History, Indonesia, memory, mental health, Oral History, trauma

A Lifetime of Hearing Voices: Mental Illness, Trauma, and Oral Histories

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Photo by Mash Babkova on Pexels.com

Submission by: Dr. Annie Pohlman

Amak Dahniar has heard voices, and sometimes seen people, that others cannot since she was in her early 20s. A few years ago, when Amak was in her early 70s, a psychiatrist at the hospital in the city near her home in the mountains of West Sumatra diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia. It was a diagnosis that meant very little to Amak; she doesn’t care for the psychiatrist, the hospital, or the medicines that she was given that made her feel sleepy.

For Amak’s children, however, the diagnosis gave a new name to their mother’s interactions with voices, visions and dreams. The voices who speak to their mother are hallucinations, the signs only she can divine that others in the village mean her harm are delusions.

Annie Pohlman and her colleagues from Andalas University in West Sumatra first interviewed Amak Dahniar as part of a project investigating oral histories of trauma in that province. Amak Dahniar originally took part to tell her story about living through the little-known and bloody civil war in West Sumatra between 1958 and 1961. As Amak’s oral history unfolded, however, she interwove other stories of trauma and resilience, particularly those involving the voices that have accompanied her throughout her adult life.

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Pohlman and her collaborators Yenny Narny and Yudhi Andoni, decided to explore these voices who speak with Amak. Dr. Pohlman and her colleagues have recently published an article about Amak’s experiences entitled “Between Sakit and Schizophrenia in West Sumatra, Indonesia” in the Social Issues of South East Asia journal SOJOURN.

Through a series of life narrative interviews with Amak Dahniar and two of her children, the paper follows stories of the voices who both harm and protect Amak, and the harbinger dreams which have foreshadowed traumatic events in Amak’s life. These life narratives also investigate the many ways that Amak Dahniar, her late husband, her children and community have dealt with the voices and dreams.

In West Sumatra, as in many parts of the world, communities are made up of the living and the dead. While not common, there is nothing unusual or harmful in hearing voices; indeed, such communication is seen as a necessary part of maintaining relationships between the tangible and intangible worlds. Amak Dahniar’s dreams and visions, however, go beyond the accepted interactions with the dead.

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Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

Sometimes the voices and visions attack and frighten Amak; for her children, their memories of growing up are darkened by the times when their mother would wake screaming in the night, only to start tearing apart their house. Hearing voices is not in itself a problem; however, because the voices threaten Amak and cause her harm, her family, her community, and Amak herself consider her sick (sakik).

The article traces how Amak’s illness has been explained, and treated, as a result of harmful spiritual practices by numerous traditional healers (dukun) for most of her life and, late in life, as mental illness by various medical personnel. We further explore some of the intimate and social dimensions of the care that Amak’s children, and their father, have shared with Amak throughout her adult life. Although only one family’s life narrative, Amak Dahniar’s story of listening to and living with voices and dreams reveal the complex and compelling ways in which culture, kinship, local and postcolonial histories inform the experience and understanding of a life of hearing voices.

Dr. Annie Pohlman‘s full article is available via the SOJOURN website here.

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