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Rethinking the Terminology of Dissociative Identity Disorder

My name is Rex. I am one of (currently) 15 people living within a body which has dissociative identity disorder (DID). I am also the person out of those 15 who is most interested in psychology and its associated disciplines. Today, I would like to invite readers to take a closer look at the terms which are widely accepted within medical and academic discussions about DID.

I have found, for the most part, that the terminology used for various ideas common to a discussion about DID to be dehumanizing, and here I shall take the time to explain why these terms might cause a negative reaction, as well as some replacement terms that I and others in my life use instead.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some terms:

One of the terms that is used for any case of DID is system. Traditionally, this is a way of grouping together all of the identities living inside one body. It is certainly less of a hassle to say than group of people linked to one body by dissociative identity disorder, but it is also certainly not the best way to convey the idea. By using the term system, the implication is present that each member of that “system” is only one part of a whole. Much like a computer, the members of the “system” would seem to be small files or commands that contribute to the overall functioning of the whole, but which are incapable of running the computer on their own. The same can be said for any other term which uses the word “system”: the digestive system is made up of organs, all of which are only a part of the process and cannot do the entire job on their own; the justice system is made up of multiple levels of courts, along with various professions needed to keep the operation running.

Certain members of the DID community (myself included) feel that the use of the word system tends to downplay the abilities and the importance of the people within. It makes those within a”‘system” feel less like full people with complex, nuanced personalities, with beliefs and morals and preferences, and more like they have been reduced to simply their functions. It’s a disheartening feeling for any who have experienced it.

Instead of system, I recommend using the word team. I have used this for myself and the others from the very beginning. Unlike a system, a team is a group made up of various individuals with different capabilities which all contribute towards a common goal yet are able to perform well on their own as well. For example, a hockey team is made up of several hockey players. Looking at any of these players individually, one would conclude that they are all good at hockey, though their strengths lie in different areas of the game. Working together, they become even better at hockey. In cases of DID, the game of hockey is life, and the presence of people on the team with different skill-sets only helps to advance towards bettering that life.

Another term that is present in each and every case is the word alter. Sometimes substituted with part, an alter is one of the distinctive identities living on a team. I’ll discuss both here.

Part causes the same problems that system does, in that it implies that each person is only one “part” of the whole and is reduced to only a few basic functions. Alter is hardly more complicated. For something to be “alternate,” it must be essentially a different option for the same thing. For instance, you might be craving Italian food and look up three different restaurants which serve it. When you suggest the idea to the person you invite, you might say, “I’d like to go to [Restaurant A], but [Restaurant B] and [Restaurant C] are good alternatives.” As a verb, the word “alter” means to change slightly, while still retaining its original form and function — for example, altering a pair of pants to fit your legs.

Neither of these connotations works well with human beings. “Alters” are more than just the “original personality” slightly changed. They (we) are separate, functioning people, often widely different in most, if not all, regards; in essence, no different from a set of people with separate bodies. “Alters” are also not just a different option for the same person — again being completely separate people. In my experience, it can make people feel overlooked and angry to be referred to as alters, erasing their very real personalities in favor of simply how they differ from the “main personality.”

If a better term for system is team, it stands to reason that alters would become team members. I do use this, but I also use team-mates and head-mates. I find the term head-mates to be most useful in discussions with people outside the DID community, as it leaves no doubt as to whom I am referring, but in discussing the subject broadly, team member is the most effective.

You will notice that I used the term original personality when discussing team members. This is not the official term, but often comes up when referring to the person whose name is known to friends and family members, and who other team members may feel pressured to impersonate or hide behind on a daily basis. Along with original personality, the terms main personality and host are also used.

The terms original personality and main personality present similar problems in that they may not be entirely accurate. An “original personality” seems to imply the personality that a team was born with, before the DID occurred. However, childhood trauma is the leading cause of DID, and the child who was subjected to the trauma may not be the one who is the “original personality.” My husband, who is also part of a DID team, has a small child team member. This child underwent significant trauma during the team’s childhood, but did not continue as the person whom the world recognizes. In fact, he was uncovered after several other team members who actually came to be after he did. In terms of who controlled the body chronologically first, it would be this child, but that does not make him the “original personality” in the connotation it is used in discussion.

“Main personality” implies that the person referenced is the one who is controlling the body most often. Sometimes, this is true, with other team members only taking control during times of great need or simply speaking to the “main personality” inside their shared head. Other times, team members become the one controlling the body most often as their situation sees fit. If the life the team is living is most easily reconciled with a particular team member, that person will likely be the one to guide the team through the time spent living in that situation.

I do actually agree with the word host, though it must be used with caution. On the one hand, it can refer to someone who has opened their home to others, treats them with respect and makes sure they are well cared-for. This works well, as it is often the host who is recognized by other people; thus, the host has opened their life, body and mind to their team-mates, treats them with the respect due to human beings and makes sure they are well cared for (in this case, feeling safe existing in the world and being able to express themselves through various activities or presentations). In a less gracious manner, host can also refer to an organism that has become inhabited by a virus, in which the smaller bodies of the virus contribute to inhibiting the host from prospering. In this case, the host does anything they can to rid themselves of the virus. It is very important to be in the mentality of host, and not host.

Often, I have found, a word for the “person of whom most people know” is not entirely necessary except in introducing yourselves to new people, but it is good to have a term for it in any case. What is most important in using a term like this is to ensure that one member of your team is not treated or perceived as more important than the others. Thus, by using the word host, one conjures to mind a person who has the best interests of all the others at heart and is housing them, while being fair and caring to all. Admittedly, it is still not the ideal term, as the body belongs to all team members equally, but it is the most accurate way of describing the mental state of DID within the context of an outside observer.

Fronting is a term used to describe the team member who currently has executive control over the body. There is nothing particularly wrong with this term, although it does imply that all of the other team members are somewhere behind the person who is controlling the body. Often, this is not the case. Other team members could be dormant or simply off somewhere else. When this is the case, those people will find upon returning that they have a difficult time remembering what happened during that time.

A much more convenient term to use, I have found, is driving. That is, the body is a car, and the person controlling it is the driver. The term driving, and the car analogy, make discussions with members that are not in the DID community much easier for them to understand. The driver is aware of everything going on around the car and is taking the physical action of steering it. Someone in the would-be passenger seat is aware of everything going on, but takes no actions to control the body. Someone in the would-be back seat is close enough to be aware of things going on, but may be absorbed in doing their own thing entirely. They would still remember the road trip well. Someone in the trunk would know that the road trip had happened and have a vague sense of how long it took, or if there were any large bumps, but would not be able to provide details on it. And then, of course, some people aren’t in the car at all sometimes.

So, while there is nothing amiss about the term fronting, driving, I believe, is much more representative of the activities going on inside the head of a team.

Finally, there are terms for the jobs different people hold within the team. Some of these terms include persecutor, protector, caregiver or little. These can be good terms to describe trends in DID in general, but may not be applicable to every team. In this case, I simply want to advise those living with DID that it is not necessary to be one of the “categories” of people often seen in DID. The existence of these terms has, in my experience, led some team members to feel as though they aren’t really a person, since they don’t fit the description of any one of the “usual” roles. Some teams may also not have anyone who fits the role “usually” found in a case. No matter whether a team member fills a named role or not, they are still part of the team.

The only term I will contest is little, and I have to do it due to unfortunate circumstances. In recent years, the presence of Minor Attracted Persons (MAPs) or — as they are more conventionally known — pedophiles on the internet has grown. There are MAP communities on various social media sites, and whether engaging with a minor or with an adult pretending to be a minor, the person in this role is referred to as the “little.” I believe it is very important that children are kept out of these spaces. In the particular case of DID, sexual abuse in early childhood is often a factor in instigating it. Team members who are children will often be more susceptible to predatory behaviors from adults often due to their history of abuse. Even if they have not been abused, they are still children and should not be exposed to such extreme sexual content as the MAP community. Thus, if a child on a DID team wants a place on the internet, or their team members wish to discuss them with other members of the community, it is essential that they not be referred to as “littles,” as this will often bring teams into proximity with the MAP community. Not only will this cause confusion, but it may put children in harm’s way. The easiest and safest way to refer to a child team member is simply as a child or a kid.

The views I have expressed here are based only on a limited perception. I obviously cannot speak for all teams and people living with DID, but it is my belief that these terms are general enough that most people will find a use for them if they want to. There is no obligation for people to be offended at the terms currently in use the discussion of DID, nor do I consider them slurs in any way. I have simply presented these options to be available to people who, like the members of my team and my husband’s, believe that we could be better represented by the terminology used to discuss us.

Thank you for taking the time to read. Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions you might have.

Getty image via Benjavisa