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Is Dissociative Identity Disorder the Ultimate Survival Skill?

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Dissociation has been a special interest area since my own dissociative disorder diagnosis in 2002. Clinically, dissociation simply means disconnection between thoughts, memory, expression, and identity. In short, dissociation is anything that removes you from the present moment. The ability to dissociate is one that everyone has. In its mildest form, dissociation is “daydreaming” — an altered state of consciousness in which you are both aware and not, simultaneously.

Dissociation is also the ability to forget painful or traumatic experiences. It is that feeling of “knowing” something happened but not being able to recall specific details. It is the ultimate safety feature keeping us safe from events that are too harsh remember, process, and deal with in real time. When we experience trauma as a child, our brain compartmentalizes the painful experience.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a spectrum disorder and is characterized by alternating between multiple identities. A person may feel like one or more voices are trying to take control in their mind or body. Often these identities may have unique names, characteristics, mannerisms, and voices. People with DID will experience gaps in memory of everyday events, personal information and trauma. As scary as this may sound, it’s even more challenging and scary to experience it. And even more terrifying is the stigma surrounding DID.

Once called multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder has historically been misrepresented by the media with grand and dramatic depictions of symptoms and characteristics representing dissociative disorders in the world. Yet the reality is your local TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) enthusiast, trauma therapist and Kirtan musician lives with dissociative identity disorder in real life, right here in your community.

In order to dispel a bit of stigma and misinformation, below are a few of the top misconceptions about dissociative identity disorder.

1. One of the biggest misconceptions is that DID is rare.

The truth is that 1.5% of the population has been diagnosed DID or OSDD (other specified dissociative disorder, according to The American Psychiatric Association). Just for perspective, 1-2% of the population has red hair.

2. Another misconception is that survivors with DID are dangerous.

The media has perpetuated this myth with films such as “Split.” Survivors with dissociative identity disorder have lived through horrendous acts of abuse in childhood. The truth is survivors are no more dangerous than any other individual in general population. It is far more common for survivors with DID to become subjects of re-victimization, rather than victimize. Due to having survived abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological) survivors are more vulnerable to being subject to abuse again.

3. Again, due to media, many individuals believe that “switches” or personality changes are obvious and dramatic, and if they are not then it can’t be DID.

Only about 5-6% of dissociative identity disorder presents overtly; the remaining population has a covert presentation. Many survivors with DID have subtle switches, sometimes only detectable to their partner or therapist.

4. Many individuals use “multiple personality disorder” and “schizophrenia” interchangeably.

This is incorrect, and here is why. Schizophrenia is a neuro-degenerative disorder, onset can happen with or without trauma, and there are medications to lessen symptoms. The audio/visual hallucinations seem to stem from an external source for the individual. DID is dissociative disorder that is developed in early childhood, and there are no medications to assist in treatment. Survivors with dissociative identity disorder treat symptoms rather than the disorder.

5. Another myth around DID is that the only way to heal is through a process called integration; the fusing together of separate personalities into one.

The truth is this is only one of many ways to heal. Improving symptoms such as depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, flashbacks, panic, suicidal ideation, and memory gaps through use of evidence-based practices (EMDR, MBCT, DBT, CBT, IFS, Gestalt) individuals often feel a sense of peace and harmony within their DID system, or structure of internal personalities. In addition, utilizing parts work approaches to assist each personality to do their own healing work lessens symptoms for the overall system; literally healing from the inside out, or outside in. Sometimes integration means filling in the memory gaps so that primary individual understands and can process the trauma that has happened to their body. Other time it means sharing feelings with all separate personalities so that internal communication and community is strengthened. There are many ways to heal, and integration, in part or whole is only one approach.

There is a lot of misinformation out in the world, and it’s all of our responsibility to do what we can to assist in helpful and not hurtful correction of that misinformation. Due to misinformation around dissociative identity disorder, people have been villainized, harmed physically and emotionally and even taken advantage of in every way possible. Individuals who live with DID have been denied basic human rights and fear based on info that was in correct. Individuals living with DID or OSDD are all around you and could be some of your best friends, therapist, barista, yoga instructor, best selling author, or even your doctor. Stigma is the villain here. And we as a community can assist in stopping the pain it causes.

Let’s stop stigma together!

Getty image by d3sign

Originally published: February 14, 2023
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