Why 'Split' Is Harmful to People With Dissociative Identity Disorder

I love me a good psychological thriller, so I was excited to watch the trailer for “Split,” a recently released movie about a man with dissociative identity disorder and his three young kidnapped victims. Generally, I’m not someone who takes things all that seriously. I can separate my drive for social justice and analytical thinking long enough to simply enjoy a movie or a bit of light-hearted banter. And I definitely don’t want to be “that person” who picks apart everything and has to take a moral stand all the time. I’ve lived as that person. It’s not fun and creates a lot of unproductive stress.

Before I continue, let me emphasize this is not a specific commentary on the movie itself. I’ve only seen the trailer. That said, as a therapist who works with many traumatized people, including many people with dissociative disorders, watching DID linked with psychopathic, violent, extremist behaviors irked me. I did a quick Google search and sure enough, the vast majority (nearly all, in fact) of movies including a character with DID was violent, included murder and portrayed the “alter personalities” to be sadistic, violent and angry. And always, the character’s “personalities” were hugely divergent, obvious and identifiable to the onlooker.

Here’s the first of the problems. When a different part of someone’s personality presents itself, it is generally so subtle even spouses often can’t identify when it happens. People with DID often go misdiagnosed for years because therapists miss the subtleties and nuances of dissociative parts. The differences are generally manifested not in clothing or major behavior changes, but more often in subtle mannerism changes, a softening or hardening of the voice or a changing look in the eyes.

If you’re reading closely, you’ve probably noticed I used the term “personalities” only in quotation and shifted the language to parts. Here’s the second of the problems. It is fairly outdated to truly understand these individuals as having differing “personalities.” In treatment, we use a language of parts in which one part represents a certain role and perspective of the person’s entire personality. But due to trauma, a part becomes psychologically separated and distinct from other parts. The mind compartmentalizes so the traumatized individual experiences only partial aspects of their traumatic experience at a time because seeing the whole would be too much to handle. When we view dissociation from this perspective, we can normalize it a bit. It becomes less scary and more reasonable.

And here’s the real problem with how the media portrays dissociative disorders. Dissociating and DID are amazingly powerful and complex coping strategies. The ability to compartmentalize and split off certain aspects of self and experiences is a strength and should be honored as such. DID allows people to function despite horrible abuses. DID allows people to succeed and make more helpful choices. Yes, there’s a place of working toward integration and increased mindfulness and presence in day-to-day life, but there’s also a place for wondering at the power and resourcefulness of their brains. Due to no fault of their own, sometimes people with DID and other dissociative disorders have been subjected to atrocities. Demonizing the coping skill that allowed them to survive only victimizes them further.

A significant portion of my time counseling people with dissociative disorders is spent normalizing and praising their resilience. I have sat in a small room with many dissociated people with many “protector parts” and never once have I felt as though I was about to be murdered. Never have I been fearful I’d be harmed or attacked. These are people who generally feel a lot of shame about their pasts, about their diagnoses and about themselves.

They are not crazy. They are not serial killers. They are survivors.

They are the people who needed us to stand up for them when they were younger. They are the people who need us to normalize and stand up for them now.

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Image via “Split” Movie Facebook

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