I’m convinced I can pinpoint to the minute, the traumatic event that offset ‘the ill’.
It was in 1993 during the squalid winter of the dull rural town we were living in at the time. The conflict had arisen because we had moved away from vibrant Santiago to this colourless outback and I was furious. In my mind this was a clear act of sabotage to my adjustment in Chile. Santiago offered the anonymity and a modicum of personal freedom that all capital cities do. And now we had moved away, just as I’d planted some seedlings and carved out a little world for myself.
It was a very heated fight and at a pivotal moment I felt a little bit of my mind cave in. Suddenly the fury was gone and I sat in silence for hours, staring into the nether: I had resigned myself to losing my father to this Chile of his.
The sheer desperation of being in a situation that I had no control over nor could I remove myself from, left me slightly broken. Leaving Chile would be an arduous process that would entail finding funds and the emotional strength to leave my dad behind. It was not until 1997 that I was able to return home to England, losing my father in the process. It was several years later that I’d be diagnosed with Lupus.
When illness replaced my full time profession I began, as most people do, to seek answers to the origin of my disease. Lifestyle was the first thing I analysed, then diet. When this was insufficient I became more dependant on medication to battle my symptoms and in turn, more concerned with finding a ‘cure’, I turned to holistic approaches and complementary therapies: yoga, shiatsu, reiki and wheat-free -vegan diets, I then flirted with the raw diet, went to a shaman, guzzled peyote and bark roots. But I was never closer to the truth or relief.
It seems glaringly obvious now that the mind was a consideration I was intentionally overlooking. I did not want to go back to the separations, the rootlessness, the mal adjustment plus the torture and the death I spent a lifetime denying, patiently lurking in the doldrums of my mind. Despite my revulsion at exploring psychological explanations and the mind-body synergy theory, I could no longer ignore it.
Today, with what we know about physical illness and it’s deeply complicated relationship with mental health, and having given sufficient consideration to what being the child of exiles means, along with understanding the sadness and loss attached to this experience, may have enabled me to better understand the origin of my illness.
I am not alone. In my close peer group there are eight people with auto immune conditions and three with crippling mental health issues. We are all women under 50 years of age who have either arrived in the UK as political exiles as children or were born to Chilean exile parents.
While there are published studies about first generation exiles and health, there is very little about the ‘adjusting’ second generation.
Brought up in seeming normality yet facing the daily challanges of British life with its one dimensional reality, and then going home to a complex situation or indeed a parallel universe, afflicted by depression, unemployment and the overcoming of political persecution in all its guises, just may have made an impact on what were quite frankly, babies in a split dimension.
Internalising an unknown and often inherited pain has its consequences. There is strength in silence. In forgetting.. but the body has to place this somewhere. As I forced the fear and sadness out of my head, it leaked into my body like a fetid ink. I believe this is how it manifested in my body.
The only evidence I have that exile makes you ill lies in my peer group. As our lives roll on and we start to face new challenges such as coping with the death of our loved ones in exile, I can only conclude as I observe the ever increasing numbers of my peers being diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, that exile really does make you sick.