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Caged in Bhutan: Woman with schizophrenia lives out her life locked up in a cabin

THIMPHU, Bhutan — The rural village of Phanas sits on the uneven and a rather difficult incline in Ngatsang in Mongar district. It's a lovely village with friendly, almost shy, residents whose homes are scattered and stand aloof from one another. Outside one such home, during certain hours of the day or night, passersby may witness a woman struggling alone in violent fits, raising a living hell.

I am in Phanas on a consulting assignment for the health ministry's rural sanitation and hygiene program. The two local health assistants and the newly elected village representative accompany me as we tour the village interacting with people about their newly constructed pour-flush toilets. As we prepare to call it a day, Ngatsang's health assistant, Pema Wangdi, asks me if I may want to visit a special home close by.

"They've a mentally sick daughter who lives caged outside the living quarters," he tells me.

"It's a desperate situation at times," he adds, "especially when the woman goes into extreme fits. One time the mother told me that the daughter had matted her hair with her own menstrual blood."

I decide to deviate from my assignment, and we walk downhill towards an isolated farmhouse. It's already getting dark when we arrive there. And it's cold, with a fierce wind slicing the landscape.

What strikes me as we finally reach there is a little cabin, the size of a bathroom, attached to the family kitchen. It's made up of several upright planks nailed onto a wooden frame. Plastic sheets and other rags are used to stop the wind from entering through the gaps between the wooden planks. Inside the makeshift cabin, 36-year-old Tshering Lhamo is, for now at least, in a state of peace.

Sometime around 1993 (the mother struggles with her memory), toward the morning, in a classroom in Mongar Primary School, 13-year-old Tshering Lhamo stuns her classmates with an unusual behavior. She acts violent and she screams, scaring her friends. Soon she's taken to the Mongar Hospital. That's the end of her school life. Indeed, Tshering Lhamo's life and mental health spirals downward from thereon.

Undergoing a series of referrals, from Mongar to Thimphu to Vellore in India, the young girl's life vacillates between highs and lows, between violence and peace, between life and near-death state. Her family and relatives take her to all the renowned lams in Bhutan and Sikkim. Some of the lams attribute her condition to her past karma. They tell the family to perform numerous rituals. But her condition fails to improve.

"Life has been a constant struggle ever since," says Tshering Lhamo's mother Yeshey Seldon, 56, who separated from her husband just before the daughter fell sick in 1993. "It's been about hope and despair, about holding on, and about not giving up even during the most difficult times."

Today, after 23 years of being mentally ill, Tshering Lhamo doesn't recognize food from her stool. She eats both. She doesn't know water from her own urine. She drinks both. During menstruation, she paints her face with the blood. She screams. She laughs. She cries. She destroys anything she lays her hands on. She sleeps for long hours. Sometimes she eats like a hungry lion. Other times she goes without food and water for days. She defecates and urinates in the bed. Her arms and legs are tied tightly so that she cannot move around or escape.

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