The Importance of Communication Within Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Practical Guide


Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is probably something you’re at least a little familiar with if you’re reading this article. I won’t go into the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V. Instead, I would like to share with you what those symptoms look like for us as individuals, and how open and honest communication with each other has helped us to function in the world. I’ll also end with a few tips we’ve found helpful from experience. You may notice that I am using the words “we” and “us.” By that, I mean our “system” or the collection of vastly different and interesting people living inside of this body. Our experiences may be very different from others, but I hope this will be helpful to someone. You are not alone. There is hope. You were strong enough to survive, and you are strong enough to keep going. You don’t have to integrate if you’re comfortable living multiple, but you do deserve a happy, safe life.

The symptoms and struggles (not an exhaustive list):

1. Lost time.

Before we underwent therapy and before the “walls” came down, allowing us to be more aware of each other, we would lose chunks of time ranging from minutes to years. Even now, some of us remember events that others do not. I have very little recollection of my childhood, but through conversation, I know others remember far too much of that time in our lives.

2. Alteration in identity.

Now, here is a tricky subject. Back when one of us thought they were the only person in this body, they were able to retain some level of awareness during a dissociative episode and were able to say when they were in X-mode or Y-mode or Z-mode (X, Y and Z here being used as stand-ins for particular personalities). They would find themselves eating different food than they preferred last week, or wearing different clothes. Alternatively, they would find they’d donated and replaced their entire wardrobe, or that they were more passionate about certain things.

3. Alteration in relationships with others.

Along with the “switching” in identity would come changes in preference for particular people. We would suddenly avoid people we were close friends with the week, the day, the hour before. We would find ourselves in conversations with people we didn’t know. We would be shy when the day before we were outgoing.

4. Not knowing our age.

Logically, we knew our biological age by doing some simple math. If someone asked us to answer rapidly what our age was, though, we would be hard-pressed on occasion. We have different ages, and only a few match the biological age of our body.

5. Gender identity.

We are mostly males, but there are several females in our system and one gender-fluid individual. Before we understood our separateness and could name it, it was experienced largely as: “Sometimes I feel like a boy, and sometimes I feel like a girl.”

6. Changing handwriting.

This is fairly self-explanatory. We used to get frustrated with our school notes because the handwriting would be different from page to page or even in the middle of a paragraph.

7. Clothes and accessories.

Possibly the most outwardly noticeable symptom. We would feel like wearing different clothes depending on who was “driving.” We experienced this as, “why do I own this miniskirt? I wouldn’t be caught dead in it!” “Where did all of my clothes go?” “Why do I still have all of my old clothes from high school?”

How communication helped us mitigate the distress that would accompany these symptoms:

1. Having a name.

I cannot stress enough how important it has been for us all to have our own names. When a new person emerges in our system and doesn’t have a “box” to put themselves in, they can feel diffuse, fuzzy, uncertain of themselves and the world. Having a name is like solidifying ourselves and helping us to be more present. I am Evander. I enjoy plants, the taste of mint, meditation and I can speak a bit of Welsh. Justice is much more assertive than I am, and he enjoys video games. Before Serick had his own name, he felt adrift. Imagine suddenly not knowing who you are; it’s a frightening and disconcerting experience. We like to be called by our names when conversing with people we trust.

2. Mental notes (and physical ones).

Our husband has been amazing with helping us to keep track of who is driving when. We have set up a chat room where each of us has our own name and color, and we can leave messages for each other or just talk. We leave mental notes or physical post-it notes for each other to remind us to go to appointments or to eat breakfast. When more than one of us is present in our mind at the same time, being able to type out our thoughts helps whoever is driving avoid being overwhelmed by all the “made-thoughts” and helps those in the passenger seat to be heard.

3. Building relationships with each other.

If you put a dozen people in a room, some people are going to like each other more than others. This is certainly the case with us; some of us simply have incompatible personalities. That being said, we have been encouraged by our husband to be kind to one another and to work out our differences in a healthy way. We also build helping and supportive relationships. We comfort each other and encourage each other. For example, if I am overwhelmed with work, Justice will tell me to stop being an idiot and to enforce my boundaries (idiot is almost a term of endearment with him, really). If I feel like self-harming, another person will talk me down and/or take over for me before I can do us harm.

4. Organization.

By being more aware of each other and each other’s belongings, we are able to organize. We have our clothes organized by person (some of us share). If we find clothes and don’t know whose they are, they go in a box instead of being donated, just in case the owner appears. One of us is an artist, and he has all of his paints on a particular shelf and his paintings are hung on a wall. One of us plays the guitar. We almost sold his guitar, since we thought no-one played it. Now we know that it’s his, we know not to get rid of it.

5. Working with our strengths and limitations.

Like any other unique individuals, we have strengths and limitations. I am a scientist, and so I handle things related to science. That being said, I do not prevent anyone from “watching” what I’m doing or just being present. Only Justice can cook eggs (and he also gets stuck with the laundry more often than not). August is uncomfortable in social situations, so someone more sociable usually does those. What began as a way for our mind to cope with trauma has turned into a way for us to efficiently manage life. As long as this switching and dividing of tasks doesn’t hurt us, and we are respectful of each other’s boundaries and needs, it works very well. In fact, combined, our interests and expertise make us a very well-rounded team.

6. Being clear about sex.

Some of us are very enthusiastic regarding sex, others are asexual, and our particular styles in that regard are very different. We communicate about this and try not to do anything that others would be uncomfortable with while they’re around, and we all agree about safe and healthy behavior.

7. Honoring differences.

We are all different people, and by getting to know each other and communicating, we are able to be respectful and compassionate with each other. One of us is superstitious, and he keeps three lucky dimes on our dresser. Without knowing how important they are to him, some of us might have moved them. We haven’t. One of us likes to sleep with a teddy bear, and so we make sure to have the bear nearby. One of us is repulsed by sex, and so we make sure he’s warned and away before engaging in any sexual behavior.

We have had many struggles, and many difficulties I haven’t even begun to touch on. One thing we have found, though, is that we can work as a team to overcome them. We’re still learning how to do this, and we still argue as much as any group of vastly different and damaged roommates might. I’d like to conclude with a few tips to all of the wonderful systems out there:

1. If someone is driving (in control of the body), let them have their way as long as they aren’t being unsafe. You’ll have your turn later. No one likes feeling like they’re being controlled or pushed aside.

2. Talk to your mind-mates in a supportive way, and be encouraging. This doesn’t always mean taking over for someone. This can also mean helping them challenge themselves and grow in a safe, supportive environment, knowing you will be there to help if they need you.

3. Protect your damaged mind-mates. If someone is triggered, get help. If someone is afraid, respect that and remove yourself from the situation so that you can get help or be helpful. If you feel like harming the body, be open to safety planning. If a little one is driving, have an adult (in your mind or in the physical world) around to make sure they are supervised.

4. Don’t throw away other people’s belongings. If you aren’t sure, put it in a box.

5. Respect gender diversity. If transitioning is an option for you, and you can all agree on it or at least discuss it, consider it in collaboration with a doctor and/or mental health professional. Allow people to present as the gender they identify as regardless.

6. Be kind to the people in everyone’s lives. You may feel protective of yourself and your mind-mates, but they might not appreciate you yelling at the people who are important to them. Take a break if you need to. Communicate with them about your concerns. Communicate with the person if it is safe to do so.

7. Build a coping toolbox for you to share. I ground myself with rocks, another of us plays video games, another of us paints, another of us does mindfulness meditation. Remember harm-reduction strategies like holding onto an ice cube. Reach out to resources and supports. Oh, and if one of you feels more comfortable when there are sets of three, or likes the fact there are seven items on every list, it won’t hurt to indulge him.

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