The Mighty Logo

Surviving Therapy for Dissociative Identity Disorder Was as Hard as the Trauma That Caused It

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

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.

I have often told people that surviving the treatment for dissociative identity disorder (DID) was as hard as surviving the trauma that caused it. I thought I’d write a piece explaining what I mean by this statement.

Somewhere in late 1989, when I was 29-years-old, I began to have memories of horrible events spontaneously emerge from my startled mind. In fact, I can remember the first one and how I felt. I had just gone to bed and reached over to turn off the light on my nightstand. When I lay back and closed my eyes, I saw the rape of a little girl. Terrified, I sat up and quickly switched the light back on. I sat on the side of my bed shaking and confused. Had it been a nightmare? It must have been, I resolved.

However, the sights and sounds of that rape did not go away with sleep or the coming of morning. Not only this, but I recognized the little girl from pictures I had of myself from that age. The memories didn’t stop there. I was having memories, accompanied by their connected emotions and sounds, coming into my mind without my having any control as to where or when they would occur. Truthfully, I thought I was losing my mind.

I became severely depressed, and decided to find out from a therapist if I was “insane.” The drug rehabilitation counselor I had been seeing because of my mother being an alcoholic, and I a true-blue codependent, made an appointment for me to see a psychologist.

Thus, I began the long, arduous trip I have taken down the road less taken.

I would love to tell you that my travels were easy and I got well quickly by taking the great advice that was given me by my therapist. However, that would be a lie.

The first three or four months of therapy were spent trying to hold myself together while I waited for my therapist to give me a diagnosis. I was very anxious to know if I was “insane,” and if so, how I could be treated. I had in conjured up in my mind scenes from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” Would I need to be sent to an institution? How could I ever face my family with the horrible truth I was clinically mentally unwell?

When Paula, my therapist, finally gave me the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (as dissociative identity disorder was then known), I felt extreme relief. She explained I was not “insane,” but that my mind had found a wonderful way to protect itself from childhood trauma. At that point, I had begun to realize that the little girl in the first memory and those I saw in other visions were, in fact, me at different ages. I knew I had experienced inappropriate sexual behavior from someone in my family whom I dearly loved, but the extent of that trauma eluded me.

After spending some hours at a nearby college library, I learned much about my disorder. The more I learned, the more I had explanations for so many things that had happened to me in childhood and adulthood. I have had people tell me, for my entire life, that I said or did things I cannot remember. There have been thousands of dollars appear and disappear from my checking account. So much, in fact, that for many years I did not have one but instead conducted all my business by cash or money order.

I thought I just had a horrible memory. That seems almost laughable now.

So much of the anomalies of my life were explained by my diagnosis. My family was not receptive to what I was told at all, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say, I went through the hell of therapy without any kind of family support.

One cannot understand the painful experience of owning a past you do not want, unless you have lived it. Many of you reading this know what I mean. Who in their right mind would want to admit to themselves that the people who were supposed to keep you safe and supply your needs betrayed you? That they were too interested in meeting their own needs to even care about yours? That they saw you as a nuisance at best and an opportunity to feed their perverse desires at worst?

No one. That’s who: no one.

However, I had to own what had happened to me because it was my past. There was no away around, under or over it. The way to get well was to walk through hell. There were several times this trek through the abyss almost cost me my life, but I managed to survive.

The most important part of my survival was having a therapist who believed I would get well. She never gave up hope, no matter what was going on or how badly I behaved. She always, always supported me. She allowed me to attach to her and see her as a mother figure, yet always reminding me that what I was experiencing was not real. She was not and could never be my mom. That hurt, but it was essential to me being able to eventually move on and be self-sufficient.

Paula and I worked together off and on for 27 years. Even when I wasn’t seeing her, the things she had said to me echoed in my mind and served to help me. She is retired now, and I wish her the very best.

Bottom line: surviving the treatment for dissociative identity disorder takes time, dedication and having a therapist who believes in you.

Now, let me give you some good news. Once you have walked through all the muck and shit that made up the shipwreck that was your childhood, you’ll emerge on the other side more powerful than anyone you have ever known or heard about. No one can break or harm you because, hey, you’ve already experienced 100 percent of your worst days.

You’ll understand deep down that no matter what others think, you are important and valuable. Your opinions and words count, and have the power to change the world, even if one life at a time.

Best of all, you’ll find a deep sense of pride and love for yourself. This is something many people will never feel. By embracing all the alters as yourself, and all the memories as your own, you gain a healthy respect for what you went through and who you have become.

Surviving the therapy to overcome the worst effects of DID is no joy ride, but the benefits far outweigh all the tears and trauma.

The following quote from “The Velveteen Rabbit” is given in memory of Barb York, my friend of 27 years who died from cancer. A fellow survivor, she tried to help me understand the following passage, but I could not then grasp its meaning.

Barb, if you can hear me, now I understand. Thank you, my friend.

“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

— Margery Williams Bianco, “The Velveteen Rabbit”

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo via Pexels

Originally published: January 31, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home