For the girl who wasn’t there

| May 15, 2015
Walk for Clare, Xenia Girdler

Mental health and addiction is managed under separate community health services and training packages. Xenia Girdler says clients with complex support needs will continue to fall through the cracks if this doesn’t change.

As we drove from the Alice Springs airport in June last year my colleague pointed to a young woman striding down the highway – on the pathway through The Gap. Her ears plugged with music, her head, (almost defiantly), held high – eyes straight ahead.

“Anorexia” he said.

I would have passed by her, that afternoon, without acknowledging her – but now I noticed. I silently watched for the few moments our worlds were shared. Us heading into town, she out of it. I didn’t see her again for the remainder of that short stay. I wasn’t convinced, at that time, that my colleague was right. I am never convinced things are so singular. Although I did consider, imagine or wonder if I fleetingly saw demons, right there, beside her.

I come to Alice Springs regularly now – and, after my first sighting of the walking woman, I came to look for her each visit. Depending on the length of my stay, I might see her more than once. Walking. Always walking. And whilst my colleague’s diagnosis-via-distance may certainly have had validity – the singular lens did not and could not account for everything. Because I had been right too – there were demons – and they were multiplying, right there beside her, with her, every step of the way. And all she could do was to keep on walking.

Each visit, the walking woman got a little thinner, a little thinner, a little thinner. It wasn’t sudden so it wasn’t shocking. But it was sad. December, just before Christmas, I made my final visit to Alice for the year. After our final day of teaching I went to the local hotel for a de-brief, and as I sat talking and unwinding with my colleagues, in she came. Not striding anymore. No music in her ears either. And this time the demons weren’t beside her – they were inside her. They had moved inside the skeletal cage, barely holding her upright. I didn’t want to watch too closely although I suspect she would not have noticed if I had. The walking woman was in the final stages of her disappearance and her energy was narrowed and channeled. Focused and unwavering.

There seemed to be a new ritual taking place. An interruption to the usually uninterrupted walk. This afternoon she came into the Hotel, sipped on a brightly coloured drink in the empty back bar before walking out and momentarily standing still, holding her face toward the blistering sun. She repeated this a few times that afternoon before not coming back. Perhaps she was trying to still feel life. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. I do know though it was the last time I saw her.

The Walking Woman left this life, her life, on Australia Day 2015. Her name was Clare. She was only young and for the past few years she had been walking the pathways of Alice Springs. Thirty-five kilometres. Every day. As therapy, her mother wrote in an obituary, which appeared in the local paper. And Clare did this because there was nowhere else for her to go.

I come to Alice Springs to deliver education and training in mental health and AOD. I have been delivering this kind of training for years. Before moving into education, I was a community support worker in mental health. I separate mental health and addiction because government funding and service agreements with community health services and Vocational Education training packages in Australia demand it.

This in no way reflects the reality of the clients presenting at services for support. Nor does it meet the needs of learners – either wishing to upskill or wishing to enter the field. Nevertheless, in this deficit funded systems of ours – that is, despite years of paying lip service to the person-centered, strengths-based approach to case management – services will always be funded for what clients can’t do. The Community Services Industry and the Skills Council endorsed Training Packages silo out client need.

Clients with multiple and complex support needs will continue to simply give up and fall through the cracks. The ricocheting between services for clients will not only continue but intensify as services shut their doors on the complex reality of life. Self-medicating, self-therapy – almost always maladaptive – will go on.

Why are we, educators and service providers, not demanding an end to compartmentalized siloed service delivery and siloed education and training? Why are we not demanding an end to the separation of need?

There are no votes for the vulnerable in our world. And it is their feeling of utter inertia – numb and disconnected – which screams out, at and through me.

On my way back from classes this morning I walked through some scrub to the side of the road. I happened across a small A4 laminated sign lying on the sandy Todd River soil. “Walk for Clare” was printed on it.

I realised it was referring to the young walking woman my colleague and I watched slowly disappear to death. Around this small sign were footprints. No longer hers – and perhaps no longer belonging to anyone who even knew who she was.

There has to be more to it all than this.

The funding bodies and skills council regulators might dictate we continue to separate client need but surely the walking woman and others like her demand we don’t.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    May 19, 2015 at 7:09 am

    A very fine piece Xenia, thank you.

    In 1968, I was in Alice Springs, standing last in a shop queue waiting to order a sandwich. A young woman was waiting too but not in line. My turn came and I said: "the girl was waiting before me." The shopkeeper said: "no, she's right." After taking my order, the man turned to the girl and said: "now, what do you want?" I said nothing. Early next morning I saw the girl again, near a public toilet. She was peeling an orange and, without speaking, handed pieces to a man sitting against the wall. I tried to put that into a poem but the words failed and were lost.

    The Sun was an Orange,
    She peeled,
    I watched,
    He waited,
    And we all went on.

    That fragment came back to me when I went back to Alice more than 40 years later and saw a woman painting silently in a shed with a child beside her on the floor. There was a man standing over them, but I had no words for him either. Next day I noticed a shop with very good food on display. I waited inside and a little queue formed outside. A woman told me gently: "they won't come in until you leave." I did, and we all went on.

    • Xenia Girdler

      Xenia Girdler

      June 20, 2015 at 3:03 am

      Terrible Beauty
      Thank you Max. I find Alice Springs a curious place – full of contradiction. As is much of the Northern Territory. A Terrible Beauty perhaps. I am touched to read you found a connection with the story of Claire. It was an devastating process to watch play out.