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In Stillness There Is Growth With Dissociative Identity Disorder

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There’s no roadmap for where I am right now.  None of the clinical books or journal articles I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them!) ever talk in depth about this part of trauma recovery or how things start to change for someone with dissociative identity disorder (DID) as healing progresses, most of them focusing attention on the highly symptomatic phases, specific cases studies or DID in broad strokes rather than the subtle shifts that can happen as trauma work continues. There are no social media or YouTube posts that cover any of what I’m facing now. I continue to look, hoping something will resonate and provide insights or at least help me feel a little less alone in this, but I haven’t found anything yet that completely addresses the experiences I’m having and the questions I have.

Even my recent query to the online DID support group I belong to received zero comments. My therapist and psychiatrist don’t have answers, not concrete ones anyways. And how could they? They do not have DID. And while they understand DID, having read about it and worked with others with it, everyone is different and I’m sure they don’t want to project onto me and pin something on me when things are still murky. And they can’t predict the future, as much as I wish someone could.

My hypervigilant brain would love to know every single thing that is going to happen and what things will be like so it can fixate, strategize and plan. Survival gears in overdrive. Often I get so activated about all of this that the urgency to find answers feels like life or death. Again trauma brain jumps in. But eventually I get back to a place of realizing maybe it doesn’t really matter that I can’t find the answers I started out looking for as I’m charting my own recovery. And maybe as I can continue to let others into my experience, for example through writing articles like this, I’ll reach more people who may be going through something similar, and through that connecting hopefully we can all feel a bit more settled knowing we aren’t completely alone in this.

Here’s what has been happening this past year. I’m coming together somehow and parts of my past are falling into place and it’s scary. For a long time so much of this was held at bay, outside my consciousness and now things are becoming clearer, more real. Information is being integrated, emotions are being felt and parts that were once stranded and stuck in the past are being folded into me.

The quiet and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that I can’t escape me. The stillness of many hours spent alone has opened up countless doors inside, and the shadowy threads of narratives I didn’t allow myself to fully see before have drifted into my consciousness. Oh yes, those doors were cracked open a few years ago when I first became aware of parts, but anything that managed to slip through always shrank away again, into another place of forgetting. They were and then they were not.

But a year of feeling somewhat removed from the world has shifted something, has made space for what there wasn’t space for before. It happened slowly, so subtly that I didn’t even realize it was happening at first. And in hindsight this makes perfect sense this would happen. Trauma often doesn’t surface until you’re in a safe enough place to deal with it. For example, I wasn’t able to tackle my eating disorder until I was away from an abusive environment and people. And I didn’t become aware of the extent of trauma or the fact that I had dissociated parts of self until the eating disorder and other behaviors were not taking over my life. So naturally, as I’ve had less in-person contact with people this past year and have spent so much more time at home alone, my brain would take the opportunity to get on with more healing. Healing sounds like such a nice soothing word, and I want to be clear that healing is messy, confusing, painful and doesn’t feel good, not at first at least.

Here’s some of what what I’ve faced, struggled with, learned from and realized throughout these pandemic months:

1. The harsh narratives I have about myself, things I’ve believed about myself, told myself and felt so intensely within me don’t come from me. 

When a child suffers abuse by their caregivers, or anyone really, their brain registers that it must be because something is wrong with them. This is a matter of survival. A child needs to be able to trust the adults in their life, they are reliant on them after all, so it’s unthinkable that the adult (or adults) are the problem. And this is just the beginning because over time continued abuse (whether emotional, physical, sexual) gets compounded and those early narratives grow and become more deeply embedded. Abuse gets internalized.

For my whole life the narratives that constantly flooded my brain or which burst out at any opportunity, included things such as: I am nothing, I don’t belong here, I’m garbage, I’m stupid, no one wants to hear from me, no one will ever understand me, I’m undeserving, I’m unlovable, I’m ugly and the list goes on. I haven’t solved this, I still sometimes twist what people say and make myself feel bad. I am still hyper-critical of myself, jump to the worst case scenario and internalize a lot of things I wish I didn’t, but I’m aware of this. I catch myself more often. I stop and question the responses I’m having. I remember things from the past that give me insight into why I’m experiencing something in the present the way that I am. I’m realizing these narratives are not mine to hold and that they never began with me.

2. Physical sensations, even ones which others would describe as good or neutral, can feel incredibly threatening to people who have experienced trauma.

Sensations can remind us of traumatic experiences we’ve had even when we can’t remember the details of those. Sensations feel outside of our control. Sensations remind us that we have a body, and having a body is scary if that body was the object of the abuse. But as my therapist has told me repeatedly for the past few years every time any sensation overwhelmed me, “it’s just a sensation, it doesn’t need to mean anything.”

Throughout the pandemic, with my body not in motion as much as it was before, I’ve had to deal with more sensations arising and less options to escape them and “it’s just a sensation” has become a mantra of sorts, by necessity. Most days I’m at my desk at home alone all day working and sensations inevitably come up, my nervous system reacts and before you know it I’m swinging between fight, flight, freeze or dissociation depending on the sensation. At least this was how it was the first few months of COVID, but lately I’m feeling my reaction before it completely takes over, not always but more often. This awareness means I can be more responsive and ultimately prevent myself from becoming completely hijacked by a response to any sensation.  Indeed, they are just sensations, and often have nothing to do with the present moment.

3. I can sometimes control switches now.

This is absolutely mind-blowing to me. Early into the work with my current therapist I remember her asking “Wouldn’t you like to be able to control your switching, have some say in who is out when and what that looks like?”

“Of course!,” I told her, “but that’s not even possible. I don’t even understand how switching happens, why it happens, who I’m switching to, or even know all the parts in my system. I don’t believe switching is something that can be controlled.”

And here I am a few years later realizing that yes I do have some control over when I switch, not every time, not for all parts, not always in the way I’d like nor as smoothly as I might wish but there is more control now. For one thing I can sense when I’m going to switch more often now and sometimes either prevent the switch from occurring or permit the switch to happen (if the circumstances are appropriate). For certain parts there is enough communication between them that there is give and take, some negotiation of who is out and when. As well, various parts have developed skills, or “tricks” as some younger parts say, to bring back specific parts. A 12-year-old part, for example, knows that if she goes to splash cold water on her face, run cold water over her hands or asks someone to ask questions about work then I will come back.

Parts are also realizing that we can hold space together when it makes sense. Sometimes in a therapy session, for example, there are specific things that need to be worked through that would benefit several parts. Rather than fighting to take over the body and rapidly switching back and forth, which just leaves me disoriented and frustrated, parts have realized it’s more helpful to let one part be out in front (or two parts blended together) and for others to step back and listen. This allows the part that is forward to stay more grounded, and it allows the other parts who are further back to take in information more accurately. The part who is out can also feel into what other parts might be feeling and thinking more gently, because from this place of open communication the entire system is better able to stay emotionally regulated, within our window of tolerance.

4.  I have a strong gut instinct when something isn’t OK, which I’m learning to hear and trust because it is never wrong.

I believe this instinct or intuition comes from always needing to read other people and situations as a matter of survival. I’m sort of like a weathervane, highly attuned to the slightest shift. I can sense when something isn’t right and feel when something or someone might be harmful, even if I’m not always able to articulate why or in what way. This gut instinct on the surface seems related to hypervigilance but in reality it exists below that, deeper in. When I can get to that and trust it, I know it won’t let me down.

The challenge of course is to settle the overthinking part of my brain as well as the indecisiveness that often surfaces as a result of different parts weighing in. I had an experience late in 2020 where part of me recognized I was in a toxic situation, but because of who the person was and the gaslighting that was happening I told myself that it must be me, and yet I knew something was deeply wrong and that it wasn’t me at all. It took others reflecting the situation back to me to validate to myself that my instincts were right, and in the end it made me realize how strong my instincts truly are.

5. A couple younger parts are growing up and we are grieving this change. 

This represents progress and a great deal of work, but this is an incredibly painful time and the loss is felt deeply system-wide. I always had one part that seemed to age slide, going between the ages of  8 to 12, but it’s only recently that things have really begun to shift. We noticed this in several ways. First, two parts began getting misidentified in therapy sessions and there was confusion, on the part of myself and members of my healthcare team, as to who was out. On more than one occasion the name of an older part was used for a younger part, causing the younger part to cry in frustration, not understanding why suddenly people who always recognized her were no longer seeing her. At first there was hesitation by younger parts to clarify, perhaps because they too were confused, but eventually they began to use their names again helping everyone to acknowledge them and gain insights into what was going on. This prompted a lot of reflection and internal conversations between parts, and it opened my eyes to the changes that were happening inside.

I also began taking notice of the fact that I wasn’t hearing the same questions and concerns from younger parts and I wasn’t being constantly flooded by their intense emotions. From what I gather, they have more access to information than they did before and they don’t live completely in trauma time anymore. This is what I think is happening. Part of me still worries that maybe things only seem more quiet and settled because of the time we are living in. Maybe a lot of parts have actually gone into hiding because they don’t feel safe right now, and perhaps as we begin moving towards something closer to what our life reassembled pre-pandemic they will be out again more. I don’t really know, all I do know is there is a lot of work ahead and a lot of grieving to do. My instincts tell me it’s a combination of both things, one or two parts aging up because I’ve needed their help more during this time and other parts that have gone into hiding, waiting for this to be over.

6. Some memories and emotional states are held across more than one part now.

As you might imagine, this doesn’t feel good. In fact, it’s unbearably painful at times. Before when certain memories were more siloed to one part, I was protected from the full impact. Previously I could go about my day without memories clinging to me. Sure they might get triggered at inappropriate times or suddenly pop up, yanking me out of the present, but a lot of the time it didn’t feel like those belonged to me. In fact when I was flooded by them I didn’t fully understand what was happening, because it was just such a thick impenetrable mess of sensations, thoughts, emotions and other sensory inputs. I was terrified of the parts who held all these memories and did not want to know what they knew, feel what they felt. Essentially I was afraid of my own trauma and doubted my capacity to hold it. And for good reason, because I could not have held it all back then. Even now I’m only holding more of it, not all of it.

Now I appreciate the parts who held onto these memories and have helped me survive. I realize the burden they carried for so long, unseen and unheard. I feel profound compassion for them and it brings me to tears thinking what was necessary to make it this far. To have to separate from yourself, to have things held outside of your awareness is a heartbreaking realization, but knowing the alternative to that would have most certainly destroyed me fills me with great respect and appreciation for my parts.

There are still many memories out of range, gaps in my understanding of the past or information which get filtered through other parts. There are still memories that don’t feel like they belong to me or emotional states and reactions from other parts that don’t feel like me. But this is all OK, this is all a normal part of this process. I know there is no rushing any of this. And I also logically know that this is all me, even all those times when it doesn’t feel like it or when it all seems like too much for one person to hold. And the truth is, it was (and maybe still is) too much for one person to hold, that’s why parts came about in the first place and why connection, and the therapeutic relationship in particular, is so essential to me right now.

7.  My body takes up more space than it used to and I’ve learned that I actually feel more grounded and safer in it the way it is now.

I’m not a child. I’m no longer living in a starved body. I’m realizing the sense of agency I have as an adult, and all of the resources I have now that I didn’t have as a child. I’m learning to care for child parts, and finding ways to give myself what I needed back then. I’m understanding that the act of nourishing myself and caring for myself as best as I can is a powerful act, one of rebellion against the wrongs done to me, compassion for myself as a child and for who I am now, wisdom in action, flowing through me, and ultimately love, being allowed to come in and shine from me.

In the stillness and solitude of this time, I’ve had to pay attention to what’s happening inside me. I could no longer drown out parts with the busyness of my day to day life, or hold parts off at arm’s length because they were inconvenient or too much. They would not allow it. In the countless quiet hours spent alone I had to listen and we all had to come to an understanding together. I had to see the me in we, and they needed to find themselves in me. It’s what we needed to do. I’m not sure we would have got through this time any other way because it would have been unfathomably too painful to manage. I’m sure if things had not shifted inside, and this settling hadn’t happened, then we would have needed to be hospitalized at some point during these past few months.  So yes, the place I’m in right now is uncharted and uncertain, but hasn’t  this whole journey been? Don’t I get to decide what that means? And what if uncharted is something beautiful, rather than frightening? Maybe I’m finally being allowed to grow into myself in the way we always hoped we would.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: March 19, 2021
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