What it's like to live with dissociative identity disorder
Posted March 01, 2017 15:27:27
I'm 52 years old now, and I spent most of my life living as multiple, with what is technically called dissociative identity disorder (DID).
I was officially diagnosed in early 2002, when I was in my late 30s. I had been quite successful in my study and my career. I had a family.
I thought my life was going well, to be honest, or at least the parts of myself who were living my life at that stage thought things were going well.
None of my parts ever showed themselves blatantly as different or separate to anyone else, other than my therapist. You want to pretend and act as if you are normal.
In my late teenage years, when I was still in an abusive environment, I was diagnosed as bipolar. It was interpreted as: "Oh, her mood is changing. Suddenly she is depressed; suddenly she is manic."
They weren't seeing that I was switching from a shut-down and traumatised part to suddenly being a part that is extroverted and having fun.
Nobody bothered to ask what was happening to me.
Extroverts and introverts
There were a lot of identities. It would be hard to describe them all.
There was one who just liked to have fun, who was good at sport, things like going skiing. She was good at teasing people and being social.
There was another who was good academically, who had no connection with the body at all, who wouldn't have been able to ski for the life of her.
Some people say there are parts that have no memory at all and no knowledge of what others do. Others say there is overlap where parts have awareness of others.
For me it was mixed. Some parts knew there were other parts, others didn't. Some parts did have some awareness of what others were doing and what others felt, whereas other parts didn't.
Where the trauma came from
The trauma was centred on what happened in my nuclear family. It was extremely dysfunctional.
Starting from when I was an infant, I was treated in ways that were hurtful and painful and terrifying. It was physical, sexual and emotional abuse for over 20 years.
A lot of times I believed I was going to die. I think that is at the core of why a lot of these separations happen, that you believe you're going to die.
For much of my life there were parts who had no idea that much of this happened, and when people asked, answered that: "I had a fine childhood, I grew up in a good family, and everything was fine."
Discovering the disorder
Although I had been diagnosed as bipolar, parts of me knew that was wrong because the so-called symptoms disappeared when I travelled overseas, which isn't supposed to happen if you are bipolar.
Being overseas, the parts that were distressed had no reason to show themselves because I wasn't at risk from the people who had been my abusers.
Eventually I started my own family. My children were still young, but they reached the age at which particular forms of abuse started for me.
At that point that reminder was too powerful a trigger to remain hidden. These parts who had experienced things for me at those ages started to appear and show themselves.
I was very distressed and needed help. But I had no idea what I needed help for.
The treatment is best described as long-term psychotherapy.
We began to learn that someone else could be safe enough for all the different parts to show themselves and develop a relationship with them. Gradually the parts feel safe enough to express more and more of what they know, what they feel.
As all the parts speak to one consistent other person, who is good enough in how they relate to all parts and respects all equally, the parts begin to learn to cooperate.
We wrote in journals, so other parts would be able to read what one part had written or what one was doing. We'd keep track and learn to communicate inside our head more.
I worked through to be able to contain co-consciousness, when all parts are present and aware of what's happening in the world and functioning together cooperatively. We gradually learned to tolerate the overwhelming feelings contained in separate parts.
Finally, for me, with no effort or intention or anything, the parts just blended together. I have one whole self now and have had for some time.
In the movies
I haven't seen the movie Split, and I'm absolutely not going to. I'm appalled particularly because it portrays the person with dissociative identity disorder as a perpetrator of abuse of children.
I spent a lifetime doing absolutely everything I could to not be like those people who abused me. Every single bit of energy was put into being different to them, even though I had parts who would have been capable of being aggressive.
I believe that people with DID have an overall personality, because all the parts work as a system. Even if a part may want to do bad things or hurt someone else, if that behaviour is unacceptable to the system, that part won't be allowed out to do it.
I find that the most hurtful aspect of this movie. It's extraordinary abuse of people who are already extremely marginalised, because the amount of stigma and sensationalism about dissociative identity disorder in the community is extreme already.
What it's like to be treated
I feel better in myself now, but it's a controversial question because it's something that's not right for everyone.
I wouldn't want to suggest that everyone with parts should even aim for or even consider it. I certainly don't think I aimed for it. It just ended up that way.
I miss my parts at times. There was comfort in having others inside you who you know and can communicate with, a sense of never being alone.
There are times I miss this sense of, "oh, I've had enough of this, someone else come and take over for me". But overall I'm glad I'm like this now.
Kallena is a Melbourne-based social worker, counsellor and advocate for survivors of childhood trauma. The art used in this article was produced while she was in therapy.
Topics:mental-health, health, child-abuse, community-and-society, australia
What is dissociative identity disorder?
- The condition was once known as split personality or multiple personality disorder
- People feel they have at least two alternate personalities or "alters" taking control of their behaviour
- Despite appearing in the official psychiatry manual since 1980, it remains controversial
- Movies and TV — including the new film Split — have been criticised for perpetuating stigma
24-hour telephone counselling:
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, call: