To some extent, everyone has different “selves.” We have a self we show at work, a self for home and another for when we’re around friends. But what if you really had other people sharing your body and mind?
You may have heard of Jekyll and Hyde or “Sybil,” but today I want you to forget everything you’ve seen in the media about multiple personalities. I want to talk about what it’s really like to live with dissociative identity disorder (DID).
Mild dissociation is actually an everyday experience for most people. For example, when you drive down a familiar route and don’t remember the specifics of one particular journey. The dissociative spectrum ranges from this kind of normal dissociation to the severe dissociative amnesia experienced in dissociative identity disorder.
Imagine not remembering any of your childhood, not remembering huge chunks of your adolescence and having no memories of the key milestones people usually take for granted. This happened to me.
Since moving away from my family home at 18, I’ve found myself in numerous embarrassing and even dangerous situations with no idea how I got there. When I lived alone, I would find that hours passed in what felt like seconds, and suddenly I was in a different room, wearing different clothes or even away from my home. I’ve found myself drunk with no memory of even buying alcohol. I’ve found self-harm wounds I did not inflict upon myself. I’ve been told I behaved in a manner that’s extremely unlike me and said things I don’t remember saying. I’ve even found on a number of occasions I’ve overdosed with no memory of taking the pills. This can be the reality of someone who lives with DID. Notes are found in different handwriting styles, scribbling appears on your university essays and you find yourself slowly losing more and more time.
DID can develop as a result of chronic childhood trauma — my mind couldn’t cope and split into different parts to deal with it. One part could endure horrible abuse at night time so my main personality (sometimes referred to as “the host“) could happily go to school the next day not remembering the events of the night before. It becomes a coping mechanism — numerous selves formed without my knowledge to hold different memories and to play different roles in life. Each time something traumatic happens, another split or even several splits can occur.
DID is an amazing way the mind protects us from the awful reality of childhood trauma. Every time you lose time, your mind is switching back to one of the other selves previously formed, who are known as alters. Alters are complete personalities — they have their own name, age, likes, dislikes etc, which can be very different from the host. Personally, my alters range from a baby to a 72-year-old woman. Alters may speak differently or have different mannerisms to the host, may be different gender to the host and may even suffer from different physical and mental conditions.
There’s not enough awareness of this complex trauma disorder and often people are misdiagnosed with schizophrenia (because they hear voices, which, in the case of DID is alters talking) or borderline personality disorder. In my own experience, even psychiatrists have said they don’t believe in the disorder and have accused me of lying about my experiences for attention. This is dangerous. It makes it even harder for people struggling with DID to come forward about their experiences.
The media often portray multiple personalities as something to be feared, creating dangerous and evil characters. The reality is like living in a shared house, trying to come to mutual decisions and finding through therapy the jigsaw pieces of memories can be put back together slowly. It can be scary at times, but ultimately these personalities were created to protect the individual from memories of horrific abuse which a child’s mind would not have been able to process.