Skip navigation

A Thought Experiment

27 September 2023

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 boy called Theo.

You see Theo 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 Theo, but you have been trained not to ask too many questions.  You know that Theo and his little brother are already with his third foster family, you know he 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 the first couple of nervous meetings, the two of you are getting along beautifully. He’s bright-eyed, with a love of all ball sports, and today you’re taking him to the MCG, which, you can’t believe, he’s never been to before.

You’re on the tram, talking to Theo about your favourite trips to the 'G. He 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 on the back of the tram, when suddenly you hear a metallic bang then a loud male 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 disheveled man in his mid-30s (maybe, it’s hard to tell) who is clearly intoxicated (which you assume is kind of normal for him) and looking pretty pissed off at the world . . . which you also assume is normal.  

“Why did he have to get on this tram!? Will he ask for money? Is he dangerous? Why can’t he look after himself!? What’s wrong with people these days!?”

Everything about this man annoys or even disgusts you. You know it shouldn’t, but it does. He'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 a complete stop.  You realise that you are having a supernatural experience (remember, this is a thought experiment!). A ball of light appears between Theo and this man, and as you watch, the ball slowly elongates until it is a beam, connecting Theo and the man 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 man is Theo.  Not metaphorically, but literally, and somehow you have been given a glimpse across time, a sliding door moment. This man is Theo after 3 school expulsions, 17 foster homes including 2 group homes where he was sexually abused. After 5 years spent in prison for attempted murder of a man who wouldn’t stop dealing drugs to his little brother. After 10 more years in and out of the prison system, mostly on trafficking charges to pay for his addiction.  

Or not. 

Between ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’, will Theo get the support he 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 he receive integrated mental health, addiction, and legal support?  Will he be listened to?  Will a skilled professional look directly at him and ask “Theo, what do you need?  How can we help?” 

So . . . here’s another question.

If Theo the child deserves your compassion, energy, commitment and love, is there an age at which he would become unworthy of it?

The fact that so many of us struggle to empathise with or instinctively care about a man like the clumsy phone-breaker on the tram is hardly surprising.  He 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, he does hold those things dear.  He just needs help to achieve them, because he is in pain. 

That’s why First Step exists. 

We work with 1,800 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, right?  

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer