Once a month, give or take a week or so, I go for a half-hour bus ride to the community health centre in one of Newcastle’s outer suburbs. I take the lift to the third floor, which is occupied entirely by the sexual assault support service.
I always feel a little awkward pushing the button for the third floor, especially when there are other people in the lift – as though it’s an indication of some moral flaw, something to be ashamed of – like making a surreptitious visit to a parole office, or the good kid in the class not wanting everyone to know that she’s been summoned to the principal’s office for a bollocking. Which is stupid: I shouldn’t be ashamed at all. I should stand tall, and say: Look. This was done to me. Watch me have the grace and the courage to heal from it. Instead I find myself hoping that anyone who sees me going up to the third floor will assume that I’m a community health worker. Maybe I should start carrying around a clipboard.
Last time I was there, another girl got into the lift with me on the ground floor. She was beautiful: long, toned legs and a healthy glow and glossy blonde hair, and she would have looked at home on any beach or in any university lecture hall in the country. I immediately felt short, dowdy and frumpy.
I was standing nearest the floor buttons in the lift, and with a furtive sort of defiance I pressed the button for the third floor. I glanced at her in invitation – which floor do you want? – and she raised her eyes to mine and said: “Me too”.
Me too. What power in those words. Me too for the third floor, thanks for pushing the button for me. But more than that. Me too, that I’m going to a sexual assault service. Me too, that I need that support, that I’ve also survived sexual assault. Me too, that you’re not the only one.
There was a frisson of understanding that passed between us. Both of us knew what service is located on the third floor. Both of us knew that the other was not a community health worker, but a client. Both of us knew, intimately, how much strength it takes each time to walk through those doors, to be seared down to the bone by the discussion of our own experience, to walk out shattered. Both of us are victims, and survivors, of one of the worst, most brutal things that can be done to another human. Both of us are seeking healing. And we smiled at each other.
I will never know her name. I will probably never see her again. In a city the size of Newcastle, the chances of us running into each other – inside or outside the community health building – are minuscule. But in that moment, of fear, of anticipation, of vulnerability, we were not alone. Because we were in the same lift, going to the same floor, and we shared a smile: we also shared an experience.
And we are not alone.