One of the problems I have with the mythology surrounding dissociative identity disorder is that it makes finding support and treatment difficult. DID is hard enough to contend with on its own without having to fight your way through fallacies and stereotypes just to get help. Some common misconceptions about dissociative identity disorder come from entertainment media. But DID itself, in the hands of those who don’t understand it, is also a source of prevailing myths about the disorder.
Entertainment Media Dramatizes Dissociative Identity Disorder and Continues Common Misconceptions
It’s not that entertainment media presents an entirely false picture of what dissociative identity disorder is. Many portrayals do a commendable job of representing some aspects of life with DID. But when your motive is to entertain, the more dramatic parts of the disorder must be played up and the subtler, more everyday realities played down. This is sensationalism, and it’s largely to blame for these common misconceptions:
- Switching between personality states is obvious. Wardrobe changes, highly differentiated speech patterns, and wildly conflicting mannerisms and habits (e.g. smoking) all help inform readers and viewers of switches. In real life, however, switches aren’t as easy to identify. Someone with no real education about dissociative identity disorder might regularly interact with several personality states without ever knowing.
- People with dissociative identity disorder live highly abnormal lives. If you believe what you see on television, you might think I’m a meek but brilliant artist by day and a homicidal seductress by night. But my days are filled with work, household chores, therapy, and family. At night I sleep. I’m really rather boring, though I’d kill to be a brilliant artist. Just kidding.
Dissociative Identity Disorder and Common Misconceptions
Some of the more persistent misconceptions come from features of the disorder itself that, when isolated and taken out of context, are misleading:
- People with multiple personalities don’t know about the other personalities. This myth comes from dissociative amnesia, one of five primary symptoms of dissociative identity disorder. It’s true that many people live for years without any awareness of their alters. But with diagnosis and treatment, we learn about each other and cultivate internal communication. It’s a gradual process, not an all-or-nothing phenomenon.
- DID is lots of separate people in one body. Identity alteration, another symptom of DID, is the source of this myth. We operate independently and often without each others’ knowledge. We have different names, ages, interests, memories, etc. It sure sounds and feels like multiple people living in one body. But in fact we’re an identity so severely fragmented that it appears to be separate people, even though it’s not.
Dissociative identity disorder is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses, and that makes living with it far more difficult than it has to be for many people. Exposing these common misconceptions may not seem to accomplish much. But I have faith that if we continue talking honestly about DID, the lives of those with it twenty years from now will be better.
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