C HHEU NIENG, Kandal - Yem Lay greets her visitors with a smile, raises her hands
in a sompeah greeting and introduces her children, who a year ago she could not recognize.
After 16 years of mental illness, it is the simple things that Lay can now do which
bring her and her family the most happiness.
"Today I stay at home because I just finished harvesting my rice," she
says. "I'm going to cook now."
In April last year, Lay was featured on the Post's front page in a photograph of
her chained to her house - a last resort to control the violence caused by her illness
- and a story about Cambodia's lack of mental health care.
Today, the scars are still there, but Lay is on the mend, learning to do the things
that for years she could not. She, her husband and six daughters are returning to
a normal life.
Hers is a story of tears and hardship, of desperate and damaging methods of treatment,
but now, of hope for the future. It's a story of a family who stuck together through
the most trying of circumstances, and of the need for education and compassion in
the treatment of mental illness.
"It is like being born again," says Lay's eldest daughter, Mang Phalla,
25, of the recovery of her mother, who at one point could not recognize her own children.
Lay remembers a little of her years of being sick but bears a permanent reminder:
her gnarled, disfigured fingers, beaten black-and-blue in horrific attempts to cure
her through traditional healing.
"When I was sick, traditional healers beat me to drive away the ghosts and demon
from my body," she says.
"When the demon ran away my fingers were handicapped," she says, raising
her crippled hands, with only two moveable fingers.
To some of her friends and neighbors, Lay's recovery is a miracle. In reality, the
demon was chased away by more conventional means - medication - supervised by a government
pyschiatrist and an NGO.
Lay, now 41, began to fall sick 16 years ago. The last seven years were the worst.
Now diagnosed with mental illness, believed to be schizophrenia, she and her family
did not know what was wrong with her.
"I remember when I was sick, I always wanted to run away from home. I was fierce;
I cursed people and threw plates at them."
Because of her violence, and fears that she would get lost and come to harm, her
family decided to restrain her. She was chained to a wooden post at her house for
more than three years.
"My husband chained me up because he was afraid that I would run away. I was
very angry with him. He was the one I hated the most."
Husband But Mang, 48, showing the scars on his body, says: "She stabbed me in
the neck, cut my head and body with a knife, threw plates at me when I tried to feed
"But I was not angry with her... Other men would have abandoned her to find
another woman, but I couldn't do that because I remembered she was very nice and
loved me very much before she was sick.
"I thought that I have to tolerate her, because she was never like that before...
I struggled to cure her for the honor and future of our children, because they are
Mang sold most of the family's property to pay for visits to traditional healers.
Her treatment included having excrement poured over her, and being given a strange
haircut in a bid to give her greater spiritual powers. Her condition worsened.
"I was very sad," says Mang. "I had sleepless nights. I always cried;
my pillow was soaked by tears."
For Phalla, the couple's eldest daughter, the toll was heavy. She took over the role
of mother to her sisters.
"The youngest one [aged 7] still calls me mother now," said Phalla, who
is married with one son of her own.
Lay's return to health began three years ago with the help of local staff trained
by the Canadian NGO Médecine De L'Espoir Cambodia (MEC), who visited her house
to clean her, try to get her to take medicine and support her family.
More than a year ago, she was brought to Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Hospital for treatment
by Dr Ka Sunbaunat, one of Cambodia's new generation of pyschiatrists.
The problem was that Lay would not take her medicine - she used to pretend to, and
then spit it out later. With supervision and encouragement, she eventually starting
taking her pills regularly and her condition improved.
"I was surprised that she recovered so fast," says Sunbaunat. He says Lay
is about 90 percent better, but he cannot assume that she will recover completely.
Many mental patients suffer from traditional healers, Sunbaunat said, and one in
Siem Reap was beaten to death by a healer last year.
MEC has given support to Lay, transport to Phnom Penh for treatment, clothes, food,
$300 for a wooden house when the family moved to a new plot of land, and even a pig.
As for Lay, she remembers very little of life before she became sick, only that she
used to sell fruits which she carried in a basket on her head.
Now, she is sorry about the state of her hands, but otherwise feels good. She doesn't
have nightmares anymore but sometimes gets a fever at night. Smiling, she says she
thinks she will get completely better.