Dissociative Living

When I published my last post almost a year ago, I was sure that it marked the end of Dissociative Living. I wasn’t happy about that. I was frustrated and angry with myself for what I saw as an inability to manage stress effectively. And I was sad that I had to give up writing about Dissociative Identity Disorder because of that inability. Since that post last September, I’ve learned some things, including: 1) there is a profound difference, practically speaking, between stress and chronic stress, and 2) you cannot manage chronic stress – you either survive it, or you escape it.
I'm weary. I’ve been living on the wrong side of my stress threshold for a while now. Part of the problem is that my stress threshold is maddeningly low. But part of the problem is that major things keep happening in my personal life lately; things that create enormous stress even for the most mentally healthy among us. As a result, my Dissociative Identity Disorder symptoms have amplified steadily over the last eighteen months. In the words of my fellow blogger Natasha Tracy, “When life gets nasty disease gets nasty too.” She’s right, of course. But I kept thinking, ‘hey, life is really turbulent sometimes and you just have to rise to the occasion.’ I failed to recognize, though, that doing so usually involves letting go of other, less urgent occasions.
Over the years I've heard many people advise dropping the word 'disorder' from dissociative identity disorder, citing A) dissociation as a normal response to trauma, and B) honoring subjective experiences as the primary reasons that it’s not helpful. But the degree to which something is normal really has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a disorder. Disorders are referred to as disorders not because they're abnormal, but because they actively, regularly, and severely disrupt people's lives to such an extent that their ability to function is notably, even dangerously, compromised. And labeling a particular set of psychiatric symptoms with a particular psychiatric diagnosis is no more a call to ignore individual experience than it is to use labels like diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or influenza.
After a recent experience with state-dependent memory recall got me questioning the heavy focus on internal communication in Dissociative Identity Disorder treatment, I decided to ask readers of my personal blog how they learn about their systems. 63% of responders cited feedback from external others along with internal communication as the primary ways they gain insight into their DID systems. Only 9% cited internal communication alone. [See poll.] And yet in the six years since my diagnosis, I’ve never heard anyone who treats or has DID recommend engaging in the outside world as a path to self-discovery. In fact, I’ve heard the opposite: no one will understand Dissociative Identity Disorder but us; talk to yourself and to us, and no one else.
Soon after I began researching anything and everything related to Dissociative Identity Disorder, I came across the idea of state-dependent learning. And though the concept – that things learned or experienced under certain conditions, internal and/or external, are easiest to recall under those same conditions – made sense to me, it didn’t make much of an impression. But recently I had a profound personal experience that illustrated clearly to me both the power of state-dependent learning and the revelation of state-dependent memory recall.
The past few months of my life have brought with them the suicide of a family member, the substance abuse problems and sudden onset mental illness of another, some unexpected financial difficulties, and not nearly enough time and space for me to cope with it all effectively. I’ve taken the put-your-head-down-and-keep-moving approach in part because I know I’ll leave other people in the lurch if I stop to recuperate. When a tornado hits is not the time to announce that gosh, you’d love to help out but you really need some Me Time. Instead, I’ve relied on my long-held belief that Dissociative Identity Disorder is both a blessing and a curse when life gets messy. But I’ve changed my mind. All DID does is make nasty situations nastier.
All of the misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder bother me because they create barriers to diagnosis, treatment, and support. But there’s one myth that bothers me for more personal and, up until today, private reasons. And that’s the assumption that child abuse causes Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Reader Deanna asked if anyone has ever experienced remission from Dissociative Identity Disorder. If we’re defining remission as a period of diminished, unobtrusive dissociative symptoms – “normal” dissociation, in other words – then I’d wager there are people who have experienced exactly that. But they have worked hard to achieve that degree of integration and awareness. It didn’t happen spontaneously, which is what I suspect most of us with Dissociative Identity Disorder mean when we bring up this idea of remission. And I also suspect it isn’t really integration we’re talking about, but the apparent disappearance of other personality states. I’m guessing plenty of people experience this latter scenario too; but remission it is not.
I’ve just realized that a year has passed since I began writing Dissociative Living here at HealthyPlace. This is a pretty significant achievement for me. And that’s partly because I’m just plain proud of the content I’ve written. But this blog’s anniversary is also the anniversary of my coming out publicly as someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. By choosing to write Dissociative Living I also chose to stop writing anonymously and from that point on, attach my real name and real picture to my thoughts and perspectives on DID. It was a pivotal decision and one that, had I asked, most people would have advised against. One year, three weeks, eighty-two posts, and a thousand comments later, I don’t regret it even a little bit.
The terms repressed memory and recovered memory gained popularity in the mid-1980's along with the multiple personality disorder diagnosis. As a result, these terms are still strongly associated with dissociative identity disorder (DID) (the replacement label for MPD in the United States since 1994). They're also strongly associated with unethical therapeutic practices, false memories of abuse, and lives destroyed by both. And while those associations have merit, repressed and recovered memories aren’t generally as dramatic and rare as their inflammatory connotations suggest.