Louise Slaughter put me on a plane in 2003 for a week that would change my life. This is what I have told her daughter, that her mother was the one who made sure I boarded. That I am studying now to be a paralegal, with the goal of working for Legal Aid.
Until just this morning, listening to an imam speak of the respect Louise showed to all her people, I don’t think I put the two together.
That week in late February, fifteen years ago, was the first time I really stepped out of who I was, into who I could someday become. When you are sixteen, nearly seventeen, deeply depressed and as such very self-involved, you don’t think of the future or your fellow human. You think of what such a trip will mean to the person you are at that moment: the one whose parents have saved so you can do what the other politically-interested kids are doing.
Months of nightmares and, I’m sure, some lingering trauma from being seven and nearly crashing in a commuter plane almost stopped me. But, of course, against the force of my ghosts, there was Louise M. Slaughter, on her own way down to Washington. On the same plane. And when she decides you are going with her, you are going with her. She cajoled, she coaxed, she grandmothered. I can’t put it down to the Dramamine alone: she drove back the terror.
She had no way of knowing who or what I was. I never got to tell her, once I grew up enough to be worth knowing, that I had loftier aims than I ever thought I could have. Would be alive to have, even. All she knew was that a young woman needed to get down to D.C.
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what we did in our conference rooms. A lot of that week is a blur. What sticks is who I was outside the boundaries of the hotel and the program. What sticks is being a person who could navigate Capitol Hill well enough to meet with members of Congress. For the first time in my life, I was viewed as someone who had every right to grab lunch in a federal cafeteria, even if my stomach was in too many knots to eat it. I didn’t need to hold anyone’s hand crossing the street anymore.
Whatever else is blurred, the first real independence in my life stands out.
Years went by after that. I slid down, and down, and down the hill, into a crevasse of mental illness. The next independence I gained, I squandered. But the independence after that… I started to learn how to use it. I ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs like others tackle Mount Everest. Slowly, and with more help than I will ever feel I deserved, I became this person, who learned to care about what lay beyond my nose.
I went back to school a couple of times, looking for some way to serve, and now I think I’ve got it down. I’ve found where I can be useful to society and earn a living wage. (First rule of air disasters: Put on your own oxygen mask before you help the person next to you. You can’t save anyone else if you are gasping for breath.) I am in therapy with a wonderful lady whose mission is to help me unlock the trauma and deal with it, finally. I’m told I can even look to the medical profession for help with what has turned out to be a nasty case of motion sickness. There are therapies.
I seek out opportunities for civic involvement now. I look for the meek, so I can help them inherit the earth. If they want my help. I don’t assume. But I do ask.
Everything changed. Yes, I may regret that the flight home was so rough; yes, I may shake my head at the person I was before I gained some real control over myself. But it all had to happen to get me to where I am now.
If not for Louise, God only knows where I would be instead.