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Black families and mental health: Lee-Ann writes from the heart

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No more self-censorship: Lee-Ann Liles with a copy of her latest book, My Body The Battlefield (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

When Lee-Ann Liles started writing about her life she worried a lot about how her family and friends might react.

At 49, she is done censoring herself. Her fifth book, My Body The Battlefield, is a deeply personal collection of essays.

Many tackle her difficult relationship with her late mother, Verda Liles, to whom the book is dedicated.

Easy to write: Lee-Ann Liles as a toddler with her mother Verda Liles (Photograph supplied)

Ms Liles suspects that her mother suffered from postnatal depression, which can impair the mother-child bond in the early years.

“This has been the easiest book to write,” the Bermuda College librarian said. “It was more straightforward.

“I’ve always spoken about mental health issues being left undiagnosed and unacknowledged in my family. And this aligned with all that I knew of my family history. Black families don’t want to talk about mental health and how they feel.”

In September 2019 her mother had a massive heart attack and had to be airlifted to Lahey Hospital & Medical Centre in Massachusetts. Hurricane Humberto, a Category 3 storm, hit before the family could follow.

“My family was grounded, unable to wait at my mother’s bedside as she endured a painful procedure and organ failure stemming from it,” Ms Liles said.

She was then surprised by a long phone call from her mother, who “was a woman of few words”.

It was “one of the last real conversations we had” before her death in November 2019.

In My Body The Battlefield Ms Liles writes of her mother’s funeral and how she had expected that she would do something dramatic, such as throwing herself into the grave because of all the unresolved issues between them.

Instead, the experience was more surreal.

“I was numb, smiling awkwardly like a pageant queen, not quite understanding the magnitude of the moment and the purpose for the gathering of mourners at St James Church,” Ms Liles wrote.

She penned My Body The Battlefield as part of her thesis for her master’s programme with Bay Path University in 2021.

The book also touches on Ms Liles’ battles with autoimmune disease, anxiety and depression.

“I wrote it as a way to raise awareness of hidden disabilities,” she said. “Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes people are going through a hard time and you can’t see that.”

She started noticing a deterioration in her energy level back in 2014. Her daughter Torrene was 3, and her son Rayshawn was 17; she was spending every spare moment on the couch.

“I was sleeping a lot,” she said. “I thought maybe if I just rested I could get myself back to normal.”

Much as she tried she could never quite kick the tiredness. Added to that she had odd symptoms, such as rashes that appeared on different parts of her body.

A rheumatologist found she had psoriatic arthritis, a type of arthritis that can affect people with psoriasis.

Swollen and painful joints and rashes on random parts of the body are typical. Like psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis is a long-term condition that can progressively worsen as it causes bone to erode.

No one is really sure of the cause, stress is thought to be a contributing factor.

“I was annoyed because I thought I did not have anxiety,” she said. “I did not want her to write that down in my chart. I felt that [being] neurotic was my norm.

“I had a lot on my plate at that time. I was doing several things at once. That can lead to your body saying, ‘OK, enough.’ But you cannot reset.”

She wrote in My Body The Battlefield: “Looking back now, I understand that it was true. It was a hard pill to swallow that the anxiety disorder possibly led to my psoriatic arthritis.”

The disease typically flares up and then seems to disappear.

“When it’s sunny I can feel great,” said Ms Liles, who wrote My Body The Battlefield through a speech-to-text translating programme because of her joint pain and fatigue.

“Then when the weather has been bad, I feel like I need to walk with a cane. It can really impact your life so that you don’t want to get out of bed.”

There is no cure for the disease, but she takes medication to reduce the number of outbreaks.

“That helps me to find balance,” she said.

No matter what her mood or condition, she finds the energy to write. “I am the type of person that when something pops in my head, I jump in front of the computer,” she said. “And it is nice to get things off your chest.”

Copies of My Body The Battlefield will be available at the Bermuda College Bookstore, The Bermuda Bookstore and Brown & Co next week.

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Published March 28, 2023 at 6:52 am (Updated March 29, 2023 at 6:37 am)

Black families and mental health: Lee-Ann writes from the heart

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