Roots and Wings

How healing generational wounds can help heal elements of chronic illness.

By Diane Phelan

     When I was approached to contribute to the wellness section of Hapa Mag, I thought to myself, “How do I talk about health and healing for Hapas? I mean, aren’t we all human with human bodies and human experiences?”

     So while I can and will talk about vitamins and diets and exercise and modalities I love, I thought I’d start from where my mind is right now about healing and how my experiences as a mixed race person have impacted my view of health. Specifically, I’m interested in the way healing generational wounds can help heal elements of chronic illness.

Health and wellness is a passion of mine.

     My story is, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2002, 2010, and then again in November of 2016. Not new cases, but the same long case rearing its ugly head. When my Western doctors failed to heal it properly, it came back worse with each bout. When Lyme doesn’t get treated properly and immediately, it goes systemic over the span of several years and that’s when you have what’s called “chronic Lyme.” Those bugs get so adept at burrowing and hiding, all you can do is hope that you keep your immune system winning at the constant battle going on in your body. Winning, you stay healthy and functional. Losing, you don’t. You stay “winning” by taking care of yourself and steering clear of stress.

     My passion for healing comes from taking my health into my own hands and learning as much as I could - ultimately taking me from 100+ symptoms and multiple diagnoses of Lyme-related neurological, endocrine, autoimmune, and digestive issues(as well as being bed-bound) - to thriving and getting back to performing onstage again. You could say I’m back to winning.

      [Getting back onstage with David Byrne at a benefit for WITNESS, Peter Gabriel’s foundation. Also pictured, Hapa actor George Salazar]

      [Getting back onstage with David Byrne at a benefit for WITNESS, Peter Gabriel’s foundation. Also pictured, Hapa actor George Salazar]

     Medicine and diet-change and vitamins have all gone into healing my Lyme, but we are dealing with a chronic illness. I had to retrace my steps and figure out what went wrong in the balance of my system, what in biology class, they call “homeostasis.” You hear doctors say all the time that stress will kill you. That’s because, whatever the source of stress is, it’s pulling your body out of alignment. This ends up impacting you physically.

You see, I was taking the medicine and not getting better.

     And so, part of my own story has been about healing on multiple levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. I dug deep and went in search of what was out of alignment in me and hindering my system’s ability to fend off these bugs that I had previously defeated two times before. And I was determined to do it in so comprehensive a way that NO damn bug was going to be able to take me down again.

     So I discovered: Roots and Wings. Many people are born with it. For the longest time I had it in the form of my father, who was my rock. As we moved to the States, it was my paternal grandmother, who was the matriarch of our family.  In the few years before I got sick this last time, they both passed.

     At that point, our then-community rallied around us with support. Growing up, I always struggled with fitting in as a “third-culture” kid, but when I met my Filipino tribe in the NY theater scene, I felt that I had finally found my true family. We would call each other “sisters.” There was no doubt of our mutual love and acceptance of each other.

     When I took extremely ill this go-round, I looked to them and my mother for stability and support as I watched my career and independence slip away. Heartbreakingly, this “family” of close-knit Filipino friends disappeared overnight. It wasn’t everyone, but the ones that hurt the most were the ones I would have never expected this from.

     As for my mother, she truly did the best she could, but I often found myself feeling completely unsupported. She would spend time with me and then her own body would start to break down, or she would pull away emotionally. She sometimes would leave for months at a time to go back to the Philippines. I mostly needed company and conversation, as my husband’s job took him out of town every week. I was so weak and fatigued, I couldn’t feed myself. I was completely freaked out because no doctors could tell me what what happening to my body (it took 18 whole months for them to re-diagnose me with Lyme), and I often had symptoms that would take me to the Emergency Room several times a month.

     I was forced to leave my dream job of performing on Broadway, and I was beside myself watching a career I had taken decades to build inexplicably turn to ashes. It was a dark, dark time. I became a hollowed version of myself: fearful, vulnerable, dismayed. I cried daily, forgot how to smile and felt a despair I hadn’t experienced even when I lost my father. It was a veritable dark night of the souI. I was bewildered and bereft.

     My heart hurts when I remember how lost my husband would look. He is technically an expat too, and I saw how not having his family and support system near took a toll on him.

                                   [Sunrise on my Mother’s Island, Alablat]

                                   [Sunrise on my Mother’s Island, Alablat]

     I spent a lot of time looking deeper to try and see how it was possible the people I loved could have abandoned me so thoroughly. What I unearthed had everything to do with identity and community and support and healing. What follows is a series of connections, jigsaw puzzle-style:

     Where my mother comes from, Filipinos function as tightly-knit communities.  On her home island, people relied on each other for centuries for food, housing, crops, land, and safety. All through the Spanish colonization, World War II, the Marcos regime, and even through the American occupation, they survived by banding together.

     My mother was someone who left her large and supportive community for another country (Taipei) where she was a foreigner and had no support system. My parents were expats. When my parents left Taipei, they moved us to the United States to my father’s home town. My mother has been a wandering soul her entire adult life.

     When we lost my father, I can imagine she lost the only rock ever tethering her to the earth. For someone with such severed roots, how then could she ever have been expected to provide them for me, when she herself was reeling?  And if she was feeling this way, it wasn’t too far of a leap to imagine my dear friends from the Filipino community were perhaps as unmoored as she.

     I’ve encountered a repeating pattern in several of my first generation of Filipino-American compatriots, myself included, who all seem to be grappling with challenge of adapting from a culturally Filipino way of handling emotions like sadness and anger and setting boundaries, to the tools needed culturally root here in America. Here, thriving is all about embracing individuality, and you don’t get to be an individual if you suppress aspects of yourself like anger, sadness and boundaries. I suppose when dealing with colonial oppressors, you have to learn to stuff your feelings to survive when you’re not free. I get where it comes from. I can also see the ways it holds us back. So while this topic is fodder for a whole ‘nother article, I felt it important to distinguish how these people I loved were essentially emotionally unprepared to the task of holding space for someone who was as ill and unmoored as I was. Their seeming abandonment wasn’t for lack of love, but for lack of roots, perhaps.

     The discovery of this trend, and seeing my own untethered-ness for what it was, provided some fertile soil for me to start my own rooting.  I dug deep and stopped trying to get the stability and nurturing I needed from people that needed it desperately themselves.

     I thought hard about what I wanted to accomplish with my time on Earth and the kind of community I would like to belong to. Friendships and relationships that shared my values for sustainability and healthy identities, boundaries and wellness. Then I set out to create it. I always believe that love will find you, if you let it. And when I set out searching for this tribe and what my own roots look like in this country, at this point in my life... I honestly believe that what found me was nothing I could have planned or dreamed up.

     Once I started owning my identity as a mixed race person of color with a complicated national identity, I started realizing I had tribe members ALL around me.  Then this miraculous thing happened. All of a sudden, I started healing. The non-embellished 100s of symptoms… they started going away.

[ On a recent trip to Cuba, finally feeling healthy again]

[ On a recent trip to Cuba, finally feeling healthy again]

     So where does this intersect with wellness and being mixed race?  From my experiences, I discovered how much identity and roots play into how a person thrives on this planet. It’s something people who have large families, a strong national or cultural identity, things perhaps most people take for granted and don’t think twice about. I suspect this is a larger issue for many Americans at this point in our history, but I'm particularly interested in the Hapa experience of this. 

     I feel like roots and a community you identify with and feel supported by provide resilience to trauma and hardship in life.  For my own journey to wellness, finding ways to feel rooted and like I belonged somewhere was integral to my thriving, getting my body’s immune system to get on board with the medical interventions I was supplying her with.

     I believe healing and wellness come from many levels, but it all starts from an emotional place. A healthy fulfilled spirit leads to healthy relationships, healthy minds, healthy bodies.

     I look forward to continuing this conversation with this tribe and honoraries about what Health and Wellness looks like and means to you. I’m also learning that when a community comes together to tell their stories, healing happens. This is one of the beautiful reasons why theatre still exists as an art form despite our technological advances with TV and film.

     Hit me back if you have a story like mine or if you have a topic you want to explore. 


Diane Phelan is a performer, director, and photographer in New York City especially interested in the way storytelling facilitates generational healing. She is has directed several pieces and concerts exploring the mixed race identity in Trump-era America.

Follow her on Instagram at @dianicaphelan and Twitter at @DianePhelan.