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What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

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.

Collage by juxtaposejane
Collage by juxtaposejane

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.

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24 thoughts on “What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

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