Why Hawaii and ‘island brain’ are my therapy

Paddleboard yoga in Honolulu helped cheer me up after my grandfather’s death

Shamontiel Vaughn
Jul 7 · 6 min read

I knew I was back in Chicago the minute I felt the ice cold breeze and needed to put my winter coat back on. I sat down on the Blue Line and heard a couple arguing and cursing up a storm. I put my headphones on and blasted Kendrick Lamar’s “B***h Don’t Kill My Vibe.” This was my second time going to Hawaii, and I wanted to stay in that mode for at least the length of the train ride.

I went out for brunch recently with a Toastmasters guest who came to my local club (Unity Toastmasters). I was gushing over how much I have enjoyed going back and forth to Hawaii. She said after three weeks of being there, she couldn’t deal with “island brain.” I looked that term up on Urban Dictionary, and this was the definition:

Island brain: “The extreme level of not giving a f**k that prolonged exposure to tropical island paradise can cause.”

If I could get a membership card for Island Brain, I would. In 36 of my 37 years, I’d never been anywhere where everybody seemed to be in a good mood all of the time. It is my escape for relaxation and a bucket list item, too. Every five years, I go back.

My Trek to Maui Hawaii on November 11

When I turned 30 on 11/11/11, I wanted to go somewhere fun. I’d never get another 11/11/11. And 30 was the next “big deal” birthday (after “sweet 16” and “legally drinking liquor 21”). Maui was beautiful. I spent a lot of time swimming in the pool (and raced three teenage boys who swore they were going to dust me; never underestimate your opponent) and gawking at West Maui Mountains.

I got a pedicure, ate some incredible food and shopped a lot. I am sure I gained weight from eating their incredible homegrown macadamia nuts and chocolate, along with the insanely good coffee.

I never had a bucket list before. But during that trip to Lahaina and Kahului, I added all the Hawaiian islands to my new list. Every five years, I’d go back until I visited all the islands.

My Trek to Honolulu Hawaii to mourn a family member’s death

The presidential election was a pretty big deal that complicated my plans to leave for an extended time when I turned 35.

So I went to Honolulu on my 36th birthday. Unfortunately, what happened after I turned 36 was even more disturbing than who won the presidential election. I’d been incredibly sad for most of 2017 because my grandfather (who lived to be 95) was sick with dementia.

From late November 2016 to July 2017, I was a caregiver and worked from home most days. As a veteran, master chef, mechanic and the man who built his own home, I was relieved that he was able to pass away peacefully in the home he built. Personally, I wish I wasn’t there to see it though.

From July to November, I cried every single day because I missed him. I am not at all a crier and thought I’d maybe mourn for a week or two. I’ve lost other very dear members of my family, including both grandmothers; my great great aunt; my godmother; a childhood friend/neighbor; my Labrador/German Shepherd mutt; and my purebred German Shepherd.

Give me a week to shut down, be quiet and cry, and I was back to normal. But my grandfather and I were even closer than the loved ones mentioned above. This time around, I just did not snap back. And it was wearing me out. I wanted the “sad” part to be done.

So I bought a plane ticket without telling anyone and took a few days off. I told my boss at the time and a few coworker/friends that I was leaving for Honolulu the day before I left. I told family/friends a few days earlier that week. I just wanted to go on my own and celebrate my birthday by myself. I needed the “island brain” again.

As soon as I saw the gazebo inside of the International Marketplace — across the street from my hotel at Aqua Ohia Waikiki — I knew this was finally the day I’d stop crying.

Although Maui was far prettier to me than Honolulu, walking the strip near my hotel felt like downtown Chicago. It was busy and loud (Maui is peaceful and quieter), and I definitely cheated on my vegetarian diet with fresh calamari. I hopped in the pool for a couple of laps, and then I went sight-seeing on the bike path.

I went parasailing. (I do not recommend X-Treme Parasail; their supposed digital photos are a scam.) Parasailing is quite boring unless you’re scared of heights. Considering I only ride on the front of roller coasters and love plane takeoffs, this just felt like being on a bus.

But paddleboard yoga was incredible. I’d just finished physical therapy after spraining my ankle from a stiletto tumble (yes, I still wear them). But I love yoga, and I really wanted to try this.

Our Yoga Kai instructor guided us to the middle of the water and we dropped our anchors down. She (Star) told us she could show us how to do yoga and show us how to get on the board, but she “cannot control the ocean.” I thought that was strange advice. But as soon as I clumsily climbed on that board and sat down, my board turned backward and went the opposite direction.

Star told me the only way it would come back is if I calmed down. I thought I was calm. My paddleboard went further away and wouldn’t turn around.

Meanwhile, the rest of our small group was lined up in place.

Finally, I breathed in and out a few times and pictured the one person I’d been trying to keep off of my mind throughout this trip: my grandfather.

I don’t remember what image was in my mind or what the memory was of, just him.

And I breathed in and out a few times. And my paddleboard just turned around on its own, and I splashed my way back over to line up with them. I was a bit tickled by it. The ocean basically told me I had an attitude problem and needed to adjust it. But it also proved another thing. No matter how many times you tell someone you’re “fine” and you’re “OK,” the ocean knows you’re lying. And so do you.

For that reason alone, Honolulu has a special place in my heart. And while there may be those who don’t want or need island brain, I embrace it. I look forward to island brain again when I’m 40!

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Shamontiel Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist (Tribune/Defender/CBS Chicago); Wag! dog walker; Toastmasters member/3x officer; co-host of Do Not Submit storytelling. Visit Shamontiel.com

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.