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What It's Like Traveling With Dissociative Identity Disorder

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Sometimes, I find myself looking at a photograph, and struggling not just to recognize its content, but to know why I have it. It isn’t that I pick up random images… I’m talking about pictures I obviously took, but have no memory of taking.

It isn’t so so much that my conditions can affect how I travel: it is something that affects every aspect of my life, day to day. But traveling, and specifically, flying, brings its own challenges. Already I have found it has manifested during a couple of trips, and while that concerns me a little, it also made me think a little more about my reluctance to explain it to other people. Maybe if I told the airline when I booked my flights, or the flight attendants once I was aboard, I would be less worried about something happening. But again, there’s the embarrassment, uncertainty and awareness of the stigma that people attach to conditions like mine, which are usually described as mental health problems.  

Two trips ago, while waiting to clear passport control at the airport where I was due to catch my connecting flight, I was called aside to be interviewed by a customs/passport officer. I was absolutely terrified I was going to be sent home, and had no idea what I might have done to warrant it. I was talked to initially about my reasons for making the trip, and once I explained, was asked the usual questions about why I was staying for the length of time I was and about my means of supporting myself. I was unhesitatingly and completely honest and open, explaining with some embarrassment that I am, at the moment, unable to work, but have an income from benefits, and that I save that money to enable me to travel, and visit my American boyfriend.

That led to questions about the nature of my disabilities… and while it was easy for me to explain the physical condition I have, it was far, far harder to describe and explain “the other one.” I ended up explaining that I have dissociative identity disorder (DID), a relatively rare and complex condition that can cause my behavior to change, affect memory and concentration, and cause severe anxiety and confusion. I don’t tell people my exact diagnosis because there are so many preconceptions and myths about the condition, but in those circumstances, I felt I had no choice but to be completely open.

The first question I was asked was whether I had ever been a danger to anyone because of it.

Until you have been asked something like that, not just by someone you know and trusted enough to divulge so difficult a secret to, but a uniformed stranger with the power to deny you entry into their country, it is difficult to understand the depth of humiliation, pain and hurt the question can cause. I have lived with this for as long as I can remember… (and I can remember stuff that happened to me when I was less than 2 years old) and no one around me has had the slightest idea there was anything different about me. No, I’m not a danger to anyone. No, I don’t fly into uncontrolled rages or have sudden, uncontrolled verbal outbursts. I may, occasionally, sound a little different, look a little different, seem unduly confused and have memory lapses. There are occasions when my behavior may seem a little peculiar to people who don’t know me, and I am well aware there have been times when I have been overheard saying things that have seemed strange and more than a little eccentric. On my first long-haul flight, the attendant was most amused at finding me, at one point, all but bouncing in my seat with the excitement of finding myself able to look out of the window and see the tiny world passing by beneath us through the clouds. She was therefore a little bemused when, 10 minutes later, she returned with the trolley, distributing drinks and found me immersed in a book, completely uninterested in the joys of flight…

Yes: I was honest, open and I was able to alleviate any concerns the officer may have had about my situation… but I was in tears as I walked away from the desk and headed for the gate where my flight was, at that point, in the final stages of boarding. Despite knowing it wasn’t the case, I was left with a dull feeling of being, somehow, found to be “less”… less welcome? Less deserving? I wasn’t sure, but I boarded that plane and spent the flight in silence, unable to look anyone in the eye and feeling for some reason I ought to be looking for someone to apologize to.

I am not the most confident person in the world generally, and if I feel I have somehow messed up, it destroys what little faith I do have in myself. But to be looked at with what I perceived to be doubt and suspicion by another person simply because my brain does not work the same way that theirs does and they don’t understand that difference — I can’t really describe that feeling, except to say that it left me withdrawn, unwilling to risk accidentally communicating my difference to other strangers and terrified that my secret would be discovered.

The only thing that scares me about traveling is the thing I carry with me.

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Originally published: January 6, 2017
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