Mental Health Matters: De-Stressed in Croatia

I want to show you how easy it was to de-stress and regulate my nervous system while I was in Zagreb, Croatia. I mean, that’s the social media way, right? But that’s not my way. I want you to understand this was a process. 

So, here we go. 

Day 1

I am angry with my husband because he doesn’t take the day off from work when we fly from Amsterdam to Zagreb. Instead of talking with him about it, I use a familiar coping mechanism: suppression. Consequently, I am overwhelmed with the thought of finding lunch for both of us and grocery shopping in a new country by myself. However, I must do these things; otherwise, I will not eat, so I use another familiar coping mechanism: hyper independence

Day 2

I am still angry from yesterday, but I say nothing. My husband found a food delivery service: it’s called Bolt, like Uber Eats or DoorDash. Due to miscommunication between us, he orders food only for himself. This causes meltdown number one. In this case, crying serves as a purifier for the stress I’ve suppressed. Our conversation yields resolutions: (1) he will grocery shop in the morning because he wakes up much earlier than I do; (2) I will take clothes to the laundromat; (3) he will wash white clothes and hang them on the line; (4) he will be more attentive; (5) I will ask for help. 

Days 3-5

It’s my birthday weekend, and stress won’t ruin it, this is my silent declaration. Dwight rents a car and drives us to Split, Croatia, where he’s planned birthday events in Hvar, an island you can only reach by ferry. We miss the ferry. But I don’t feel stressed. Maybe it’s because I declared victory over anxiety at the onset. Probably not. That’s not how anxiety works. We tour Split and arrive at Hvar late Friday night. It is too dark to see the water, but even in the dark, I hear the Adriatic crashing against the shore a few feet from our balcony. I’m able to engage in another coping mechanism: soaking up the sounds of the sea. The next day, the Adriatic helps to regulate my mood. Everything is okay. The resort allows me to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with ease. My body re-sets. 

I’m glad Dwight planned this.

Day 7

I’m overly excited about going to the laundromat. I head to the bank with a two-hundred kuna bill (the equivalent of twenty-eight dollars). I need change so I can use the machine, which only takes one hundred kuna. 

“I cannot do that,” the bank teller says when I request two one hundred kuna. 

Her reply sends me over, and I start crying—mini meltdown number two. I didn’t anticipate the bank would be a place where I couldn’t change money. Tears fall. The teller looks surprised. She tells me where to go. I can do hard things, I tell myself, while dragging a suitcase full of dirty clothes through downtown. I scan the corner store and choose a Sprite.

“Do you have anything smaller?” the cashier asks as I hand her the two hundred kuna bill, now wet and crumpled.

“No,” I lie.

I successfully wash clothes in two hours. This seemingly small feat makes me proud. 

Day 8

I’ve been eating oatmeal for breakfast. Its thick sliminess helps to move my bowels. I practice virtual yoga, amused that I can join the six AM class, because in Zagreb, it is noon. In a couple of hours, I Zoom into a work meeting. They’re still not taking my suggestions, but I do not feel the urge to cry. 

Week 1

I have a schedule. Three FitOn workouts one day. Virtual yoga the next day. Rely on the eighteen thousand steps we accumulate during our walking tours for added exercise. Eat thick slime for breakfast and ramen for lunch four times a week; these are easy meals that do not require thinking. Make dinner four times a week. Laundromat on Thursdays. Write everyday, even if it’s gibberish no one will read. This regimen isn’t perfect, but it is predictable, and that’s what I need…predictability. 

My bowel movements are regular, and sleep has returned—all signs that my nervous system has returned to “regular.” 

Laundry day number two, a German man put too many kuna in the machine and doesn’t need them. He gives me his tokens, enough to last two weeks. It’s the kind of event that makes you believe someone beyond the veil has your back. 

Week 2

All is well. An Uber driver tells me there’s an electronic music festival beginning on Friday. I grew up on house music, so I’m ecstatic. 

“Are you going to be able to wake up?” Dwight asks because we’re scheduled to ride the Flixbus to Venice the next day and also because he’s showing attentiveness. 

“I will,” I say. “I have a plan.” 

Drinking and dancing for three hours in a park releases toxins from my body, and I feel free.

When we return late that night, I follow my plan: shower and pack clothes and the popcorn Dwight bought me for the trip.

I don’t lose it when we almost miss the bus to Venice because neither of us knows the exact departure location. I don’t lose it when I find out there are no Ubers in Venice, only taxis that cost fifty euro. I don’t lose it when we get lost in the 150-canal maze that is Venice. I…am…calm. I almost lose it when my husband implies he could have found closer accommodations than I did—almost—but I don’t. 

Week 3

“I feel good today,” I write in my iPhone notes. I’ve been keeping track of my moods and activities, so I know what to continue and what to discard. It’s working. I’m sailing. Even though Dwight works from one to nine at night, I realize that is his schedule. I am not bound to the apartment. This is a revelation. I plan a “me” day: Zagreb Zoo and Evergreen Sushi. A conversation with my goddaughter, someone who simply listens, without offering judgement or advice, is appreciated. 

Week 4

The past few weeks have been steady, but I am ready to go home. Dwight has listened: he makes dinner that lasts two days and finds breakfast for us. This is important. The food is nourishing and so is his attention to my wellbeing. The morning we go to breakfast is perfect, except…I’ve left my phone in the Uber. I’ll spare the details of how it was recovered, but Dwight’s help was imperative. The important part is now, I am really ready to go home.

We drive to Pula, Croatia on our last Saturday. Once again, I pay my respects to the Adriatic Sea, which in my mind is a perfect ending to an imperfectly perfect extended vacation.

Now that there’s some context, I can share what I actually learned on this trip.


Mental Health Matters: Stressed in the Netherlands

Beware: This is not your typical post-vacation writeup. If you want to see cute reels about our European vacation, then check me out on IG. If you want to hear cool stories about our time in the Netherlands, Brussels, Croatia, and Venice, then follow Garlands Abroad. But if you want to hear about how something I’ve lived with my whole life re-surfaced, then keep reading.

While in the Netherlands, I did an online sensitivity profile. The cutesy name got me: Are you an orchid, tulip, or dandelion? Each flower represents a nervous system type. For example, dandelions can withstand anything. Orchids? Not so much. According to this quiz (and life), I’m an orchid; we have highly sensitive nervous systems. We are easy to stress and hard to calm down. 

Duh. I’d already developed an understanding of myself, explored, and written about the following: 

Though I’d learned how to keep stress levels at bay in the States, I had to modify methods while out of the country. If you recall, stressful events ranged from having a crazy laundry washing schedule to losing a debit card. Initially, I wasn’t going to blog about these events, because I thought they didn’t sound like “real” issues. But learning the terms highly sensitive nervous system and dysregulated nervous system validated that these issues are real for me. 

When I couldn’t figure out how to work the stove, for example, I could feel anger and anxiety building up. It was a simple task: light a gas oven, but at the same time, it wasn’t. You had to hold a button down with all your strength, while turning another knob just right, until flames appeared. If you released the knob too soon, you lost the flame. Some people (i.e., dandelions) can keep trying three or four times, while maintaining a laugh and a smile. I cannot. 

After I found out I was an orchid, I was sent the Top 10 Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System. This list resonated with me so deeply, and I’ve decided to show you how while telling you about what it was like for me to live in the Netherlands: 

#1: You’re constantly on-edge and overwhelmed

Facts. Overwhelmed is an understatement for how I felt when I had to wake up at six in the morning to catch a train to Amsterdam to ride in a van with six strangers to Zaanse Schans to do a walking tour. While on a food tour in Rotterdam, I ruminated: How am I going to wash clothes this week? What are we going to eat? Should I buy a blender? That was my brain while eating a kroket or listening to how Jewish people were captured in Rotterdam.

#2: You’re frequently snappy, irritable, or reactive

As a reminder, I was working while we were away. I almost cried during a Zoom meeting because I felt as if people were ignoring me during the conversation. I never have hurt feelings at work, so this was unexpected. I ended up turning off my camera and muting my mic so they couldn’t see my crimson eyes or hear my sniffles.

#3: You experience chronic pain and illness

Laryngopharyngeal reflux is considered a chronic illness, because it never really goes away. Like me, most people with this condition learn to manage it with rest and diet. Guess what else is considered chronic illness? IBS. In Rotterdam, increased stress and a lack of appropriate nutrients caused my cough to briefly re-surface. Ginger tea helped with digestion. 

#4: You’re highly sensitive to sensory stimuli

I don’t like noises: small or big. You know how people click a pen top or tap something on the table? Yeah, that makes me want to commit murder. My husband is a pen clicker. I didn’t know this until we were in a one-bedroom apartment overseas. I could hear the click, click, click from the bedroom and it distracted me to the point where I couldn’t concentrate sometimes.

#5: You experience sleep problems and daytime fatigue

Insomnia returned during week two. Sometimes, I awoke two or three times a night. The night before our excursion to Giethoorn, I got three hours of sleep. It took four hours for me to get my shit together just to be pleasant. After that, I purchased a box of chamomile and lavender tea to help me downshift before going to bed. 

#6: Chronic attention and concentration problems

Friends have an idyllic perception of me writing in the mountains or next to an ocean when we’re away. That’s not reality. I need complete silence and comfort (see #4). I need to be well fed and well rested (see #5). When we were in the Netherlands, I was none of that, and it was not only hard for me to write, but also to read. I found myself re-reading sentences multiple times while grading, and it took four hours for me to review nine applications for a contest.

#7: Cravings and extreme appetite changes

If you ever see me eating chocolate, then there’s a problem. I’m a meat and potatoes girl; chocolate means I’m de-centered. But luckily/unfortunately (depending on your perspective), in the midst of my stress, we traveled to Bruges, the “chocolate capital of the world.” I found some little chocolates the size of a half-dollar and started putting them in my morning coffee. By the end of our Netherlands trip, I’d also purchased and eaten a box of Dove bars. 

#8: Immune and hormonal symptoms

I am perimenopausal, and I attribute any hormonal imbalance to that. On this trip, I could tell my hormone levels had decreased and contributed to me having a hard time regulating my nervous system. You can read about that here

#9: Skin and gut conditions

For the first two weeks of this trip, instead of IBS, I actually pooped less, like every four days. Even though it’s the opposite of having loose bowels, irregular bowel movements, in general, can be a sign of stress. Not knowing when I could or might poop added more stress. Additionally, in Brussels, you have to pay for a bathroom, and in Amsterdam, you may be riding in a boat down a canal, neither are ideal situations for immediate bathroom breaks. 

#10: You’re highly sensitive to other people’s emotional states

This is usually the case for me, but because I was only around Dwight, and his emotional state is as steady as a rock, this issue didn’t surface during this trip. 

So yes, I’m an “orchid’,” who has a highly sensitive nervous system. I need lots of things to regulate, but I didn’t put things in place until I arrived in Zagreb, Croatia. 

More about that in the next post.


Monday Notes: Blueberries

I moved to Covert, Michigan to live with my grandparents the summer of 1990, June to be exact. I was seventeen. My grandmother had tasked me with finding a job for the summer, and when I wasn’t successful, she decided I would make money working on her friend’s blueberry farm.

I’d like to remind you that I was born and raised on the west side of Chicago. I had never seen a fruit farm. However, my grandmother has also never been the type of person with whom you argue, especially not at seventeen. So, I put on my designer jeans and straw-brimmed hat (the kind you wear by a pool), and I rode with her to the farm.

Someone had decided it was a great idea for me to actually pick the blueberries. I grew more miserable as I rolled each blue ball between my fingers and dropped it into the pail. How did I get here? What can I do to not be here? That’s all I kept thinking.

Around noon, my grandmother’s friend came to get me. Apparently, I wasn’t picking fast enough for a profit margin. She thought it best to move me inside, where her family worked to check for bad fruit and pack the good ones. Although I was no longer picking, I still lamented my current position. What am I doing sitting in this shed packing blueberries? I should be home. I should be hanging out with my friends at Water Tower.

I don’t remember why, but I didn’t have to return the next day. I’m assuming it’s because I wasn’t very good at it or maybe someone noticed I did more daydreaming than packing.


Decades went by, and I refused to eat blueberries. No blueberry pie. No blueberry jam. No blueberry muffins. You know how they give you a fruit cup at a restaurant? I’d eat everything, except the blueberries. It wasn’t that blueberry picking was so horrible. It was more that the circumstances surrounding how I ended up living in Covert (i.e., my mother dying and my father kicking me out of the house) and completing senior year there incensed me to my core. Blueberries reminded me of that year and the one before it, and for a long time, that experience was something I didn’t want to even think about, let alone eat.

I want to be super clear here. I didn’t consciously stop eating blueberries.

One day someone asked, “You want some blueberries?”

And I said, “Nope. No, thank you.”

I didn’t offer an explanation or biographical context. No one would ever know that I avoided this small, blue fruit because it triggered me in inexplicable ways. It’s something I unconsciously chose.

Today, I am fully aware that I made blueberries the issue, instead of recognizing the issue as the issue. People do this all the time, though. I don’t want to get all psychology here, but it is related to our amygdala and triggers, which can range from seeing blueberries to seeing someone raise their fist in anger.

There is always hope, though. As I began to heal from each phase of abandonment, I no longer avoided blueberries. First, I used frozen ones for smoothies. I mean, baby steps, right? Recently, I’ve begun buying them fresh from the store and popping them in my mouth for a snack. They’re not so bad. I see why they’re popular.

I suppose we all have our own “blueberries.” The key is when you realize what they are, to seek help as soon as possible. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’re out here avoiding blueberries and missing out on delicious fruits 😉



Digestion, Gut Health, and Me: Healing (Part IV)

After the laryngopharyngeal reflux diagnosis, the doctor recommended a pill called Omeprazole, which lists lupus as one of its “rare” side effects. Rare or not, I refused to take it or the next prescription he provided. That’s how I ended up with a naturopath, Dr. Megan. Seeing a naturopath is one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Dr. Megan took a more integrative approach, meaning prescription drugs was not her first suggestion. She wanted me to heal on a metaphysical and physical level.

METAPHYSICAL

Third Chakra

The first thing that resonated with me was the importance of healing my third chakra, which is associated with personal power. I reflected on places where I felt stuck, such as my occupation. I thought about ways I currently give my power away, such as in conversations with family. Next, I did a guided meditation focused solely on the third chakra, and I used a mudra Dwight suggested. Immediately, I found myself speaking up in private, public, and professional settings.

The Artist’s Way

Dr. Megan also recommended a book called, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Initially, I didn’t think I needed this book. I thought it was for wayward creatives. Even though I didn’t consider myself lost, I did have a tendency to downplay what I did create. So, I sat myself down, read a chapter each week, committed to writing Morning Pages, and took myself on Artist’s Dates. I kid you not, by chapter three, I felt lighter, more playful, and more creative than usual, which in some way helped to heal my body.

PHYSICAL*

Elimination Diet

Another thing Dr. Megan wanted me to do, against my will, was an elimination diet. She wanted to make sure I didn’t have a food sensitivity or food allergy. As much as I like to eat, this part stressed me out for a little while. But eventually, I saw the benefit of eliminating dairy, most meats, wheat, shellfish, soy, and specific spices. As much as I like to eat, the elimination diet gave my gut a much-needed rest. Think of it like a detox. It really made it easier for me to see how wheat and some dairy are problematic.

De-Stress

Even with all of these changes, my cough hasn’t gone completely away. However, it has subsided. During those times of little-to-no coughing, I’ve noticed something. When my stress increases, so does my cough. For example, if I have an editing client whose manuscript needs more work than I originally thought or students are pissing me off during finals week, the coughing begins and continues through the night. When life is easy going, there is almost no coughing.

This reaction is similar to when I was in Costa Rica. In that country, we had little access to “bad” foods, life was simple and free, and I didn’t have a care in the world. Panamá was the opposite. It was more like being in the States, especially with access to all the food I shouldn’t have been devouring.

So, in addition to yoga, meditation, a probiotic (with ashwagandha), and journaling, I have also begun taken longer breaks in between activities. For example, I used to go from grading college students’ work to editing a nurse’s dissertation with no visible break. Now, I sometimes sit and stare out of the window for five minutes. This has been one way to signal to my brain and body to calm down before we begin a new task.


When the ENT doctor first handed me the Omeprazole script, he said, “Don’t expect immediate changes. It took how long for you to develop this? It’s going to take time for it to go away, too.”

Although I opted not to take medicine, he’s still right. Healing is not linear, whether we’re talking about mental or physical health. I’m not at 100%, but I don’t feel bad about it. I feel better simply because I understand how I ignored how stress and anxiety affected my body over the years and now know what I can do to repair the damage. That’s what I continue to focus on each day.  

Thanks to you if you’ve read one or all of these. It’s appreciated!

*My physical health maintenance already included working out four times a week and decreased intake of sugar and carbs. What’s described here is in addition to that regimen.


Digestion: First Day of Senior Year (Part I)

Digestion: Undergrad (Part II)

Digestion: Adulthood (Part III)

Digestion, Gut Health, and Me: Undergrad (Part II)

In undergrad, my friend, Los and I spent many a day (and night) drinking all manner of liquors. We were in undergrad, so it was allowed, excused, and even possibly expected. Drinking was our pastime.

One night, he invited me to happy hour at Waldo’s. We walked to the campus bar, excited to eat twenty-five cent wings and two-dollar well drinks. We sat there for at least an hour talking and devouring food as if we’d never eat again.

On our walk back to the dorms, I had the sudden urge to poop. Luckily, we’d walked through the Student Union.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Los, while concealing how serious the situation was.

“You can’t wait til we get back?” he asked.

“No!” I almost shouted.

When I got to the stall, feces exploded everywhere—my underwear, pants, toilet seat. I was mortified. How was I going to clean all this up? How was I going to get home?

I guess the Fates were on my side. When I peeked out the bathroom door, I didn’t see Los or anyone else, so I found the nearest exit and bolted back to my room.

At the time, I thought it was an odd incident. But that’s all it was…an oddity. I chalked it up to Waldo’s cheap wings and jungle juice. Nothing like that had happened before, and nothing like that happened again…until my thirties.


I’ll spare the details, primarily because they’re repetitive and gross. The same exact thing happened a few more times, minus the wings and rum. There was even a time when I didn’t make it to the bathroom. That was a long ride home.

I know what you’re thinking. By the time I was over thirty, certainly I must have known that not being able to hold my bowels was not normal. Yes. Yes, I did. But I didn’t seek treatment because these occurrences didn’t happen frequently enough for me to personally deem them an issue. Over the course of ten years, I’d say this happened five times.

I also never sought a doctor’s opinion because shortly after I finished my doctoral program, everything stopped. I want to say, “like magic,” but I know that’s not the truth. It was probably akin to my senior-year tummy—stress. Once my stress levels significantly decreased, then loose, uncontrollable bowels disappeared.

And so, I continued living life as if everything was all good.


Digestion: First Day of Senior Year (Part I)

Digestion: Adulthood (Part III)

Digestion: Healing (Part IV)

Digestion, Gut Health, and Me: Senior Year (Part I)

“The bus will be here soon,” my grandmother announced.

I hadn’t been on a school bus since the eighth grade, but it was different here. Here was a podunk town too small for a transit system. Everyone rode the school bus. Kindergartners and twelfth graders, alike, all on the bus headed to the same building to learn the required curriculum.

“Okay,” I replied, then excused myself to the bathroom for the second time that morning. I hadn’t even eaten breakfast, so I wasn’t sure why my stomach was gurgling and what my body was eliminating.

“Are you nervous?” My grandmother asked.

I was.

The first day of senior year was nothing like I’d envisioned. My friends in Chicago, the ones I’d gone to school with since first or seventh grade knew me. They knew I was part goofy, part serious. They knew if I looked at you funny, then I was probably judging your hair, clothes, or speech. But they also didn’t care. Would these new people understand, or would they do like most new people did with me and assume I was stuck up or bougie?

“No,” I replied. It was easier than admitting the truth and then having her turn my fear into a speech about the uselessness of fear or into some inspirational moment on apprehension.

I went to the bathroom one more time.

“The bus should’ve been here by now. School’s starting soon,” my grandmother said. “Bernie, you’ll have to take her.”

Divine intervention. My stomach was relieved. I wasn’t supposed to be on the school bus after all, not at seventeen, not my senior year, not today. Maybe God would also perform some act that reversed everything that had happened up until this point. Maybe I would be transported back to Chicago, where I would meet my friends on the L, where we’d revel in our senior status, mimic house music songs while waiting on the train, and fantasize about post-graduation plans.


My grandfather dropped me off in front of the one-story brick building.

“Have a good day,” he said.

“Okay, I replied,” and I knew I would because I planned on keeping quiet and shrinking into the building and its smallness, hoping no one would notice me or my sudden urge to use the bathroom every ten minutes. I hoped I’d disappear into this nothingness of a town.


Digestion: Undergrad (Part II)

Digestion: Adulthood (Part III)

Digestion: Healing (Part IV)

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.