Dissociative Identity Disorder: Debunking Some Common Myths
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – formerly known as multiple personality disorder – is a mental health issue that’s often misunderstood. Blockbuster movies like Split have created a lot of misinformation about DID, leading to people with DID being feared and considered dangerous.
The stigma surrounding DID means that people with the condition are often fearful of how others will react to them.
It’s common for DID sufferers to avoid becoming part of a church community simply because they don’t know whether they will be feared or accepted. It’s critical, then, that churches are educated about DID so that sufferers can be welcomed into the community.
What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?Dissociative Identity Disorder has sometimes been described as a “shattering” of the mind during early childhood as a response to severe and enduring trauma. Instead of a single, cohesive personality, someone with DID has several – sometimes hundreds, occasionally thousands – different personalities all seemingly residing within the same body and mind.
DID is actually a really creative survival technique that allows a child to endure unbearable trauma and continue to function in spite of what is happening to them. It always develops before the age of 7-8, although it may not be diagnosed until adulthood.
The separate personalities in someone with DID are often termed parts, alters, or insiders. Like many disorders of the brain, DID can present differently from person to person. For example, some people with DID experience total amnesia between their parts and may have no idea they have alters at all. They may report “losing time” or be unable to recall events that others insist they were there for.
Other people with DID have fewer amnesiac barriers and can access the memories of other parts of their personality system. They may still “lose time,” but will have more awareness of the other parts in their system.
When someone has DID the alters in the system can assume control of the body and mind at any time. Sometimes this is an intentional takeover while at other times a part may be “triggered” by a smell or sight that reminds them of their trauma. It is also possible for several parts to be co-conscious.
To understand what it means to be co-conscious or have amnesic barriers, it can be helpful to view a person with DID like a car:
If you think of a car, there is always one person driving. In a DID system, the driver (called the front person) may be any one of the alters. They may be alone in the cabin of the car, and the other parts are traveling in the trunk, unaware of what is happening on the outside.
Or, they may also be traveling with other parts who are in the backseat of the car. These parts are aware of what is happening but don’t have any control, they’re just observers.
Finally, another alter may be in the passenger seat of the car with the main driver. Because they’re in the front, they’re not driving, but they are able to grab the wheel or put on the handbrake. This is called co-consciousness, where another part is able to influence the current front person.
What Causes DID?
The root cause of DID is always severe, (often) long-term trauma that is experienced before the age of eight. The trauma is often abuse at the hands of a caregiver, or, in some cases, ritual abuse. When a child experiences unbearable pain and trauma, dissociation happens as an innate survival mechanism, effectively splitting off the memory of the event so that the child can continue to function, essentially unaware of what has happened.
People with DID often grow up without remembering the abuse or trauma that happened to them, until, sometimes quite suddenly, they will begin to experience flashbacks, nightmares, or body memories of what happened to them. This breakthrough psychological distress is the result of the trauma going unprocessed for so long. The signs of DID may, at this point, become more noticeable.
Debunking 6 Myths About Dissociative Identity Disorder
1. People with DID are NOT always dangerous.
Hollywood likes to sensationalize conditions like DID, and, sadly, movie portrayals of DID tend to make out that people with DID are violent and dangerous. To be clear, people with DID are NOT inherently dangerous. Split portrayed a person with DID as a dangerous, psychopathic, violent murderer but people with DID are no more likely to be psychopaths than any other person you might meet on the street.
2. People with DID are NOT attention-seeking
Because some psychiatrists have, in the past, suggested that DID is not real, the idea that people with DID are simply attention-seeking, lying or trying to manipulate others, is prevalent. However, extensive research has proven that DID is real and is the result of longterm childhood trauma.
While there may be some people who try to fake the symptoms of DID, this is incredibly difficult to do and, to be honest, there are other conditions that are easier to fake for attention-seeking purposes!
3. Switches between personalities are NOT always noticeable
When others hear that a person has DID, one of the common reactions is to dispute it, by saying something along the lines of, “but if they had multiple personalities I would have noticed”. In fact, only around 5-6% of people with DID have an overt presentation of switching between alters (that others would notice).
For the rest of the DID population, switches are not obvious to people (with the exception of very close family and friends). That’s because DID, by nature, is designed to go undetected — it’s a survival mechanism to protect a person, and making it obvious to everyone would defeat its purpose.
4. People with DID do NOT switch personalities on demand (so stop asking!)
For people with DID, being asked to switch from one personality to another (either to prove they really have DID or to satisfy the curiosity of others) can be really distressing. It makes them feel like a circus act and it’s not okay to ask this.
In some situations, such as therapy sessions, a person can ask another of their alters to come to the front, but it can’t be forced and this is only done in therapy to help with healing traumatic memories.
5. People with DID are NOT hallucinating or hearing voicesThere is a big difference between DID and mental illnesses that involve psychosis (hearing and/or seeing hallucinations/voices) such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. People with DID who are able to communicate with their alters are not psychotic.
The internal communication is not the same as hearing voices. Internal communication with other alters is much like “hearing” your own thoughts but more chaotic (sometimes, at least)!
6. People with DID do NOT need to integrate to be ‘healed’
For some people with DID, the integration of all of their parts into one single personality (sometimes called becoming whole) is something they want to achieve through therapy. For others, integration isn’t important. Healing is not dependent upon integration and can be achieved through processing memories, improving internal communication, and lowering dissociative barriers.
DID and Christian Counseling
For a person with DID, the idea of counseling can be terrifying, because counseling for dissociative identity disorder tends to focus on processing traumatic memories in order to heal from the wounds of the past. It’s common for someone with DID to avoid counseling on the grounds that “My mind fragmented to avoid dealing with those events, so why would I want to process them now?”
However, although it’s a common excuse, that reasoning fails to recognize that even if the whole system has been protected from the traumatic memories, the parts who split off to contain the trauma have been containing them for years, and their distress is unimaginable. Those parts deserve to be relieved of their burden!
People with DID may seek out a secular counselor who is experienced in working with a personality system (an experienced counselor is absolutely essential, as inexperienced counselors can inadvertently cause re-traumatization). Secular counseling has helped countless people work towards integration but Christian counseling brings the Lord Jesus into the healing journey and may lead to more rapid healing.
Healing brokenness, after all, is what Jesus was sent to do:
[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21
“The Woman In the Mirror”, Courtesy of Taylor Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Put on a happy face”, Courtesy of Angel Lopez, “Blurred Vision”, Courtesy of Darius Bashar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Talk to the Hands”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License