When I fly I always sit in an exit row aisle seat because being a man of my stature, I would rather encroach on the aisle then on the poor person sitting next to me. On a recent Delta flight from SLC to JFK I was only able to grab a window seat… only the seat I chose, it turns out, did not have a window. Those couple extra inches of shoulder room are critical for shame suppression, alas I did not have them.
I decided to ask the middle-aged woman in the aisle seat if she, by any chance, prefers the window. She did not. She did tell me that her boyfriend prefers the window so it’s sad that he wasn’t here. I told her I agree because I would have enjoyed cuddling with him. She started laughing and told me that was TMI.
After learning where to put the flat-end of the buckle and how the bag won’t inflate we got to talking. She was delightfully sassy with colorful glasses. She told me she is originally from Queens and now lives in Westchester. She is making a career switch out of marketing and design (more on that later) and that she was in Utah visiting her daughter. She just reached silver medallion status with Delta and loves her AMEX Platinum card because of the free stuff it comes with.
She asked me what I do and I told her that I am a professional speaker who speaks around the country to corporations and colleges about the role that authenticity, vulnerability, and storytelling must play in leadership. She thought that sounded pretty fun and made a joke about how much I must fly. She then, unprompted, said “I fly out here to Salt Lake City a bunch because I adopted my daughter 13 years ago and she became too much to handle and I needed to send her somewhere that could help her.”
Turns out her daughter had a lot of childhood trauma before my new airplane friend adopter her. And her daughter’s coping mechanisms were not safe for her, the daughter, or others around. It started with edibles, then progressed to stealing her mom’s Xanax, which were under lock and key, to stealing property, to heavier drugs like heroine. She told me that her daughter has almost died three or four times and that she has done some other really bad things but I decided not to be nosy and ask.
Her daughter now is saying, “I guess God does not want me to die.” My new friend said, we are working on trying to get her to say, “I don’t want to die.” She is slowly improving. She is no longer in the maximum-security facility where they were only given foods that didn’t require a knife to eat, because there were no knives allowed in that area.
Whenever she visits her daughter they stay in the Ronald McDonald House – which she cannot say enough positive things about. She says, “When I’m there we go do normal things. We get our nails done, we go to the one deli in Salt Lake that does bagels with creamed cheese and lox, she drinks Dr. Brown’s Root Beer. You know, just normal things that mom’s and daughters do.” She then showed me pictures of her daughter picking a piece of sushi off of a sushi boat and said, “She ate all of the pieces on the boat! I personally can’t stand sushi, but she loves it!”
My airplane friend then thanked me for listening to her and told me that she would love to talk to me the whole ride but she has homework to do. She informed me she is one semester in on an online Master of Social Work program. “I want to try and figure out how to help my daughter more, and if I can help some others along the way that would be special, too.” She says she is learning all about social justice and is going to start her first internship working with low-income youth.
She told me that she asked her daughter to teach her about all of the slang kids are using these days in daily life and when talking about different drugs. Her daughter got so excited to help her mom out and got really into it. My friend said, “it was so special – she really loved helping me. And I know it’s a weird thing to bond over, but I was so happy she was happy and I loved every minute of it while learning at the same time.”
Y’all, I only talked to this woman for 12-15 minutes at most before she put on her Bose headphones, plugged in her laptop, and started typing into what looked like a rubric. 12-15 minutes total and this badass woman openly shared this story with me. I admire her for SO many reasons – her vulnerability; her willingness to shed light on a topic we do not talk about enough – mental health; the fact that she is leaving her career to get a masters in social work so she can learn more and help more; and the fact that she has never given up on her daughter.
This may have been the shortest powerful conversation I have ever had. I am honored to have met this woman and hear her story, and I am proud to call her my airplane friend.