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Dissociative Identity Disorder 101: All the Basics You Need to Know

Ah, dissociative identity disorder—one of the most misunderstood trauma disorders out there! Most people have heard of it before (perhaps under the outdated name “Multiple personality disorder”)…but many of these accounts are misleading or stigmatizing. 

So, here’s a realistic picture of what Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is—written by a person living with it. (That’s me!)

First, What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

DID is classified as a dissociative disorder, meaning that it forms to block out trauma. Dissociation is something all humans have the ability to do (like zoning out on a highway or numbing pain without medicine). In some children, this happens a lot and helps them pull away, emotionally or physically, from trauma that’s happening. 

For instance, if the pain of being beaten is too much, a child might dissociate that. They basically lock those memories away. This could happen with any trauma that overwhelms a child—abuse, medical trauma, neglect, and so on.

It can take up to age 9 for a child to develop a sense of “me” and “I.” So, when repeated trauma (often abuse) happens before this development and the child portions the trauma memories off in their brain, it can lead to dissociative identity disorder. 

Basically, multiple identities form to each handle a different piece of the trauma, since one child can’t handle it alone. 

Dissociative Identity Disorder Proves How Adaptive the Brain Is

The fact that a child’s mind can break off sections of trauma memories is incredible. It’s basically the brain saying “I can’t handle this alone, let’s create a team to get through this.” Each alter (which is the term for each “identity”) takes on a different role. 

Some have a high pain tolerance, some might protect other alters (or even other people, like an abused sibling). Some may even believe they are strong fictional characters, since that character wouldn’t be as traumatized by what is happening. 

This all happens to help a child survive unfathomable trauma. It’s a disorder, sure, but it’s also something that saves the child’s life. 

As an adult, a person with DID experiences life as multiple people. Alters feel like whole and complete people, with their own values, interests, experiences, and world-views. They’re not just “parts” of one person.

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What a Normal Day with Dissociative Identity Disorder Looks Like

People with dissociative identity disorder live fairly normal lives, myself included. I have a morning routine. I make a latte, then start work. Then, I take a lunch break, nap, and work a bit more. My evening is usually spent cooking or relaxing with my fiancée. 

For people early on in their recovery from DID, they might have a more chaotic lifestyle. But, for many of us who have had a diagnosis for a few years, life feels pretty normal!

The only difference is that we have, well, roommates in our head. People who comment on things we do, people who we need to check in with before making large decisions (like getting a tattoo). Plus, other alters can “take over” the body. This means my fiancée could suddenly end up spending the rest of the evening relaxing with a different person. (Fortunately, she’s close with all of us!)

In most cases, you won’t know a person has DID. Alters are good at acting similar to each other, even if they feel like polar opposite people. 

Of course, DID can also be incredibly disabling. Many of us can live fairly normal lives, but many of us also struggle with various tasks. It can also be difficult to hold a job with DID, as some alters don’t share the same skills or abilities, or dissociative symptoms are too impactful.

Treatment Options for Dissociative Identity Disorder

There are two therapeutic options for treating DID. The first is Collaboration, the second is Integration (sometimes called “final fusion”). 

Collaboration is when all alters/identities work together as a team, living one life. It’s sort of like a team working on a project—each person has a role, has strengths and weakness, and they try to support each other as best as possible. All alters retain their own sense of identity and individual memories in this treatment path. They continue to exist as separate people sharing one body.

Integration is where one or more alters attempt to fuse into one new identity. This is the path towards becoming a single person (for the first time!). This might sound ideal, but it can actually be frightening to a lot of people with dissociative identity disorder. It can feel like a death to the alters. But, it can also be liberating. It can make life easier to live and reduce the stigma that person will face because of their disorder. 

Both of these are completely valid and healthy treatment paths. It might seem like people with DID should choose integration, but it’s not right for everyone. Just because it feels “normal” doesn’t mean it’s automatically helpful to everyone with dissociative identity disorder. 

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Debunking Common Myths about DID

There’s a lot of stigma about dissociative identity disorder (something I’ve faced firsthand plenty of times!). So, this section is about debunking the most common ones. 

#1: People with DID are violent or dangerous

I told an old friend about this condition and she said “Should I be scared that you’ll hurt me?” It was a shocking thing to hear, especially since I’m a super passive and gentle person. But, that’s a common belief people have about dissociative identity disorder. They believe we’re monsters, criminals, or crazy. 

We can thank Hollywood for a lot of that. 

In reality, people with DID are often compassionate, empathetic, and well-rounded people. They’ve all lived through intense trauma and survived it. Now, many aim to help others struggling as well (myself as well!). Just like any human being, someone with DID could be violent—but they’re statistically more likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator. 

#2: People with DID hear voices

It’s pretty rare for someone with DID to actually hear voices. Most often, alters talk to each other through thought. It’s sort of like your own inner critic or inner guide, except you can just tell it’s not your own thought. Eventually, through practice, it becomes easier to identify which “identity” is talking. 

It’s also a key part of DID treatment to speak with all alters. This internal communication is actively encouraged by mental health professionals!

#3: There is only one “real” person

It might seem like someone with this disorder split into pieces as a child, but that’s not actually how DID works. A young child doesn’t have an identity. For people who aren’t traumatized, they eventually gain a sense of “this is me” and form their own personality. For someone with DID, trauma interrupts that process. It basically plants a few seeds for multiple people to each gain a sense of “this is me.” The separation leads to several identities. Each one is no less real than the other. This can be a challenge to wrap your head around, but it becomes easy once you know someone with DID and learn just how expressive each individual alter is! 

Dissociative identity disorder is an adaptive condition formed to survive childhood trauma. It’s not a scary or violent thing. It’s a way the brain saves a child’s life from unspeakable horrors—and, in the process, creates many beautiful people. 

Sure, there’s still a lot of stigma out there, but you now know more. You understand the basics of the condition. Hopefully, you’ll share this blog or something you learned from it on social media—as that’s how to really change how people see those of us living with dissociative identity disorder.

Also, feel free to ask any questions you have about dissociative identity disorder in a comment below! I’ll be sure to get back to you.

(If you have DID, go ahead and talk about your experiences too!)

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May 5, 2020