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Who Am I? What 'Identity' Means in Dissociative Identity Disorder

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Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a controversial diagnosis, even today. It was previously known as multiple personality disorder.

What is personality? What is identity?

I ask myself these questions almost daily.

Personality, from what I recall from my undergraduate psychology classes, is an “enduring pattern of thoughts and beliefs.” Identity, from a quick Google search, seems to be “a set of characteristics by which a thing or individual is recognized.”

But what if I take it back to identify?’s first definition says: “to recognize or establish as being a particular person or thing; verify the identity of.”

Now we’re talking.

I believe all of these words are relevant, and from here on I will switch from using “I” to “we” when speaking about the physical body because we have DID (“I” will refer to me, the individual writing). We, as a group, do have multiple enduring patterns of thoughts and beliefs though, if you were to view our physical body, you would think we were rather… changeable. People who know us well, though, are certainly able to recognize each of us by our sets of characteristics. What happens inside us on a regular basis, though, is that we identify ourselves.

Sometimes it’s easy. It’s a physical sensation in the way we hold ourselves, where we carry our muscle tension, and the way words come out of our mouths. Knowing who I am feels like a bowl settling into another bowl. A sense of rightness or centeredness. My name is profoundly important in helping me to feel like I make sense, and I am solid in the world. Sometimes, we wake up knowing exactly who we are.

Sometimes we don’t. Then it’s time to really focus on identifying. We get help from that sometimes, from our loving husband who knows us so well. “You seem like Evander today,” he’ll say, and it’ll feel so right to me. I identify as Evander because I have a particular set of recognizable characteristics, and those are stable and enduring over time. I’m soft-spoken, I favor the taste and smell of mint, and I find it hard to make eye contact. These things, and others, allow me to be identified as Evander.

My friend and head-mate Justice is outspoken, honest to a fault, quick to anger, and passionate about making sure others stand up for themselves. He likes video games and adventures. Justice will wake up and say to himself: “Of course I’m Justice!” with a haughty tilt to his chin and possibly his hands on his hips like Peter Pan. That’s just the way he is.

You can see how observing our physical body would make it seem as though we’re changeable.

Being able to just be however we are on a particular day, at a particular hour, is so freeing. It’s done wonders for our mental health. I had no idea how much energy we were expending on trying to present a consistent image to the world (it didn’t always work) until we were finally able to just relax into ourselves. Oddly enough, I believe we dissociated more when we had to appear the way the world expected us to appear because none of us could be fully present and centered in our own enduring pattern of thoughts and beliefs.

I apologize for being so long-winded in my musings.

“What are you apologizing for, idiot? Clearly you’re not sorry because you’re posting it anyway.”
I’m just trying to be considerate toward those readers who bore with me this long.
“Whatever. That’s pointless. If they were bored they would have stopped. Just get on with it already!”
Thank you, Justice.

So, here are my conclusions from all of this reflection:

1. Developing the ability to observe ourselves has been critical.

We have so many ways of being in the world — so many enduring patterns of thoughts and beliefs. Knowing who we are and being able to predict and make sense of our own behavior by identifying which set of characteristics we will be exhibiting is important to our well-being.

2. It’s different from just being in a mood.

Imagine a personality like a circle on a graph. A mood can push your behavior anywhere in that circle. An outgoing person may be quiet when they’re sad. A mood isn’t an enduring pattern, but rather normal fluctuation within that pattern. We don’t move within one bubble; we switch bubbles all together. I’m quiet when I’m happy. Justice is quiet when he’s sad. Same behavior; different mood. That’s because we’re different people.

3. Almost everything is on a spectrum.

I love spectra. I believe almost everything exists on a spectrum. I studied infrared absorption spectra of things in my undergrad. I love the way they encompass the wide variation possible in many given attributes. Those people with DID who have complete amnesia between switches may not find any of what I’ve said relevant because that observer presence doesn’t see any other options. To those people with DID who have no amnesia at all but still have recognizable distinct states of being and are confused, I hope this helps a bit.

There are only three because Landen enjoys the number three. I leave you to reflect on this and I hope you enjoyed the read. Best wishes!

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Originally published: October 14, 2018
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