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What's Happening When Dissociative Identity Disorder Surfaces in an Adult

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Imagine a giant bucket designed only to hold raindrops that are deemed tainted, a danger if they enter the water supply or ground and absorbed by plants. Its a big bucket, and it does its job effectively for years. Eventually, it starts to fill up. There’s no plan on what to do once this bucket is full. No one thought this day would ever come, and when the bucket was initially built, it was an emergency situation. The rain was coming down strong, and if those dangerous rain drops weren’t caught and separated from the rest, the entire ecosystem would die. The last raindrop that the bucket will hold falls in, and the water starts to leak out, affecting everything around it. No one can stop it. The bucket is full. There is no back up plan.

This is very similar to dissociative identity disorder (DID). When you are experiencing trauma as a child, you don’t think about the future. The mental capacity isn’t there to think about the future. You don’t have sophisticated coping skills. You don’t have a long term plan. Your imagination kicks in and the deep recesses of your brain become like large buckets, absorbing the trauma you can’t handle and would prevent you from functioning in your daily life, which is so essential when you are going through repeated trauma. Those deep recesses assume new identities. They assume new names. They hold trauma, fear, specific purposes. They hold the things that aren’t safe for you to hold as a child – an emotion, such as anger, or all of the trauma related to a specific trauma, anything, that as a child you couldn’t handle. Sometimes the system becomes more sophisticated – creating protector parts, mothering parts, the possibilities are endless. No one’s DID looks the same.

For a while, those buckets keep absorbing trauma and memories. Eventually, something happens that causes one of those buckets to overflow, or tip over. It could be a trigger – for example, say Sally’s grandpa always listened to country music before hurting her, we will say Willie Nelson specifically. One day, when Sally is 25 years old, she is walking through the mall, and Willie Nelson is playing from a county-western store. Suddenly, she’s no longer 25… the part of Sally that was created when she was 3 comes forward, expecting a trauma. This is the triggering event that tips the 3 year old’s bucket over. There’s no more room for any more memories in that bucket. Sally is at a safe place in her life, and her mind is finally going to let her address and work on these traumas.

Generally, at this point, during the initial triggering event that reopens the childhood trauma after the person with DID is an adult, they might not realize what happening. Maybe they’re losing time, finding strange childlike drawings, sometimes find themselves dressed in clothes they would never wear, or somewhere they don’t remember going, but aside from the awareness that “something” is wrong, they are clueless. Generally, they seek help in different forms, and go through years of therapy with multiple wrong diagnoses before finally achieving the correct diagnosis. Even at the point, the person with DID might not want to accept it.

For me personally, I went to therapy two to three times a week for over a year, almost one and a half years before we ever landed on the correct diagnosis. Before that I had been to four different therapists as a child/adolescent. Even now, four years into therapy (twice a week minimum) and daily contact with my therapist, I still have days where I try to deny my diagnosis and symptoms. I have begged my therapist to diagnose and treat me for false memory syndrome instead. Denial takes its toll.

After acceptance finally happens, it’s time to get to know the personalities, work on coping skills, learn how to self-soothe, eventually work on memories, recognize triggers and work towards merging if that’s your end goal. It doesn’t go in any sort of linear order. It would be nice if it did.

Sometimes it’s five steps forward and 10 steps back. It takes hard work. A good support system is essential. A good therapist is essential. But the thing to remember is that every day you wake up, live your life, go to therapy — the good days, the bad days, the day you want to die, the days you don’t remember, the days it doesn’t seem like you even have DID — in the grand scheme of things you are healing. You are moving forward even when it feels like you’ve been knocked back to square one, or even to square -473. It takes strength and resilience to work through trauma. It takes courage to keep breathing when it feels like everything is falling down around you. One day you will wake up and realize you have had more good days than bad days over the past week. It’s a messy, scary, bittersweet, sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, ride – but it’s your ride. It’s OK to feel. It’s OK to have bad days. And most importantly, it’s OK to heal.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via zemaciel

Originally published: March 1, 2017
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