What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Thursday, February 24 2011 Holly Gray

I write about Dissociative Identity Disorder in part because I'm disturbed by the sheer volume of false and misleading information about DID. It bothers me that an overwhelming number of online resources are teeming with misconceptions so profound that the end result is a definition of the disorder that further shrouds it in mystery and controversy. Not to mention the fact that nobody seems able to explain it without relying on a misnomer, Multiple Personality Disorder, to do so. It took me a long time to wade through all the jargon and arrive at a definition of Dissociative Identity Disorder that accurately explains my experience of it.

[caption id="attachment_1676" align="alignleft" width="185" caption="Collage by juxtaposejane"]Collage by juxtaposejane[/caption]

Inaccurate Definitions of Dissociative Identity Disorder Cause Controversy

I've never heard or read anything from someone who denies the existence of DID and also has a clear understanding of what it is. Without fail, when I dig a little deeper, I find their definition of Dissociative Identity Disorder is firmly rooted in myths born and bred in the mental health community itself, primarily in the 1980's when Multiple Personality Disorder was en vogue and everyone was apparently high. Entertainment media took the ball and ran with it, producing tale after dramatic tale. Then in 1992 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation formed and basically said, 'enough already.' The lawsuits started rolling in and everything got really ugly.

The legacy of all that drama lives on today in the controversy surrounding the most widely accepted definition of Dissociative Identity Disorder - multiple people sharing one body, living separate lives. But it's a pointless argument because, as I see it, that disorder doesn't exist. It's also not what DID is.

My Definition of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Put simply:

Dissociative Identity Disorder is a mental condition characterized by identity fragmentation so severe that individuals with it experience themselves not as one person, but many.

Notice I didn't say we are many people but that we experience ourselves as many people. That's an important distinction. It's vital, I believe, to recognize that there's a difference between what DID is and how we experience it. Not just because the inability to discern the difference affects how we explain DID, and therefore helps shape public understanding; but also because confusing the two leads to an over-focus on details that ultimately have no bearing on the validity of the diagnosis at all. If you have DID, your diagnosis wasn't determined by:

  • how many personality states you have
  • what your internal world looks like
  • whether your alters have names or not
  • how your system is structured
  • or even the nature your trauma history

Those topics matter insofar as they speak to our experiences, all unique, of life with Dissociative Identity Disorder. But they don't speak to what Dissociative Identity Disorder is. Believing that they do leads to all sorts of confusion. If, for instance, I believed that the veracity of my diagnosis depended on the severity of trauma I endured - a relatively subjective concept - I would question it, and never stop questioning it.

Follow me on Twitter!

Author: Holly Gray

View all posts by Holly Gray.

What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

carla
says:
February, 24 2011 at 12:15 pm

"when Multiple Personality Disorder was en vogue and everyone was apparently high."---Haaaa, love this. The difference between believing you have multiple people inside of you and recognizing that "they " are all fragmented parts of the same person is crucial. Not only to the public at large but also to anyone trying to manage their DID. Great post.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 25 2011 at 11:03 am

Hi carla,

You know, I debated whether to leave the " ... and everyone was apparently high" portion of that sentence in. It was an off-the-cuff statement that reflects a portion of my perspective on DID's history, which is light-heartedly cynical. And I know that doesn't always come across the same way in the written word. So I'm glad you caught the humor in that. :)

I like that you used the word "crucial" in your comment here about the importance of, at least intellectually, realizing that though we feel like many people, we are all fragmented pieces of a whole. It's such a balancing act, because I believe in order to "recover" - whatever that means to each of us - we cannot ignore the separateness that exists within our systems. We must honor the varying perceptions of the world, experiences, etc. and receive all of our personality states as they present themselves, not as we assume they are. And yet, we must remain aware that we are ultimately one person. It's a paradox, a difficult thing to conceptualize at first. At least it was for me. But when I was finally able to grasp the concept of being one while legitimately experiencing myself as many, things got easier.

Thanks carla. :)

else
says:
February, 24 2011 at 12:44 pm

Holly you are just so right about this. This post should be compulsory reading for everybody.

Thank you for helping to articulate the fuzzy thoughts I always have around the difference between what the disorder is and how I experience it. It is so tricky to think about and yet it forms the basis of how I understand my self, my actions, what I expect from other people. I think my partner is the best at understanding this, but neither of us are very good at talking about it.

I have worked hard to maintain the belief that everything I do is done by "me", that the voices in my head are "mine" even when it really doesn't feel that way. It's frustrating and exhausting and sometimes scary but it seems very important. Talking about negotiation and compromise with alters- sometimes I feel like I spend all my time tending to the needs of various parts that I forget to take care of the me in the middle. And then working out what I want and need is a whole other question because of the core lack of identity.

Sorry this is a hodge-podge comment. I'm just so blown away with how well you have explained how I feel about my DID diagnosis and my sketchy identity. Thank you, deeply.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 26 2011 at 9:56 am

Hi else,

Thanks for your comment.

"It is so tricky to think about and yet it forms the basis of how I understand my self, my actions, what I expect from other people."

I think I know what you mean. If we operate from the perspective that we are, quite literally, multiple people living in one body, it colors our entire way of being in the world. And I also think that with any mental health condition recognizing how it manifests in your life is vital - severe depression, for instance, may not have complete and utter power over a sufferer capable of recognizing, "okay it's not really that there's no hope, nothing to live for; it's my mental illness messing with me." It doesn't necessarily ease the pain, but it allows for movement. This is why I value psycho-education so highly.

"And then working out what I want and need is a whole other question because of the core lack of identity."

Well said. I can relate.

Mareeya
says:
February, 24 2011 at 3:29 pm

"It bothers me that an overwhelming number of online resources are teeming with misconceptions so profound that the end result is a definition of the disorder that further shrouds it in mystery and controversy. Not to mention the fact that nobody seems able to explain it without relying on a misnomer, Multiple Personality Disorder, to do so."
Thank you, Holly. This bothers me, too. In fact, this contributed to my denial of my DID diagnosis for years. Part of my denial was DID itself being designed to go undetected, but all of this misinformation just added fuel to my fire, because it sounded nothing like me at all. This caused me to deny and delay treatment for my DID.
I really like that you discuss how we experience our DID. It's different for everybody. For example, my alters don't have names, I also have no awareness of parts of my system who are really, really young and need toys to play with, and the number of personality states that I am currently aware of is probably relatively small compared to what other people experience. Now this may change over time, or it may not change, but this is currently my experience. I also like that you point out that we are not many different people, but "experience" ourselves as many people. That makes my DID diagnosis something that I can relate to, and work with. The idea of being many people sharing one body, and living separate lives was not something I was willing, or able to work with.
You really have explained this so well. What an excellent, and important post.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 26 2011 at 10:10 am

Hi Mareeya,

I'm so glad I was clear here. I try so hard to be but worry sometimes if I've muddied the waters by not articulating my perspectives well. I appreciate your feedback, thank you.

"In fact, this contributed to my denial of my DID diagnosis for years."

And I firmly believe you're not the only one. I suspect a basic misunderstanding of what the disorder is in the first place has a lot to do with why so many with DID struggle with the validity of their diagnosis. Which makes perfect sense. Doubt is not always denial.

"I also like that you point out that we are not many different people, but “experience” ourselves as many people. That makes my DID diagnosis something that I can relate to, and work with."

I feel the same as you on that.

Thanks Mareeya. :)

Suede
says:
February, 24 2011 at 5:02 pm

I can not tell you in any real words how everyone arguing over how real or not real DID is has caused so much problem for me and all of me's.

It makes it hard for me to accept then I don't get the help I need. I don't know if they who do not believe in it know the effect they might be having on some of us who live with DID every day. I would think if they did they would think twice about some of the things they say.
For some DID is a disorder to get attention, something I run from every chance I get.
For some it is BPD and to be alone for me is the thing I want and need the most.
For some it is Narcissism while the thought of me is simply confusing and I will go to great links never so give myself what I need.

The list goes on and on. While the above disorders are hard in there own right to be pushed because of someone unbelieving in what had been proven through the science they profess to list other disorders by to a disorder that is not yours is so very hurtful.

I would never be foolish enough to think I wish I had this or that instead of. DID or MPD or whatever some cal it is what I have and it is hard enough without not being able to be candid with MD's, PHD's, PSY's and so on for fear of the condescending look that follows.

I had to keep quite as a child for my own safety and now as an adult for the same reasons. Not because anyone wants to abuse me just because they want to reject me. So sad.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 26 2011 at 10:30 am

Hi Suede,

"Not because anyone wants to abuse me just because they want to reject me."

I'm really sorry you're struggling with this. For my part, I don't care that there are people who don't believe DID is a legitimate diagnosis. What I do care about are the people living with Dissociative Identity Disorder and the struggles *they* encounter with regard to their diagnosis. Sometimes those struggles are triggered by folks who deny the existence of DID, but the unrest comes from within. That's why humanizing and demystifying DID is my goal as a writer. When you clear away all the misinformation and mythology, DID isn't all that controversial at all. And my belief is that as those of us with DID get a clearer and more solid sense of what it is, the controversy just won't matter that much anymore to us.

My hope is that, in time, there will be more widespread understanding of what DID is and what it is not, particularly within the mental health community, so that you and everyone else with DID can get the help they need instead of being used as pawns in a debate.

Thanks for your comment, Suede. :)

Lenore
says:
February, 25 2011 at 3:51 am

Suede,

"I had to keep quite as a child for my own safety and now as an adult for the same reasons. Not because anyone wants to abuse me just because they want to reject me. So sad."

Me too...

Suede
says:
February, 25 2011 at 4:40 am

Well I hate to say it Lenore but it's nice not to be alone there. I would change it if I had any idea how.

Also please understand I did not mean to imply any of the disorders I posted were less or greater then DID, I was trying to say what some people have been DXD'd with because the person who diagnosed them does not believe in DID.

Sometimes I have more then one me trying to say something and even I try my best it may not come out to clear.

One day maybe but for now I am very grateful for all of you and Holly

Stephanie
says:
February, 25 2011 at 8:02 am

"If, for instance, I believed that the veracity of my diagnosis depended on the severity of trauma I endured - a relatively subjective concept - I would question it, and never stop questioning it."

I think I will struggle with this for the rest of my life. My abuse history isn't the "stereotypical" history that tends to follow the DID diagnosis around. Therefore, I'm constantly left feeling like the biggest fraud and weakest piece of shit on the planet, which then turns into anger which presents as severe depression. It's a vicious cycle that I'm not sure I'll ever fully get out of.

But thank you so much for this post. I wish more people would talk about DID in this way; if they did, the diagnosis wouldn't lend itself to so much invalidation and confusion.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 26 2011 at 10:40 am

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for your comment. You voiced things that, as far as I can tell, many people with Dissociative Identity Disorder struggle with. Perhaps it's not a stretch to say most.

"My abuse history isn’t the “stereotypical” history that tends to follow the DID diagnosis around."

But that's just it ... it's a stereotype, that's all. A myriad of things come together and cause DID. If trauma were the only factor, Dissociative Identity Disorder would be incredibly widespread. The chronic over-focus on trauma in the literature - both from professionals and those with DID - has not served us. It's caused an alarming misunderstanding of what causes DID in the first place and, quite naturally, given rise to all kinds of turmoil and doubt for people who have DID.

"I think I will struggle with this for the rest of my life."

Perhaps, but I hope not.

Jeanette Bartah
says:
February, 26 2011 at 9:19 am

Holly,
Your post is important and one I don't read about often enough. Yes, misconceptions abound.

I don't quite understand your statement: "Then in 1992 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation formed and basically said, ‘enough already.’ The lawsuits started rolling in and everything got really ugly."

I don't know where you got your information, but this is so erroneous and implies that the FMSF took on the task of dispelling the myth of MPD/DID and that it was them who filed lawsuits - which they never did. You are doing the same thing in this instance by misinforming your readers.

I would be glad to write more about this, or you can come to my blog and get facts about the FMSF. Doing so would bring us all closer to knowing the truth and helping to aid those sexually abused.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
February, 26 2011 at 11:10 am

Hi Jeanette,

Thanks for reading.

I write about Dissociative Identity Disorder, not sexual abuse. So while I can respect your desire to " ... aid those sexually abused," that isn't my professional focus; humanizing and demystifying DID is. To that end, I want to point out that it's inaccurate to assume that everyone with DID was sexually abused, or abused at all for that matter. I'm not sure if that's what you're suggesting by bringing sexual abuse into the discussion, but it's a common misunderstanding, and one I try to clear up wherever I see it.

Thanks for your point about the FMSF not filing lawsuits. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone might conclude from my statements that the foundation actively files lawsuits against therapists or anyone else with regard to traumatic memory. To be clear, no - I am not implying anything of the sort.

kerri
says:
February, 28 2011 at 12:34 am

Hi Holly, I often feel like Stephanie. That I can't possibly have DID because I haven't been scarred enough by my past. I think part of this thinking comes from a voice deep inside that says that I am week, faulty, broken, and not entitled to anyones sympathy, because there is something wrong with ME. So I don't deserve a diagnosis that apparently should only be given to the most damaged in our society. This feeling of never deserving psychological help, inhibits an acceptance of where I am really at, and how much I do require assistance. The medical community with their narrow definitions and examples have set the bar so high, that unless you've got mega numbers of alters, and dramatic out of control switching, you just don't feel the diagnosis fits you. But DID is not always the "drama queen" of psychological illnesses the media makes it out to be, but is often the quiet girl who sits in the corner because she doesn't want to be seen. The flamboyant type of portrayal often seen on T.V. can be quite counterproductive, and insensitive. Because those of us who are experiencing strong switching are often de-compensating at the time, and can be in quite a bad place. I like your definition of DID, but ironically whilst I Kerri see that my alters may be fragmented parts of me expressed as different personality states, my alters totally disagree with me, and there-in lies the rub. I'd be really interested to know have any of you successfully convinced your alters to see their existence the way you do.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 3 2011 at 2:53 pm

Hi kerri,

Thanks for commenting.

"So I don’t deserve a diagnosis that apparently should only be given to the most damaged in our society."

You are not alone in this line of thinking. But what if people with Dissociative Identity Disorder weren't considered, across the board, the most damaged in our society? I wonder if you and others would struggle with this as much. Honestly, I don't see DID that way at all. As long as we continue to believe DID is the purple heart of trauma survivors, evidence of the worst, most unimaginable abuse, it will continue to be a profoundly misunderstood diagnosis, and one many people will have a difficult time accepting.

"The medical community with their narrow definitions and examples have set the bar so high, that unless you’ve got mega numbers of alters, and dramatic out of control switching, you just don’t feel the diagnosis fits you."

Any therapist who defines Dissociative Identity Disorder by the number of alters or how dramatically the client presents has no business treating DID. Period. I saw a therapist exactly 3 times once and never went back. At our 3rd session she commented that she wondered if I was having brain seizures and that was the cause of my amnesia. Why? "Because I haven't seen any alters." That's all I needed to hear to know she was not qualified to be my therapist. My point is, those people in the medical community that have left you the impression that there are narrow definitions and bizarre expectations are not people who even understand what DID is. Their ideas about DID are just plain wrong.

"I’d be really interested to know have any of you successfully convinced your alters to see their existence the way you do."

For my part, I don't consider it helpful to try and convince other aspects of my system anything. This is the paradox of working with alters. On the one hand I recognize that we are fragmented, compartmentalized aspects of a whole. On the other, in order to move back towards wholeness I find it's best to approach these fragmented self-states as I experience them - that is to say, as separate people. If an alter changes their perception of themselves within the system, it's not yet been because I or anyone else in system has attempted to facilitate that change. On the contrary, accepting them where they are tends to be - again in my experience - the strongest catalyst for change.

Suede
says:
February, 28 2011 at 5:35 am

Since much of my issues stem from not accepting I have DID despite the evidence I no longer look to others to define it for me because of the turmoil in trying to "fit". The reality is that has more to do with me then them.

For some reason and maybe it is pride a topic Holly talked about before and its relationship with mental health it is easier for me to accept something else. But that leaves me open for a big mess. So when the media defines DID I can say "oh see i don't have it I don't do that" regardless of the lack of truth in the media of how it shows DID. Or when some great mental doc says it is not real I can tell myself "yeah see your just crazy" It can go on and on.

Acceptance is scary, it feels out of my control and defining even exposing. That may be some of the reasons DID people have a hard time all of those things are facilitatory in DID.

Kerri my system had less issue then me I am on the outside not the system. Not all within the system but at least in my case there is no relationship with all of me till I can find a way to accept part of this that is me. Holly also talked about surrender something that is so foreign to me but it aids so much in communication.

Also is the matter of how much causes DID as far as trauma.
Some people are more inclined to be dissociative it is not bad thing. There is even it seems a genetic component to normal dissociation. However you put the right stress or trauma with the right time and the right person you may end up with DID. That is how you can have kids from the same family come out so different in reaction to the traumas they shared. In normal everyday life with no abuse, one child falls on there bike nothing is hurt and screams like it is the end of the world. Another falls breaks there foot and the mother has to chase them down as they get on the bike and start riding again. (saw this happen)

So imho DID is caused by the mix of certain circumstances within people who may be genetically inclined to dissociate.

jeri
says:
February, 28 2011 at 4:10 pm

I am so thankful that I found this site. I have thought that I was crazy for 16 years. I always told my shrink that the voices I heard were more like my own, not real voices voices. It was not until last dec 09, that I was finallly DX with DID. I was moved into transitional housing because I was not getting along with my mother very well, and I was to suicidal to live alone. It was my case manager that was the one who caught on to the fact that I may suffer from DID. My therapist started working with me and a lot of stuff started to make a lot of sense. The missing time gaps, the missing money, the weird stuff around the house, things that I had been blammed for. It is really hard for me to stay organized when I have so many identities that want things certain ways. I have a few identities that are a wide range in age also, so that makes things very interesting around my house. I am not in a relationship currently, thank God, I do have a very close friend that is very supportive though. Other than that, people probably think I am just a scattered blonde. This DX was very hard for me to accept for the longest time, my children do not know.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 3 2011 at 3:00 pm

Hi jeri,

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

"It is really hard for me to stay organized when I have so many identities that want things certain ways."

Oh boy, can I relate to that.

It sounds like finally being properly diagnosed has been helpful for you. I love to hear that because I think, in an ideal world, that's how it should be. The right diagnosis should liberate, not oppress. And misunderstandings about what Dissociative Identity Disorder is go a long way towards oppressing those living with it.

Kris
says:
March, 1 2011 at 3:44 pm

I am one of many living in one body. I wish there was more room to not be in constant conflict with the others. I just want some quiet time to think things out.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 3 2011 at 3:02 pm

Hi Kris,

I'm glad you commented.

"I just want some quiet time to think things out."

I understand. I find if I don't get enough time alone to just think, my functioning suffers. I hope you're able to get the time and space you need.

kerri
says:
March, 3 2011 at 7:53 pm

Hi Holly I was told by my therapist once that if my alters did not give up their narcissistic investment in remaining separate we would never be able to integrate and move forward. I suppose I wonder if this is true. Not the old and worn integration is the only route to happiness part, but the greater the dissociation the less true connection to your own meaningful existence part. I know people on the Internet who seem to be living happily and well as multiples and have no intention of changing this. But to be honest at the moment I don't know what to believe. I'm confused. I'd love to hear your take on this.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 7 2011 at 7:03 pm

Hi kerri,

I've been thinking about your comment a lot. Honestly, I do believe the greater the dissociation the less true connection to your own meaningful existence. Now that doesn't mean that one cannot live a meaningful, whole, and connected life with Dissociative Identity Disorder. But it's harder to do. I feel I live a meaningful life, but there's no way I am as connected to the whole of who I am as I could be with time and a great deal of effort. And I do find that the more connected I become to the rest of my system, the better and more whole I feel.

I understand your therapist's point, I think. But I also know that this idea of a narcissistic attachment to DID is popular among some clinicians, to the point that it's almost a catchphrase. It's inappropriate, I think, to fall back on that explanation any time a client isn't progressing in the manner that the therapist believes they should. It's an easy answer. I get why it's bandied about ... I see a lot of defensiveness, particularly in pockets of the internet, around integration and a steadfast insistence that multiplicity is something to be proud of - a brilliant, creative, coping mechanism - and heck no, we're not integrating!!!! And sure, I see some narcissism in that. But I also see a basic misunderstanding of both what Dissociative Identity Disorder is and what integration is. So for my part, I'd like to see therapists focus less on the "narcissistic investment" thing and more on psycho-education.

People who have DID are separate for valid reasons. If we remain separate, despite a concerted effort to educate ourselves, communicate with our systems, grow, and heal, I suspect that's less about narcissism and more about need. We'll remain separate as long as we need to. When it's no longer necessary, we'll fuse. That's how I see it. And I also know that remaining separate doesn't mean we aren't making progress.

kerri
says:
March, 11 2011 at 12:45 am

Thanks so much for your thoughtful answer Holly. You always leave me with a lot to think about!!

Leave a reply

Follow Us

Most Popular

Comments

Mental Health Newsletter