ounce of the anguish expressed by Joel Cauchi’s parents on TV to my core. I feel it for my brother on a daily basis — at the same time living in constant fear of coming face to face with him on a ‘bad day’. 

But I don’t think dragging a sick, sick man like Cauchi into vital conversations around the systemic abuse of women is going to help either cause. It’s more complicated than that.

And so what’s to come for the thousands of other systemically neglected Australians with serious psychiatric diagnoses?

Here’s what I know: we need to do better for them. We need more open and honest conversations about these complex issues, even though they are difficult. We need to hear different perspectives, like mine. And we need everybody’s safety, security, and well-being accounted for, including my brother’s.

My heartfelt prayers go out to the families of those who so needlessly lost their lives last month, and to those who were injured as a result of the events that unfolded. My heart also breaks for Joel Cauchi’s parents, who’ve lost their son.

As for my little brother? Time will tell. His is an uncertain future, for sure.

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