The psychiatric condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder has nothing to do with “multiple personalities.”
People who are afflicted with DID only ever have one personality. There is never more than one “person” inside someone’s skin— no matter how it may feel to the person or appear to outsiders.
I spent the first several years of my career working almost exclusively with adults who had experienced horrendous trauma as children— many of whom were diagnosed, in adulthood, with Dissociative Identity Disorder. In the course of this work, I came to understand that DID is one of the most misunderstood, inappropriately treated conditions that exists.
How did DID come to be associated with the idea of “multiple personalties?”
The condition we know as Dissociative Identity Disorder started off called “Multiple Personality Disorder.” Which is a shame, because this misnomer put a lot of ideas into a lot of peoples’ heads about what DID is.
Yes, people who have DID have many “parts” to their core personalities– as do we all.
ALL of us have parts of us that protect us, seek pleasure, avoid pain, sabotage us sometimes, and even disagree with other parts of us. That’s normal.
What happens with DID, however, is that those parts of someone’s core personality SEEM to take on a life of their own and assume what psychologists call “executive control” of a person’s behavior— that is to say, it SEEMS like the various parts of a person’s core personality are out, relating to the world, and making decisions, independently of the other parts of that person’s personality.
That’s not, actually, what’s happening. Parts don’t “take over.” ALL aspects of a person’s core identity remain intact at all times— even if they’re temporarily forced into the “background,” they still exist and they still interact with the rest of that person.
So what’s the deal? Why does it seem, in DID, like the parts of a person’s personality are acting independently of the others?
It’s mostly because early developmental trauma inflicts cognitive impairment on people.
In fact, what was once upon a time labeled “multiple personalties” should, by rights, be more aptly named something like “trauma-induced cognitive impairment.”
DID is not nearly as bizarre or exotic as you might think. In movies, it’s dramatic and obvious when someone “switches” between parts. In real life, it’s mostly subtle and frustrating.
What trauma does to the brain is make it difficult to organize and integrate what we know, what we experienced, what we feel, and our behavioral decisions. The non-traumatized brain has a much easier time remembering who we are and what we’re all about, and using that information to make decisions about how to relate to the world and what to do. The traumatized brain struggles with this— because its development was impaired before it had learned how to do it.
People recover from DID to the extent that they learn to compensate for the developmental cognitive impairment their trauma inflicted on their brains.
The more we can get away from thinking of DID as “multiple personalties,” the more equipped we’ll be to effectively treat the disorder— and the less shame and stigma people diagnosed with DID will experience in seeking out treatment and using coping strategies in the real world.
Dissociation, as a psychological defense, is all about altered neuropsychology. That’s why I choose to think about DID, as well as other trauma-induced conditions that include an element of dissociation, as a form of cognitive injury.
It’s truly not all that different from a head injury. DID happens because a trauma— maybe physical, maybe relational, maybe emotional or verbal or sexual— has damaged the areas in the brain that remember, assimilate and integrate information, and support decision making. That’s EXACTLY what happens when someone experiences a physical traumatic brain injury from, say, a blow to the head.
It’s not a crazy or made-up condition.
In fact, the main reason we think of it as a crazy or made-up condition is because of its stupid former name, “multiple personality disorder.” The whole idea of someone having “multiple personalties” is so far out there to most people, that they assume it can’t be real.
DID is very real.
It’s literally a brain injury.
If you have DID, your parts are not independent, autonomous entities. They’re all you— it’s just that your brain is having a hard time integrating all the parts of you due to the trauma you’ve experienced. No more, no less.
Parts don’t “go away” when DID is successfully treated.
In fact, when DID is successfully treated, the various parts of your personality now become even more important— because you can access them, listen to them, and use them in your everyday life. They don’t remain cordoned off behind a veil of dissociative amnesia, just laying in wait to ambush you.
I’m sorry to burst anyone’s bubble about how interesting or dramatic Dissociative Identity Disorder is.
But we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending it’s anything more or less than a traumatic brain injury, which results in cognitive impairment.
Accepting that is the first step toward healing it.
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