2020

The Girl on the Tram - a thought experiment

It is a beautiful autumn day in Melbourne, our best season, right? You just popped into your favourite café, and your favourite barista made your coffee just right. You’re walking calmly, towards the tram stop. Your travelling companion is an 11-year-old girl called Jasmine. You see Jasmine once a month as part of a Big Brother Big Sister program, and it really is a highlight in your life. You know a bit about Jasmine, but you have been trained not to ask too many questions.  You know that Jasmine and her little brother are already with her third foster family, you know she is struggling academically and is being bullied at school. In your Big Brother Big Sister preparation, you were given extra training on trauma-informed care and appropriate behaviour around child abuse survivors . . . and you’ve quietly drawn your own conclusions. 

After a first couple of nervous meetings, the two of you are getting along beautifully. She’s a bright-eyed, curious young person with a flair for drawing, and today you’re taking her to the NGV, which, previously, she’d never even heard of.  

 You’re on the tram, talking to Jasmine about your favourite parts of the gallery. She seems genuinely interested, and a bit excited, and you’re feeling that life just couldn’t get any better. Your subconscious has registered that someone got in the back of the tram when suddenly you hear a metallic bang then a loud female voice cursing “Ah ssshhhit! I dropped me bloody phone?!” That’s it. Your bubble is burst, and your mood is instantly soured. With trepidation you look up to see, as you knew you would, a very dishevelled woman in her mid-30s (maybe, it’s hard to tell) who is clearly intoxicated (which you assume is kind of normal for her) and looking pretty pissed off at the world . . . which you also assume is normal.  

“Why did she have to get on this tram!? Will she ask for money? Is she dangerous? Why can’t she look after herself!? What’s wrong with people these days!?” Everything about this woman annoys or even disgusts you. You know it shouldn’t, but it does. She’s clearly vulnerable, probably had a shitty life, certainly needs help, but your heart is devoid of compassion at this moment.

Then something very strange happens. The motion of the tram and the movement of everyone in it slowly comes to complete stop.  You realise that you are having a supernatural experience (remember, this is a thought experiment). A ball of light appears between Jasmine and this woman, and as you watch, the ball slowly elongates until it is a beam, connecting Jasmine and the woman who are both bathed in its glow. They look up at each other and both smile gently, knowingly.  You realise in that moment, that the woman is Jasmine.  Not metaphorically, but literally, and somehow you have been given a glimpse across time, a sliding door moment. This woman is Jasmine after 3 school expulsions, 17 foster homes including 2 group homes where she was sexually abused. After 5 years spent in prison for attempted murder of a man who wouldn’t stop dealing drugs to her little brother. After 10 more years in and out of the prison system, mostly on trafficking charges to pay for her addiction.  

Or not.  Between ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’, will Jasmine get the support she needs? The answer to that question, to a great extent, rests with the not-for-profit sector and those philanthropists and governments who would support it.  Will she receive integrated mental health, addiction, and legal support?  Will she be listened to?  Will a skilled professional look directly at her and ask “Jasmine, what do you need?  How can we help?” 

 So . . . here’s another question. If Jasmine the child deserves your compassion/energy/ commitment/love, is there an age at which she would become unworthy of it? The fact that so many of us struggle to empathise with or instinctively care about a woman like the clumsy phone-breaker on the tram is hardly surprising.  She doesn’t seem to hold dear the things that are so important to you and me: self-care, caring for others, making a contribution, making the world a better place.  But here’s the truth, she does hold those things dear.  But she needs help to achieve them, because she is in pain. 

That’s why First Step, my place, exists.  We work with 1,500 people a year providing, free of charge, a uniquely skilled, one-of-a-kind integrated team of GPs, addiction specialists, psychologists and psychiatrists, case managers, therapists and . . . lawyers.  Just like you need a team for a complex physical health condition like cancer (GP, oncologist, surgeon, occupational therapist), you need a team for complex mental health, such as addiction.  Makes sense, no?  

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer