Mental Health Matters: Triggered (Part III)

As a writer, I’d love to end the story with, and I never returned. As a person showing up in authentic spaces, I’ve created for myself, I want to tell the rest of the truth.

Of course, I returned. I had to get my purse.

But I didn’t want to.

That evening, I’d stayed up well past midnight journaling: writing and processing, processing and writing. It had worked when my father died, so perhaps it would work with this situation. I wrote until my eyes were heavy. Part I of this series is the result.

“I don’t belong here,” I told Dwight the next morning.

“Here in Covert or here in your family?”

“Both,” I sighed.

But we had a wedding to attend. I’d decided the only way I could live through the remainder of my time in Michigan was to drink, to remain self-medicated so as to numb any future pain.

Forget pranayama.

Forget exercising.

Forget cognitive behavioral therapy.

I didn’t want to feel the heat rise should my grandmother tell me to speak up or beg me to engage in meaningless conversation.

So, I drank until I ran out of the liquor I’d bought for myself. Then, I started on what was available, which included bottles reserved for college dormitories.

By the time my cousin went from Miss to Mrs., and by the time the last car backed out of the driveway, I…was…drunk.


Dwight, my aunt, her beau, and I stood in the kitchen. I don’t remember what set me off into a Shakespeare-like soliloquy, but I projected all of my thoughts from the time I was sixteen to present day onto my aunt. For over two hours, I expressed my likes, dislikes, wants, and needs from all the adults who raised and didn’t raise me. I cried and purged. I spewed almost every part of my life, from stories I’ve written for this blog, to words encompassed in an unpublished memoir. I left it all there in that kitchen in Covert, Michigan.

I’ve gone back and forth with myself about sharing this, but I’ve decided it’s okay for a few reasons:

Healing isn’t linear. I’m not sure where I first read this, but it resonated. In this culture, we act as if there’s a magic healing wand. I blame popular media, as well as the instant nature of society. Once you do x, y, and z, then you’re “cured” of your trauma and you live happily ever after. That’s simply not the truth. I’ve spent years working on myself. Most days, I’m super good and never think about my past. Other days, I visit my grandmother and feel like an oppressed teenager who’s learned to silence my own voice before someone does it for me. That doesn’t mean I’m not healed. It means I’m a human being, who can be triggered.

People are not perfect. We want the “I Have a Dream” speech MLK, but we don’t want to hear about his alleged adulterous behavior. We want our heroes unblemished, like fictional Marvel caricatures. But Spiderman loses frequently, and Tony Stark seems to be a bit of a jerk. I’ve written The Greatest Thing About My Grannie and meant every word; however, I also see her as a multidimensional human being who isn’t always very nice or emotionally supportive. Likewise, as I noted at the beginning, I’d rather present my own self as a whole person, rather than a perfect being who walks around quoting pithy reflections.

One moment is one moment. Everyone asked how the wedding was, and I wanted to say, it was good, except for the part when…but there was no need to repeatedly mention this situation. Doing so would be a form of unnecessarily beating myself up and carrying energy that needed to dissipate in my grandmother’s kitchen. The best thing to do was to contemplate what happened, apologize to my aunt for the timing and manner in which I expressed myself, and move on. It was one moment.

You can be gifted, helpful, and flawed. When we returned home, I received several pieces of good news that have come and gone. Someone from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF)/Mellon Mays Conference contacted me about a paid presentation. One of my essays was published in another anthology. Dr. Dinardo’s institution, St. Clair, and their SRC revised our video on situational anxiety and showed it on IGTV. I know that a lot of people believe you have to have it all together before you can be impactful in the world. I’m here to tell you…you don’t. Your favorite celebrity is proof enough of that.

I began this series with my husband’s question, “Can you imagine living here?”

My answer is clear. Not only can I not imagine living in Covert, Michigan, I also have no intention on returning.  

Watch Dr. Dinardo’s keynote, “Emotional CPR: Catch Triggers Before They Escalate” to learn how to recognize and rein in triggers before they get out of hand.

Mental Health Matters: Triggered (Part II)

August 2020, my cousin shared that she would be getting married…at my grandmother’s house. It had been six years since I was there. Six years since the shoveling snow, can’t catch my breath incident. Sending a gift would have been sufficient, especially in a time of COVID, but I felt compelled to attend.

“Are you gonna be alright?” Dwight asked as we traveled toward her home.

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine. I’m a grown-ass woman,” I replied as more of a mantra than a confident truth.

Just for the record, I really thought I was fine. Day one was simple. I ignored how my grandmother wore her mask around her chin, ignored how she talked about how stupid my cousin and her fiancé were for not setting things up sooner or asking for her help, and I ignored how she demanded we speak up louder, instead of wearing her thousand dollar hearing aids.

Turns out ignoring is what used to work for me. Ever since I’ve been more aware and in tune with my emotions, it’s harder to let things go.

I realized this on day two.


“I’m going to get chicken, but not for everyone, just me and Belle,” my grandmother hollered loud enough for all of us to hear.

That was unnecessarily rude, I thought.

Then, Dwight walked over and whispered, “Your grandmother wants to know if you want some chicken?”

The only person I can control is myself, I thought.

“Grannie, I don’t feel comfortable getting chicken for just me and no one else.”

She didn’t care what I did, as long as everyone knew she wasn’t asking or buying chicken for anyone else.

And that, my friends, is where the heat rose, and spiral began.

We got the chicken and sides and headed back home, which is when my grandmother decided to stop at her friend’s house to “see what she wanted when she called.”

“Now?” I asked.

“Yeah. Why not?”

How selfish, I thought.

Was it a coincidence that I listened to a podcast focused on triggers when I returned to Florida? I don’t know, and I don’t want to intellectualize or woo-woo this. But according to mental health experts, a trigger can be a tap on the shoulder, the way someone speaks, or a familiar scent. Any of these and more can send someone back into time.

What I do know is by the time we returned to her house, I felt helpless and silenced. I was seventeen again, just like in 2014, just like in 1990. But I had two drumsticks, unseasoned green beans, and a mound of mashed potatoes to suffer through.

I felt alone. My aunt had driven to her hotel. My two cousins and their friend have a closeness that didn’t need my intrusion; they sat on the couch and giggled about something or another. Dwight was in the basement talking to my soon-to-be new cousin. The only place left to eat was at my grandmother’s table. She sat to my left; my ninety-eight-year-old great aunt sat to my right; and across from me, was my mother’s cousin. Though we are all grown, I felt like a child surrounded by adults, just like when I was growing up.

All I wanted was to finish my food. All my grandmother wanted was for me to outline my mundane online teaching job to her because, “I don’t know what you all are doing in this century.”

Even as I’m typing this, it seems a trivial thing. But it’s not. We were at an impasse. While I cannot tell her to put her hearing aids in or to please stop calling people stupid, in that moment, I could refuse to detail how I teach via computer, for no other reason than I didn’t want to.

The wrinkle between her brows furrowed, signaling her annoyance.

All I wanted was to finish my mashed potatoes and gravy. I wondered why we weren’t discussing the other actual exciting event: Her granddaughter was marrying the man of her dreams at her house. A conversation about how I grade assignments was insignificant. Finally, she let it go.

I cleaned the drumstick and excused myself.

“l’ll be back,” I said to everyone and to no one.

And I never returned.

Watch Dr. Dinardo’s keynote, “Emotional CPR: Catch Triggers Before They Escalate” to learn how to recognize and rein in triggers before they get out of hand.

Mental Health Matters: Triggered (Part I)

“Can you imagine living here?” my husband asked, “or near here?”

He was asking me if I could ever think of how life would be if I’d lived near or around Covert, Michigan, the place I was sent when my father threw me out of the house. It was September 2020.

Three months prior, a birth chart reader told me I had been seeking higher consciousness, and apparently, there are certain places on earth, where I can be closer to achieving that goal. Florida is one of them. Chicago and Michigan, those places where I was born and raised, are not.

I knew this before the reader mentioned it. I could feel it.


In 2014, I visited my grandmother in Covert on a stop to Western Michigan, the university where I’d received my bachelor’s degree. My then job had paid for me to go anywhere in the country for professional development, so I chose my pre-professional roots. Maybe my methodology professor, the person who taught me how to teach, would impart some sage words on a journey that seemed foggy at best.

I couldn’t tell if I was holding my breath or if my breath shortened on its own, but something physically happened to me as I entered her driveway. I ignored it and slept soundly that evening.

The following morning, I awoke to soft mounds of white snow in the driveway. My grandmother and I shared breakfast and then we sat across from one another in the living room; she sat in the armchair and I on the couch.

“Where is the shovel?” I asked.

“It’s in the garage. I’ll go get it,” she said.

But she didn’t. We sat there for thirty minutes as a daytime show blared on the television, audible to anyone outside of the house, her hard-of-hearing status at its beginning stages.

“Grannie, are you going to get the shovel? I have to meet my professor,” I said.

“I’ll get it,” she said.

My grandmother is good at controlling a situation so that by the time it’s over, you don’t know if you gave away your power or if she took it.

I felt the heat rise from my abdomen, but I said nothing. Time travelled backwards. I was no longer forty-one. I was seventeen. I was alone and powerless. I should keep my mouth shut and wait for the shovel. An overwhelming sense of sadness overcame me. Breathing was hard, but yoga had taught me pranayama. I sat and practiced. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. I waited for her to liberate me from her house, whenever she saw fit.

Eventually, we walked to the garage together and she handed me the tool. It never dawned on me that I could’ve found it myself.

FB, February, 2014

The cold air, constant digging, and solitude served as therapy. I held onto the residual anger of being forty-five minutes late to my meeting and turned my fury into a cute social media post about perseverance, perhaps someone would be inspired by my resentment.  

I never processed what happened at her house. In fact, I ignored that it did.


Watch Dr. Dinardo’s keynote, “Emotional CPR: Catch Triggers Before They Escalate” to learn how to recognize and rein in triggers before they get out of hand.

Mental Health Matters: Situational Anxiety with Dr. Dinardo

andrea_situational_anxietyThis week, I speak with one of my dearest blogging friends, Dr. D! We discuss all things anxiety. She explains the difference between anxiety disorder and situational anxiety. Dr. Dinardo provides 3 strategies to help us cope with situational anxiety, especially because it may be heightened during the pandemic and times of racial unrest. Oh, and I reveal a real-time experience that was causing me a bit of anxiety. I’ll have to write about the results later.

I also have to warn you…if you don’t want to hear us dote on one another, then you should begin this episode around the 7-minute mark. Our conversation can be viewed on YouTube or listened to on SoundCloud, or via Buzzsprout until March 2021. I hope this is helpful as we seek healthier ways to engage with and support one another.

Be sure to also check out Dr. D’s blog: drandreadinardo.com, google her TEDx talk, or follow her on IG: dr.andrea.dinardo. You’re bound to learn something and be a bit more motivated.

Mental Health Matters: Anxiety

I learned the first semester of undergrad that being assigned several tasks at one time caused uncontrollable tension. There was an overwhelming sense that I wouldn’t have time to complete everything. That’s when I developed an organized coping mechanism system. I began keeping an agenda of lists. These lists ensured that I knew where I was supposed to be and at what time. As technology advanced, I not only kept lists, but I also created reminders on my cell phone and included the same events on my digital calendar. My lists had lists.

I’m sure list making is a “normal” task; my issue is that I never veer from them. A friend of mine jokes that she needs to make an appointment to speak with me. But she and I know it’s not a joke. I will not sacrifice a list item for an unscheduled phone conversation to catch up with a friend.

This rule continued as I raised children. My daughters understood that if they wanted me to do something, then they had to tell me at least a week in advance. I’ve missed ceremonies because they told me at the “last minute,” which would require me changing my schedule, sending me into a frenzy where I felt as if I didn’t have enough time.

The rigidity and necessity of my list making surfaced April 2019 when my youngest daughter was in a car accident. Someone hit someone else, who hit her, and caused her to hit a fourth person. She called her dad, who handled the situation and agreed that she was able to go to school. By the end of the day, she’d texted me complaining of headaches.

After an appointment with a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine), it was decided that she had a concussion and would need further treatment. Additionally, she would have to take pain meds every 3-4 hours and rest for at least a week at home…with me. This meant no screen time and no thinking, just resting. Are you aware of how challenging it is to keep a seventeen-year-old off her phone?

This is when I fully realized another issue. When life is fine, I’m fine. List. Check. Go. When something occurs, especially if it’s traumatic, I begin to feel worried that I cannot handle the task at hand and complete my list. I spiral quickly.

Ensuring my daughter ate food, rested, didn’t watch television, stayed off her phone, didn’t FaceTime her group for a group project (which she did), took pain medications every four hours, all while checking off my daily professor tasks, like grading papers and answering students’ question was…a lot.

But I didn’t realize it until my husband came home.

“Why are you so tired?” he asked.

clocksMy answer? Tears. I was emotionally exhausted. The days’ events had worn me out, and underneath it all I was also worried that our daughter wouldn’t recover soon enough. She was in a rigorous academic program and needed her brain. She had an oral exam in a week and AP exams shortly after. Concussions can take months to recover from. Her fogginess was evident. She couldn’t recall words, like theory. What if she never healed? What if this accident ruined everything? What if I wasn’t doing enough to help her heal? How was I supposed to balance helping her and doing my job?

I never saw myself as suffering from anxiety. I reserved that for other people, like my cousin who had prescriptions for panic attacks or those who washed their hands and cleaned obsessively. Certainly, I wasn’t like them.

I’d even read that people with anxiety chew ice and shared that info with my husband. “You used to chew ice,” he said.

And I thought so what? I’ve never had anxiety. But, I do. My life is peppered with people asking a simple question, like “how are you?” and me crying uncontrollably because I’ve held onto frenetic feelings and worse-case scenarios of a situation.

Last year is just the first time I’d realized it.

Part of the mental health stigma is that issues have to be extreme. This is untrue. You do not have to be walking down the street talking to yourself to have a mental health issue. You can simply have an overactive mind that constantly tells you there isn’t enough time to complete tasks. You can have the incapacity to appropriately regulate your emotions. Or, you can have fill-in-the-blank issue that you’ve kept secret to appear “normal.”

Either way, the first step for any healing is acceptance. I’ve accepted anxiety is a part of a few mental health issues I’ve tried to hide. Next month, I’ll discuss another.

January’s Mental Health Matters 

 

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Around 2005, I found my biological mother’s side of the family, and with that came a narrative about my family’s mental health. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sent me a thick packet of information sealed in a manila envelope.

My mother had been diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia, undifferentiated type. According to the report she would oftentimes “walk around with an empty stroller” and could be found “lying on the couch, laughing hysterically.” Although she was an avid swimmer, in 1978, she drowned in Lake Michigan.

These images are not only vivid, but also profound. I immediately related to my mother’s psychosis. Finally, I understood part of myself.

I’d felt slightly off growing up. For example, in elementary school, it was difficult for me to walk in front of a class or across the cafeteria. Oftentimes, I thought everyone stared and talked about me. I had little reason to believe these imaginings, but in my mind they were true. However, I learned to cope. I’d pretend I was a horse with blinders on. I’d walk directly to my destination, ignoring anything in my peripheral vision, internally praising myself when I made it back to my seat without ridicule.

I never told anyone.

Learning about my biological mother introduced me to one of her sisters, Aunt Catherine. She outlined the remainder of our family’s mental health history. She suffered from depression. Her father, my grandfather had, too. Her mother, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. Her two brothers were in prison; one murdered someone.

When I shared my relief that I’d finally found solace in understanding my off-centeredness, she rebuked it.

“Don’t try to be like us,” she said, “you’re not like us. You don’t have to be like us. Depression feels like you’re in a deep hole that you can’t get out of. You want to get out, but you can’t.”

I’d never experienced depression. In fact, my set point is joyful. So, I dismissed my newfound knowledge. Plus, who wants to identify as “crazy” anyway? I focused on other family similarities, like the tremors she, my daughters and I shared; all of our hands shake uncontrollably.

Still I knew something about me wasn’t normal.

When I was younger, I cried frequently for all reasons. One time I remember swelling up with tears because my paternal cousins had visited from North Carolina. They planned to drive to Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb to visit another cousin. I thought I wasn’t invited, so I cried, until they consoled me and assured me I’d be right there with them. I was ten.

When my parents told me my father had diabetes, I cried because I thought he was going to die. My mother came to my room and asked me to stop. “Crying for hours is excessive for a diabetes diagnosis,” she said. I was twelve.

It was the 70s and 80s, so I was deemed sensitive. Anxiety wasn’t a household term, and therapy in black homes was unheard of. Instead, I received the proverbial, “Whatchu crying for now?” question, especially from my grandmother, who seemed to want me to be tougher, something I never fully achieved.

I researched schizophrenia and clinical depression. Aunt Catherine was right. I was neither of those; but, dots were connected. However, I dismissed them because they didn’t form complete pictures. They weren’t direct links. I ignored the idea that mental health is genetic; however, like brown eyes and curly hair, traces of mental health can linger in one’s DNA. Curl patterns may be a little looser and eyes a little darker, but characteristics are there.

So, while it’s no easy feat, I’ve taken some time to accept this trait. Subsequently, because I believe the only person I can change is myself, I’ll be publicly exploring it in more detail this year on this blog as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to bring truth to light. What better way to do both than to begin with me?

Oh, and those tremors? They’re more than just biological markers; They are a physical manifestation of social anxiety disorder.