There are many psychological disorders which, if you are not in the know, may seem obscure or strange. Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is one such condition. The public view of DID has been shaped by what they see in the movies and popular television programming. Many folks, upon hearing the many myths about the disorder, find it to be frightening or even something to be desired. More understanding of the facts connected to DID needs to be talked about openly with the public so that people can be more informed about the realities of what dissociative identity disorder is and how it affects those who live with it. Awareness is the driving force behind the writing of this article, offering a brief explanation of dissociative identity disorder, written in layman’s terms.
Dissociation is a fancy word for “zoning out”, and all humans do it. In fact, dissociation is the human brain’s way of dealing with, among other things, overwhelming circumstances, and boredom. A good example of a common dissociative incidence, that most people will find familiar, is the movie theatre experience.
You go to the theater to see a movie you have been looking forward to for months. You sit down in an empty row with your popcorn and soda, and the movie begins. Soon, you get thoroughly engrossed in the film’s plot. After the movie ends, you are surprised at the late hour. Not only this, but you suddenly become aware that there are people sitting beside you that weren’t there when you began watching the movie and that you have eaten your popcorn and drank your soda. You have little recollection of the other people seating themselves beside you, or of your eating and drinking your treats.
When Dissociation Goes Terribly Wrong
The human mind is a marvelous complex of organized thought. However, sometimes we are met with circumstances that are too hard to deal with in any organized manner. When we experience these overwhelming circumstances, we utilize what is termed as defense mechanisms.
Dissociation is one of these defense mechanisms that work well when we find ourselves overwhelmed or bored. When we find ourselves in stressful or boring situations, we simply “check out” or dissociate until our intellect is needed once more. Dissociative identity disorder is a defense mechanism taken to the extreme, where dissociation becomes a life-changing obstacle. With dissociative identity disorder, this human ability to dissociate causes one to become disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings, and memories. In this state, the survivor is protected from what their mind has determined to be overwhelming circumstances. This is all done unconsciously, just as was the theatre experience.
While dissociation can be a wonderful coping mechanism when one is in danger, or bored, it can also be very destructive. The life of a person living with Dissociative Identity Disorder is full of destroyed friendships, ended romantic relationships, lost jobs, and many other important factors in life that most take for granted. Sometimes survivors can lose their sense of right and wrong, while dissociated and get in trouble with the police. Another effect might be financial problems due to alters who do not understand that credit and debit cards are not bottomless.
The alternate Ego States
The hallmark, and best-known symptom by the public, of dissociative identity disorder, is the presence of alternate ego states (alters).
Ego states are a normal function of the human mind and are found in everyone. We form a new ego state with each new experience, to be triggered when we experience something similar in the future. This enables us to know how to cope with the new situation by drawing on what we did previously. In most people, these states of consciousness can communicate with one another, and together they form what is perceived as a cohesive personality, with a running timeline of the events in that person’s life.
Like other humans, persons living with dissociative identity disorder form new ego states in new situations to help cope with similar situations in the future. However, many of their ego states were formed during highly traumatic and emotionally charged past events. This sets up the survivor for the perfect storm. When triggered by a stimulus that reminds the survivor’s brain of a long-ago traumatic event, they recognize that event as happening in the now. Since the event from the past was highly traumatic, the survivor utilizes the coping mechanism of dissociation to escape. In this disconnected state, the old ego state doesn’t merely tell the person how to cope, it is forced to take over.
Since the events that forced the creation of the ego states in the past were supercharged with emotion and fear, they have become separated by amnesiac walls for self-protection, and self-preservation. These barriers prevent proper communication between the ego states, and as a result, the events that happened during the original trauma, as well as the events that happen while the person is in a dissociated state, are not communicated to the original personality nor with each other. The survivor experiences the consequences of these dissociative events by people telling them about things they have said or done that they do not remember. This is frightening and becomes very disruptive to their lives. Their personality has become so fragmented that the experience of having a continuous timeline of life events is lost.
Time loss is another hallmark of dissociative identity disorder that is described by those who live with it as being their number one enemy. The effect of lacking the reassurance that they will not dissociate and awaken hours, days or years later is staggering. To understand this phenomenon, one must first speak of how most humans experience time.
Most people experience time as the illusion of it linerally passing from moment to moment. Although they may not remember every event of each day, because their lives run in a predictable sequence, there is the comforting feeling of knowing pretty much what has happened in any given hour. The triggers that cause an ego state to be triggered are all about, with the average person experiencing these triggers as fond reminiscences to pleasant times in their past. These trips down memory lane do not last long, and often leave the one experiencing it feeling warm and fuzzy. As such, they do not disrupt the experiences of their timeline.
People who live with dissociative identity disorder do not have this luxury.
To a survivor, triggers do not feel warm and fuzzy. They are experienced as flashbacks to horrendous events in the person’s past, and this memory thread, in turn, activates a disconnected ego state. A result is a dissociative event, which is meant that the time experienced by the person living with dissociative identity disorder is chopped up and not continuous. Their timeline is splintered and experienced by leaps and jumps which can sometimes entail hours, days or even years. One cannot express how disruptive this effect can be on a person’s life.
People who live with dissociative identity disorder face many obstacles in their lives, but the one most agree is the hardest is the stigma. According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, the short definition of stigma is, “a mark of disgrace or reproach or a perceived negative attribute that causes someone to devalue or think less of the whole person.” Unfortunately, stigma is often thought of as being synonymous with shame, and this thinking keeps many who are living with a severe mental health diagnosis like DID from seeking and receiving the help they need.
Receiving a diagnosis such as dissociative identity disorder is difficult enough. One must now only own the horrible facts of the past, but also one faces grieving over a lost childhood and any illusion that it was normal. To have to face family, friends, and co-workers who shun or shame them, is an enormous burden. There is staggering pain involved in working on the issues that caused the disorder to form, and it takes many years of very hard work to overcome their effects on life today. Very often people who live with DID are faced with devastating isolation due to the horrific stigma involved with their disorder. These innocent victims of a disorder they do not want and did not cause are ridiculed, mocked and feared by society.
The Exploitative Effect on Society and DID
There is a popular movie, which came out in 2017, which helps to perpetuate the myth that people struggling with this disorder are endowed with supernatural powers and are murderous psychotic killers. One must agree that the character in the movie makes for a fantastic horror story, but the fear it instills in the publics thoughts about people who live with DID is more than troubling. The truth is that most people who experience dissociative identity disorder are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Yes, there are in every population demographic a certain percentage of people who are criminally minded or even dangerous. However, the portrayal of people living with DID in the movies has been historically tilted to show them as insane or worse. There are even questions proposed regularly on social media forums wondering if people who have developed dissociative identity disorder can climb walls.
The answer to these inquiries and wonderings is a lot less glamorous than Hollywood would like. In a dissociated state, persons living with dissociative identity disorder are extremely vulnerable to being mugged, raped, and murdered. The main reason for this propensity is that the ego state that is in control during the dissociative event, does not understand or comprehend the complexities of society, or how to protect themselves. Because of this, they can easily fall prey to unscrupulous people.
We Must Combat Stigma
There are ways to combat this misunderstanding of the public that has been caused by using DID as a money-making venture in the media. One way is to openly discuss the realities of dissociative identity disorder, having people whose lives are restricted by its effects tell what it has done to their lives. Putting a face on the disorder and allowing the public to glimpse the tragic ways persons living with DID struggle daily, may help end the stigma.
Another way that may be much harder to accomplish, is to force the media to talk about these realities before their films are shown in theatres. A short clip, explaining that their film is fiction and that persons who live with dissociative identity disorder experience life in a much different way than what is to be portrayed, can help remind moviegoers that what they are seeing is make-believe and not factual.
Not Weird or Strange
The main objective of this piece has been to help people understand that survivors living with dissociative identity disorder are not weird or strange. They are ordinary people who have taken the human ability to escape overwhelming trauma through dissociation to a higher level.
Indeed, many would have gone insane or died were it not for the very human ability to flee into their minds.
The next time you are involved in a discussion where a myth is being propagated about dissociative identity disorder, speak up. Do not remain silent. The tragic effects on the lives of survivors demand that we all dispel the myths and misinformation rampant in society today. After all, we’re not talking about animals, demons or monsters. We are speaking of human beings who have survived overwhelming odds. They deserve dignity and respect.
“When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be.”
~ Thomas S. Monson