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What the Movie 'Split' Got Right (and Wrong)

Author’s Note: The following is a discussion of the movie “Split” and contains spoilers.

A “split” is a separation, a rift between two things. It can be a split within the mind, something that happens for survival. In the real world, such a “split” (more of a separation, a dissociation than a schism), isn’t horrific. A split can also refer to a fissure between the real and the fictitious, the truth and the untruth. Movies, books and the like dance around this fissure in an attempt to inform us and entertain us. I recently saw a movie I thought might take the split between reality and unreality and blast it into a giant chasm.

The movie “Split” premiered in theaters across the U.S. on a January weekend in 2017. As a mental health writer, someone who lives with mental illness, a certified counselor and author of a novel (“Twenty-Four Shadows” published by Apprentice House Press) about dissociative identity disorder (DID), I was highly curious about this new movie.

Curious, to be sure, but skeptical. “Split,” after all, is a thriller and the previews made it look creepy indeed. Was this going to be another uninformed, sensationalized, inaccurate portrayal of mental illness and people who live with it? Seeking an unbiased impression of what this movie was up to, I went in with an open mind, a notebook and a pen. I emerged with mixed feelings. Split between pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed.

A Pleasant Surprise: “Split” Got Some Things Right

“Split,” for the most part, wasn’t overly sensationalized. For much of the movie, “Split” portrayed a man with DID as an actual person. Or more accurately, as actual people. We find out fairly late in the movie the original identity is Kevin and that Kevin has 23 alternate parts. “Split” treats these alters as it should: separate identities in their own right, each with different traits and personalities.

The alters, collectively called a system (a term the movie correctly uses), see a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Fletcher who explains, “The brain has learned to adapt to the trauma.” This is exactly what happens in DID. A child experiences severe trauma — usually in the form of abuse — and to handle it, the psyche splits, shatters, into alternate parts.

In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” Dr. Charlie, Isaac’s psychiatrist, uses a starfish analogy to explain DID to Isaac and his wife.

“It [the separation into alternate parts] happened because the one, whole starfish couldn’t withstand the severity of the abuse. It was either fragment into different entities or be completely destroyed. To survive, the starfish fragmented. Little Isaac’s mind was shattered for self-preservation.”

“Split” does a refreshingly good job of showing dissociative identity disorder isn’t behavior fabricated for attention, nor is it a weakness. It’s the brain’s survival instinct rising up to meet a terrible challenge. “Split” was spot-on in other ways. Through Dr. Fletcher and Kevin’s alters, “Split” lets us know:

  • Different alters can and do have different traits (right or left handedness, IQ, strengths, need for glasses, medical issues and more.)
  • Someone with DID can function well in life (Kevin’s system has held a job for 10 years, sees a therapist, prepares food, etc.)
  • Alters have a disconcerting sense of lost time that happens when a different alter is “in the light” (a correct expression used in the movie).
  • People with DID frequently use the terms “we” or “us” rather than “I” or “me”
  • Brain scans show significant differences between the identities; the scans are unique for each alter.
  • Protection is an important concept (alters Dennis and Patricia believe they’re the only ones who can protect Kevin while in reality, all of the alters serve the function of protecting the primary identity, each in different ways).
  • DID systems have a structure, a place for the alters to be and live when they’re not out in the world (in “Split” it’s very simple, just a room with a chair for each alter, but in reality, the structure is often more complex. In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” the structure is an elaborate blanket fort.

Another surprise is the movie’s subtle acknowledgement of the stigma people living with DID face. Dr. Fletcher’s friend, for example, refers to clients as “those people” and she doesn’t see how Dr. Fletcher can stand to work with them. I was pleased with Dr. Fletcher’s positive response. She countered the “those people” remark and talked about the alters having strengths and other legitimate characteristics. It’s also refreshing Dr. Fletcher doesn’t automatically assume her system of clients is involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of three local teenage girls. She doesn’t equate such an incident with the behavior of someone with DID. Good for her. However, this segues into the less palatable aspect of the film…

Unpleasant Expectations: “Split” is a Thriller

As accurate as some of the movie’s conceptualizations of DID are, this movie is a thriller. Thrillers must scare. They must be real enough to invade our psyche and put us on edge. “Split” is real enough. The bad guy is a real person with a real disorder portrayed, for the most part, in a realistic way. For full fright effect, a thriller must go beyond the real into that which is unthinkable outside of the movie theater. “Split” achieves the real and the unthinkably unreal.

The movie splits from accurate reality when it veers from what DID is to what it isn’t: supernatural. The good news: the kidnapped teenage girls aren’t tormented by the person who is a system of alters. The bad news: the alters are actually elements of a horrible, nasty, scary beast who wants to get them all.

Here’s a counter to the eye-roll, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me elements. Contrary to what we see in “Split”:

  • The person with DID is not a monster, nor does he or she host a monster inside.
  • The Incredible Hulk stuff like super-human size, strength and speed really is just the stuff of movies and comic books.
  • DID isn’t in the realm of the supernatural.
  • People with DID can’t scale walls like salamanders.

Does “Split” Perpetuate Stigma?

I am very curious to learn how others are answering this question. Any movie, show, commercial, book or greeting card that doesn’t get something right is perpetuating misunderstanding, which in turn decreases empathy. That’s stigma.

Therefore, “Split” contributes to the perpetuation of stigma against DID. Kind of. The morphing into the beast is so incredibly and ridiculously unrealistic I wonder if it’s even possible to really increase the stigma against DID. So many aspects of the disorder are portrayed correctly and well and favorably. This movie is a thriller and is meant to thrill and frighten. Since DID isn’t frightening, the movie had to create a monster.

The movie’s end shows us what is dangerous in the real world. A TV news reporter stands at the scene giving a sensationalized, uninformed account of what had occurred, and she blatantly suggested “pure evil.” This is maddening. However, as I think about it, I realize the reporter kept the focus on the supernatural. She didn’t blame mental illness in general or DID in particular. People expect news to be trustworthy. Hopefully we don’t expect movies like thrillers to be fully trustworthy.

I went into “Split” unsure. I don’t love the fact mental illness is used as the basis of a thriller. However, seeing the movie rather than just the trailers left me pleasantly surprised. DID is a disorder that arises as a survival mechanism out of horrendous abuse in childhood. DID is about survival, not destruction. As Dr. Charlie continues to explain to Isaac and his wife Reese in “Twenty-Four Shadows,”

“Just like with an actual starfish, the pieces live. And they grow. And they regenerate—form new identities. But they are still physically part of the original starfish, the ore of the being, the part that’s also a fighter and a survivor.”

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Image via the “Split” Facebook page


6 Things Dissociative Identity Disorder Is (and Why 'Split' Gets It Wrong)

I saw the preview for “Split” blowing up my newsfeed. Friends, colleagues and people who hold esteemed positions in my life raved about how good it was going to be. My curiosity piqued and I clicked to see what it was about. I immediately knew I had made a mistake. I felt like I was sitting in a fishbowl watching some horrible depiction of everyone’s worst fears about psychiatric issues, especially dissociative identity disorder (DID). As someone living with dissociative identity disorder who has attended two DID conferences, I can assure you no one was kidnapping anyone and forcing them to live in some alternate version of reality. I could sit here all day and tell you what DID is not. But instead, let me tell you what DID is.

1. DID stems from trauma.

Typically chronic and horrific child abuse, though there can be other causes as well. Children have great imaginations. My therapist always says, “It takes a truly brilliant child to create an alternate identity to hold the abuse so the original child can continue living and surviving.” If you are being subjected to daily torture as a child, you will do whatever it takes to survive. Children have limited coping skills. Their greatest asset? Imagination. So if 3-year-old “Sally” is being abused daily by her grandpa, but has been threatened if she tells bad things will happen, Sally may push the trauma into a separate part of her mind and call it “Jane.” Now, every time Grandpa comes to hurt Sally, the door to “Jane” is opened. Jane takes the trauma and then once it’s over, Sally comes back and continues to survive, not thinking about or feeling the trauma that just happened.

2. Certain events may trigger someone with DID and cause a personality to pop out.

People with DID survived by being able to blend into any situation and not make a fuss. In general, you will never know someone with DID is switching personalities. I can count on one hand the number of people who know my diagnosis. I work with the public every day. I am involved in the community I live in. Yes, I have dissociated after being triggered. No one noticed, except those who knew what to look for to help me get grounded back to the present. I am not a threat to society. The only person I’m a threat to is myself.

3. Part of being in therapy is learning to set boundaries within yourself, to prevent dissociation in inappropriate places.

Most DID systems have something like a protector or mom figure. In my system, I have a part who mimics me almost perfectly, but does not feel any of the trauma we have endured. She can keep others in their “rooms” and get us to a safe place to deal with whatever is triggering us.

4. People with DID can merge and become one again.

It is a long, lengthy process. It takes years and a wonderful support system but it can and does happen.

5. Everyone dissociates.

Dissociation is the root of DID. Imagine driving a familiar route, say on your way home from work. You leave the parking lot, merge into the highway and then the next thing you know, you’re getting off on your exit with no recollection of the drive? That’s dissociation. Have you ever been in a wreck and remember only bits and pieces? Have you ever read the same page of the book three times because you keep “zoning out?” Dissociation. It does not make you a monster, anymore than it makes me a monster.

6. We work hard at blending in.

I’ve met people with DID who are doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, stay-at-home parents, fast food workers, retail workers, therapists. We exist and function as members of society. We work hard at healing. We are successful, productive humans as well.

I believe in having fun. I love a good movie, just like anyone else. Please, if you do watch “Split,” remember it is Hollywood’s version of DID. Can someone with DID murder? Yes. Can someone without DID murder? Yes. But DID is not the thing that makes someone a murderer, kidnapper, rapist or bad person. DID is a survival skill. Just like there are more fatal car crashes than plane crashes each year, it’s that one plane crash that gets the media attention because it’s so rare. The same principle applies here and this is the Hollywood version of a very real problem many people live with every day.

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Image from Split Movie Facebook.

We With Dissociative Identity Disorder: Two Minds, One Body

Normally when writing, “I” is used because only one person is speaking. For those who live as multiple, this is not always the case.

We have decided to write something together in the hope it will help others to have insight into what it is like to socialize, have relationships and fall in love when being multiple — or having dissociative identity disorder (DID).

We weren’t always multiple. We are 24 years old now. For six years Luci has been around, but Beth couldn’t admit it or acknowledge her. Beth locked her away, tried to kill her, ignore her, pretend she wasn’t there and silence her.

We were triggered by someone with a knife almost nine months ago. The sheer panic meant Beth could not keep Luci locked up any longer.

Since then, we have had many approach us — privately and in public — asking if we are doing OK. They say things like:

“You don’t seem like yourself.”

“You seem off.”

“You used to be so bubbly, what happened?”

These questions are meant well and we know this, yet we never know how to respond. On one end, “I” am acting far less extroverted than “I” used to. “I” seems more touchy and needs more quiet physical attention from loved ones at social events.

We understand how this could look like something is wrong with us. After all, Beth used to bounce around parties before Luci came into her conscious thought. Beth is a fully fledged extrovert, Luci is an introvert. Sometimes, Beth still bounces. Sometimes, Luci needs to retreat back into the parts where she cannot be seen or heard and Beth is able to resume her flitting and flirting. Friends see this and say:

“I’m glad to see you doing better.”

However, we wince at that. Does better mean without Luci? Does better mean when Beth has all the say?

Is one of us better than the other?

When we disagree on something, it’s not a simple matter of valuing pros and cons like it used to be. Now, there are two sets of pros and cons to weigh against each other.

Normally, between us, Beth can make most of the decisions. Luci doesn’t care much about day to day activities. Luckily for us, this meant transitioning from being single to multiple did not have much impact on Beth’s professional life.

When out socializing, however, things get complicated. Some people who Beth is happy to talk with make Luci uncomfortable. Some people Beth wants to kiss, Luci wants to rip into pieces, slap and kick. Some people Beth loves, Luci despises. We do not want to violate each other’s consent, but how can Beth be with someone and not leave Luci feeling violated?

The answer is, she can’t.

We are more limited in what our body can do now if we want to respect each other’s desires. This makes forming romantic relationships quite complicated.

People who used to expect a kiss now receive awkward body language and a somewhat regretful peck. People Beth used to hug deeply now get one armed squeezes while we look for the nearest person we can flee to. Beth is not good at telling people she likes “no” and thus has difficulty stating the fact, “Luci doesn’t like you, so I can’t kiss you right now.”

The people we are both happy to be with, thus, end up being clung to when Luci is close to the surface. Beth does most of the talking and presentation while Luci watches, comments and learns. If Luci does not like the conversation, she edges Beth to leave it, to find something more to our tastes than hers. If Luci is enjoying the person, she begins to want to do the talking for a bit. However, switching who is controlling our body mid-conversation is awkward so we look for our next way out. No matter what our feelings are, we end up wanting to return to our partners and familiar people because dissociation requires so much constant explaining to everyone we meet.

This is because Beth is not better than Luci. She is not more important than Luci.

The fact she was born into this body as singular, while Luci was made multiple, does not make Beth’s wants and needs more valid.

No one sees this internal conversation, however. They don’t understand or know enough to realize we are unable to carry a conversation with them because we’re having one of our own. They see “me” being anxious. They think they have done something to offend and they either cease trying to be my friend or they redouble their efforts to find out what is “wrong.”

Is Luci “wrong?”

We are working to figure it out. Our loved ones are aware of this and are prepared to be with both of us in the event of dissociation. We are aware this is not exactly a fair thing to ask of anyone. However, our reality cannot be changed.

Even before Luci had been given any sort of right to direct our body’s decisions, people were questioning us. We began to hear people commenting,

“Your life sounds like a movie/reality show/documentary” or “Someone should make a movie/reality show/documentary about you.”

We don’t know how to feel about this. On one hand, it’s flattering people are so interested. We’ve been open because Beth wants support and Luci wants acknowledgment. On the other hand, we’re not all that special. We are not the only multiples in the world, not even in our community. We’re more vocal about it and more visible than most, but the aggrandized commentary on our life feels as though it mitigates the fact we are just people. We are two people, but people nonetheless.

It feels isolating, as though our life is something so unique it requires education to relate to or that it is so bizarre it is entertaining.

Online, we are asked how we can consent to sex or relationships at all. How can we be trusted? Why would anyone want this kind of reality in their relationship?

We don’t know.

Despite this, our closest friends have been open and wanted to be with both of us. We are not used to this because of the above responses we have been hearing and receiving.

Luci is wrong.

Luci is bad.

Beth is better.

Beth is more desirable.

And yet, these people tell us otherwise, which is unfamiliar.

We are learning, slowly, to play off each other instead of against each other. Beth is more able to let Luci have control.

This gives us hope. We are not be able to have as many causal relationships as we used to. Parties can be more exhausting. Meeting people is more intimidating, but we now have proof we can do this. Even if the relationships we currently have come to an end, there are people who can love us.

And through the anxiety and the internal debate, Beth will try to correct those who say she seems off, or better, or worse, or weaker, or whatever opinion they have of us.

Because she is the one who will most often speak to them, she will try to say:

“We are who we are. We are different, but we aren’t worse off for it.”

And we will go to the people who already love us for comfort in the meantime. We will hope others will learn to accept and respect us as well.  

While we work and we wait we will remember there is no “I” anymore. Only “we.”

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When You Get Diagnosed With the Condition You Hoped You Didn't Have

I’ve known for a while now I needed to be real about my dissociative identity disorder (DID) diagnosis. I’ve been avoiding writing about it for months. I keep wishing I could ignore it and make it go away. But it’s time for me to deal with reality, and if I have to do that, I would rather do it here where maybe my reality will help someone else work with their own reality.

Nine years ago, when I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I was excited. I finally had a diagnosis to fit my symptoms. It explained why I reacted to things the way I did. There is a certain power and comfort that comes from naming your problem. Naming implies something is real, definable and there is a way forward. I was excited to have a name for what I was dealing with because it meant I had a path forward — albeit a difficult one — and I was no longer alone. Enough other people deal with this that it has a name, I thought. There’s comfort and community in this.

Over the course of this summer, there were different symptoms, different problems, different names. And finally, there was a new diagnosis. This time, there was no rejoicing, no feeling of comfort or power or community in naming the problem. Instead, there was a thought. Anything but this. This new diagnosis is the one thing I’ve pointed to over the last nine years and said, “At least I don’t have that.” But I do. I am I have dissociative identity disorder (DID).

There are many challenging facets to being newly diagnosed with DID. While it is included in the DSM, there are a significant number of healthcare professionals who do not consider DID a valid diagnosis. There is a great deal of specific stigma, courtesy of Hollywood’s portrayal of people with DID. It is difficult to find accessible, reputable information about DID. Personal accounts abound, but very few of them speak to what it’s like to be newly diagnosed. There can be — and is, in my case — the challenge of having a therapist you love and trust who has no real experience working with DID. This is complicated by the fact my alters refuse to speak with my therapist. There is the challenge of trying to explain things you don’t understand to the people who love you, people who say things like, “You need to talk to us. You have the inside information here.” I want to scream, “I don’t! I don’t have any more information than you do! I’m scared and confused too!”

Here’s what makes DID so scary to me. I hear the name of the diagnosis and think, I’m about as introverted as a person can be and I never get to be alone again. I have all these alternate personalities who feel like complete other people living inside my head with me. And I’m supposed to get to know them, be kind to them and even parent the younger ones. I didn’t get to parent my own children because they died, but now I have to parent these children who live in my head? I can’t! I want out! I’m afraid I’ll switch personalities at work, where I’m responsible for the safety, education and general well being of many children. Already, acknowledging alters has led to more flashbacks, body memories, panic attacks and hypervigilance than I’ve had in years. I feel like I’ve lost about four years of progress.

The thing is, though, even as I’m caught up in the pain and grief and increased trauma symptoms that come with the DID diagnosis, even as I yell I want to give up and lay down and die, I keep fighting for healing, too. I’ve known for a long time the way out of this mess is to go through it. There was never going to be an easy fix, a magic pill, a way to get better and be “normal” without remembering the trauma and processing the memories and learning I deserve to be loved and cared for. That hasn’t changed. So I’m further from being well than I thought. So what? It just means I get to keep working. And maybe someday, I’ll meet someone who is newly diagnosed, who has spent years saying, “At least I don’t have that,” and I’ll get to show him or her it is possible to move through the trauma and learn to function in a unified way and lead a (relatively) normal life. And maybe this will be worth all the pain and trouble I’m experiencing now.

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Promotional image for "Split" featuring two men with pained expressions looking forward.

More Than 20,000 People Are Boycotting 'Split' for the Way It Portrays Mental Illness

M. Night Shyamalan’s new horror film “Split” comes out in theaters today, but more than 20,000 people won’t be seeing it, saying the film’s portrayal of mental illness and gender identity are offensive.

petition posted on Care 2, which has been signed by more than 20,000 people, asks petitioners to boycott the movie for the way it characterizes dissociative identity disorder and promotes transphobia.

In the film, James McAvoy plays a man with 24 different “split” personalities, who kidnaps girls and tortures them. During the film, McAvoy’s character also dresses up in women’s clothes.

“As both an advocate for the LGBTQ community and someone whose life has been profoundly impacted by mental illness in those close to me, I find this film and it’s subject matter impossible to support,” Sarah Rose, the petition’s author, writes. “This entire film is problematic in it’s narrative. At a time when so much attention is being paid to mental illness and gender identity, we’ve reduced both conversations to a horror movie trope.”

We want to know what you think. Is this movie scary or just insensitive? 

Related: How the New M. Night Shyamalan Movie Hurts People With Dissociative Identity Disorder

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What It's Like Traveling With Dissociative Identity Disorder

Sometimes, I find myself looking at a photograph, and struggling not just to recognize its content, but to know why I have it. It isn’t that I pick up random images… I’m talking about pictures I obviously took, but have no memory of taking.

It isn’t so so much that my conditions can affect how I travel: it is something that affects every aspect of my life, day to day. But traveling, and specifically, flying, brings its own challenges. Already I have found it has manifested during a couple of trips, and while that concerns me a little, it also made me think a little more about my reluctance to explain it to other people. Maybe if I told the airline when I booked my flights, or the flight attendants once I was aboard, I would be less worried about something happening. But again, there’s the embarrassment, uncertainty and awareness of the stigma that people attach to conditions like mine, which are usually described as mental health problems.  

Two trips ago, while waiting to clear passport control at the airport where I was due to catch my connecting flight, I was called aside to be interviewed by a customs/passport officer. I was absolutely terrified I was going to be sent home, and had no idea what I might have done to warrant it. I was talked to initially about my reasons for making the trip, and once I explained, was asked the usual questions about why I was staying for the length of time I was and about my means of supporting myself. I was unhesitatingly and completely honest and open, explaining with some embarrassment that I am, at the moment, unable to work, but have an income from benefits, and that I save that money to enable me to travel, and visit my American boyfriend.

That led to questions about the nature of my disabilities… and while it was easy for me to explain the physical condition I have, it was far, far harder to describe and explain “the other one.” I ended up explaining that I have dissociative identity disorder (DID), a relatively rare and complex condition that can cause my behavior to change, affect memory and concentration, and cause severe anxiety and confusion. I don’t tell people my exact diagnosis because there are so many preconceptions and myths about the condition, but in those circumstances, I felt I had no choice but to be completely open.

The first question I was asked was whether I had ever been a danger to anyone because of it.

Until you have been asked something like that, not just by someone you know and trusted enough to divulge so difficult a secret to, but a uniformed stranger with the power to deny you entry into their country, it is difficult to understand the depth of humiliation, pain and hurt the question can cause. I have lived with this for as long as I can remember… (and I can remember stuff that happened to me when I was less than 2 years old) and no one around me has had the slightest idea there was anything different about me. No, I’m not a danger to anyone. No, I don’t fly into uncontrolled rages or have sudden, uncontrolled verbal outbursts. I may, occasionally, sound a little different, look a little different, seem unduly confused and have memory lapses. There are occasions when my behavior may seem a little peculiar to people who don’t know me, and I am well aware there have been times when I have been overheard saying things that have seemed strange and more than a little eccentric. On my first long-haul flight, the attendant was most amused at finding me, at one point, all but bouncing in my seat with the excitement of finding myself able to look out of the window and see the tiny world passing by beneath us through the clouds. She was therefore a little bemused when, 10 minutes later, she returned with the trolley, distributing drinks and found me immersed in a book, completely uninterested in the joys of flight…

Yes: I was honest, open and I was able to alleviate any concerns the officer may have had about my situation… but I was in tears as I walked away from the desk and headed for the gate where my flight was, at that point, in the final stages of boarding. Despite knowing it wasn’t the case, I was left with a dull feeling of being, somehow, found to be “less”… less welcome? Less deserving? I wasn’t sure, but I boarded that plane and spent the flight in silence, unable to look anyone in the eye and feeling for some reason I ought to be looking for someone to apologize to.

I am not the most confident person in the world generally, and if I feel I have somehow messed up, it destroys what little faith I do have in myself. But to be looked at with what I perceived to be doubt and suspicion by another person simply because my brain does not work the same way that theirs does and they don’t understand that difference — I can’t really describe that feeling, except to say that it left me withdrawn, unwilling to risk accidentally communicating my difference to other strangers and terrified that my secret would be discovered.

The only thing that scares me about traveling is the thing I carry with me.

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