Tanya J Peterson

@tanya-j-peterson | contributor
With credentials as a Nationally Certified Counselor and personal experience with mental health care, novelist and columnist, Tanya J. Peterson uses writing to increase understanding of and compassion for people living with mental illness. She has written four critically acclaimed, award-winning novels, a self-help book about acceptance and commitment therapy, and she writes extensively for the mental health website HealthyPlace.com. Her HealthyPlace writing includes a weekly column entitled Anxiety-Schmanxiety. Additionally, she writes individual articles about mental health for all ages that appear in various online and print sources. She takes her novel Losing Elizabeth and the accompanying curriculum into high schools and community programs. she also has a monthly radio show entitled Wellbeing & Words. Visit tanyajpeterson.com to learn more about Tanya and find links to connect with her.

'Split' the Movie's Portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Author’s Note : The following is a discussion of the movie “Split” and contains spoilers. A “split” is a separation, a rift between two things. It can be a split within the mind, something that happens for survival. In the real world, such a “split” (more of a separation, a dissociation than a schism), isn’t horrific. A split can also refer to a fissure between the real and the fictitious, the truth and the untruth. Movies, books and the like dance around this fissure in an attempt to inform us and entertain us. I recently saw a movie I thought might take the split between reality and unreality and blast it into a giant chasm. The movie “Split” premiered in theaters across the U.S. on a January weekend in 2017. As a mental health writer, someone who lives with mental illness, a certified counselor and author of a novel (“Twenty-Four Shadows” published by Apprentice House Press) about dissociative identity disorder (DID), I was highly curious about this new movie. Curious, to be sure, but skeptical. “Split,” after all, is a thriller and the previews made it look creepy indeed. Was this going to be another uninformed, sensationalized, inaccurate portrayal of mental illness and people who live with it? Seeking an unbiased impression of what this movie was up to, I went in with an open mind, a notebook and a pen. I emerged with mixed feelings. Split between pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed. A Pleasant Surprise: “Split” Got Some Things Right “Split,” for the most part, wasn’t overly sensationalized. For much of the movie, “Split” portrayed a man with DID as an actual person. Or more accurately, as actual people. We find out fairly late in the movie the original identity is Kevin and that Kevin has 23 alternate parts. “Split” treats these alters as it should: separate identities in their own right, each with different traits and personalities. The alters, collectively called a system (a term the movie correctly uses), see a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Fletcher who explains, “The brain has learned to adapt to the trauma.” This is exactly what happens in DID. A child experiences severe trauma — usually in the form of abuse — and to handle it, the psyche splits, shatters, into alternate parts. In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” Dr. Charlie, Isaac’s psychiatrist, uses a starfish analogy to explain DID to Isaac and his wife. “It [the separation into alternate parts] happened because the one, whole starfish couldn’t withstand the severity of the abuse. It was either fragment into different entities or be completely destroyed. To survive, the starfish fragmented. Little Isaac’s mind was shattered for self-preservation.” “Split” does a refreshingly good job of showing dissociative identity disorder isn’t behavior fabricated for attention, nor is it a weakness. It’s the brain’s survival instinct rising up to meet a terrible challenge. “Split” was spot-on in other ways. Through Dr. Fletcher and Kevin’s alters, “Split” lets us know: Different alters can and do have different traits (right or left handedness, IQ, strengths, need for glasses, medical issues and more.) Someone with DID can function well in life (Kevin’s system has held a job for 10 years, sees a therapist, prepares food, etc.) Alters have a disconcerting sense of lost time that happens when a different alter is “in the light” (a correct expression used in the movie). People with DID frequently use the terms “we” or “us” rather than “I” or “me” Brain scans show significant differences between the identities; the scans are unique for each alter. Protection is an important concept (alters Dennis and Patricia believe they’re the only ones who can protect Kevin while in reality, all of the alters serve the function of protecting the primary identity, each in different ways). DID systems have a structure, a place for the alters to be and live when they’re not out in the world (in “Split” it’s very simple, just a room with a chair for each alter, but in reality, the structure is often more complex. In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” the structure is an elaborate blanket fort. Another surprise is the movie’s subtle acknowledgement of the stigma people living with DID face. Dr. Fletcher’s friend, for example, refers to clients as “those people” and she doesn’t see how Dr. Fletcher can stand to work with them. I was pleased with Dr. Fletcher’s positive response. She countered the “those people” remark and talked about the alters having strengths and other legitimate characteristics. It’s also refreshing Dr. Fletcher doesn’t automatically assume her system of clients is involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of three local teenage girls. She doesn’t equate such an incident with the behavior of someone with DID. Good for her. However, this segues into the less palatable aspect of the film… Unpleasant Expectations: “Split” is a Thriller As accurate as some of the movie’s conceptualizations of DID are, this movie is a thriller. Thrillers must scare. They must be real enough to invade our psyche and put us on edge. “Split” is real enough. The bad guy is a real person with a real disorder portrayed, for the most part, in a realistic way. For full fright effect, a thriller must go beyond the real into that which is unthinkable outside of the movie theater. “Split” achieves the real and the unthinkably unreal. The movie splits from accurate reality when it veers from what DID is to what it isn’t: supernatural. The good news: the kidnapped teenage girls aren’t tormented by the person who is a system of alters. The bad news: the alters are actually elements of a horrible, nasty, scary beast who wants to get them all. Here’s a counter to the eye-roll, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me elements. Contrary to what we see in “Split”: The person with DID is not a monster, nor does he or she host a monster inside. The Incredible Hulk stuff like super-human size, strength and speed really is just the stuff of movies and comic books. DID isn’t in the realm of the supernatural. People with DID can’t scale walls like salamanders. Does “Split” Perpetuate Stigma? I am very curious to learn how others are answering this question. Any movie, show, commercial, book or greeting card that doesn’t get something right is perpetuating misunderstanding, which in turn decreases empathy. That’s stigma. Therefore, “Split” contributes to the perpetuation of stigma against DID. Kind of. The morphing into the beast is so incredibly and ridiculously unrealistic I wonder if it’s even possible to really increase the stigma against DID. So many aspects of the disorder are portrayed correctly and well and favorably. This movie is a thriller and is meant to thrill and frighten. Since DID isn’t frightening, the movie had to create a monster. The movie’s end shows us what is dangerous in the real world. A TV news reporter stands at the scene giving a sensationalized, uninformed account of what had occurred, and she blatantly suggested “pure evil.” This is maddening. However, as I think about it, I realize the reporter kept the focus on the supernatural. She didn’t blame mental illness in general or DID in particular. People expect news to be trustworthy. Hopefully we don’t expect movies like thrillers to be fully trustworthy. I went into “Split” unsure. I don’t love the fact mental illness is used as the basis of a thriller. However, seeing the movie rather than just the trailers left me pleasantly surprised. DID is a disorder that arises as a survival mechanism out of horrendous abuse in childhood. DID is about survival, not destruction. As Dr. Charlie continues to explain to Isaac and his wife Reese in “Twenty-Four Shadows,” “Just like with an actual starfish, the pieces live. And they grow. And they regenerate—form new identities. But they are still physically part of the original starfish, the ore of the being, the part that’s also a fighter and a survivor.” We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Image via the “Split” Facebook page

What Happens When a Traumatic Brain Injury Leads to Mental Illness

When I experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car accident and proceeded to exacerbate it by sustaining two subsequent concussions, there were times when I felt as though I had endured a great loss, the loss of who I thought I once was. My mental health and sense of self took as much of a blow as my head did. The sense of loss was accompanied by often extreme anxiety and mood swings, from low to high, multiple times in a single day. There was a part of my original self that was still there, hanging on in the background while the rest of me wrestled with the sense of loss and other mental health challenges I suddenly faced. That part that stuck around, a source of positivity through so much negative, was perseverance. I also think of it as stubborn resolution. I wasn’t functioning the way I was used to, but I realized I was, indeed, functioning. I had goals even though I wasn’t all that sure I was being effective in working toward them. Yet, the goals were there, the desire was there and the perseverance was there. I didn’t want to give up. So I stubbornly resolved not to. Healing and change didn’t happen in an instant. I came to realize they didn’t have to. Once I allowed myself to internalize the fact that I was truly living my life despite setbacks, a liberating shift occurred. I began to see my TBI not as a loss, but as an opportunity. I had a chance for a fresh start. I realized that yes, I had lost my original sense of self, but I was still functioning in spite of it. Therefore, I could move forward toward new goals. Upon this realization, my perseverance solidified into grit. Grit involves the knowledge that we as humans have resilience, courage and endurance. Although we deal with losses and experience things like non-diagnosable mental health challenges or full-blown mental illness, we aren’t defined by them. We, therefore, can see adversity as opportunity to grow and to redefine ourselves. It was grit that let me to seek counseling. Then, when that was insufficient because my injured brain needed more intense treatment, it was grit that let me find and admit myself to a behavioral health hospital (not just once, but five times). It’s not weakness that causes people to be admitted to behavioral health hospitals. It is strength and determination. It is that voice inside each and every one of us that whispers, “You can create yourself anew.” It is the gut feeling that despite a TBI or a diagnosis of mental illness (for me after the brain injury, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder) or other losses and adversities, we have an opportunity to redefine ourselves and our goals. No one wants to face a traumatic brain injury. No one wants a diagnosis of mental illness. No one wants to experience a loss of his/her sense of self. However, everyone can find that part of themselves that is functioning and has goals. Everyone can use this positivity to persevere, to develop grit. No matter what, we can all use adversity as an opportunity to create ourselves anew and rise. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here. Image via Thinkstock.

How to Support a Loved One Newly Diagnosed With a Mental Illness

A loved one’s diagnosis of mental illness can send waves of confusion and fear through the entire family. The confusion and fear are actually a love-based reaction. When mental illness is unknown territory, it’s natural to be afraid of exploring it without causing harm. Take, for example, a man named Isaac. He is a husband and a father. Isaac has been newly diagnosed with a serious mental illness called dissociative identity disorder (DID). His wife, Reese, is often unsure of how to handle it. She consults his psychiatrist after she tells Isaac something she’s learned about his past. “Did I hurt Isaac more by telling him this? We have this pact to avoid secrets, but maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.” Reese is like so many family members and friends of those living with any mental illness. To want to help and support is a common desire. Equally common is a sense of anxiety, stress and sometimes even fear. When someone you care about is diagnosed with a mental illness, what can ensue is a period that feels like both relief and chaos. A diagnosis can mean some answers are coming, an explanation of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that have been challenging. This can bring a sense of relief and hope. However, when it comes to a new diagnosis of a mental illness, answers quite often lead to a whole new boatload of questions. A prominent question is just how to support a loved one newly diagnosed with a mental illness. Below are four ways to do just that. They come from experience, my own experience. In my experience as a nationally certified counselor, I’ve had conversations about this very challenge. In my experience as someone who received diagnoses of bipolar 1 disorder and various anxiety disorders, I know what family members and friends can do to be helpful and supportive. Without further ado, here are four ways to support a loved one newly diagnosed with a mental illness: 1. Be a team. Your loved one is experiencing things within his/her brain that make life difficult at the moment, and he needs you. However, he’s still an independent person who needs to feel in control. Even if he’s a child or adolescent, he needs to know you trust him and that he has some decision-making power in his own care. Of course, you want to make sure he’s safe and has support making decisions. This is where a team approach is helpful. Have an intentional discussion as a family. What are your goals, both as individuals and together? Allow everyone to express desires and concerns. Create a plan or even a contract around the issues of care and support that you all agree upon. Be patient with the process, as your loved one’s thoughts and behaviors might mean the process is slow, with stops and starts. (The patience principal applies to the other tips as well, of course.) 2. Have a beginner’s mind. Called shoshin by Zen Buddhists, a beginner’s mind refers to approaching each situation, each day and even each moment within a day as a fresh start without expectations. This allows you to approach your loved one without judgement or too much emotion. It also opens your mind to learning new information about the mental illness and how it impacts her personally. Many community organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and more offer support groups and classes. Attending these can help you learn how to support your loved one. Bibliotherapy, or healing and growing through reading books, is another way to use your beginner’s mind and help your loved one. Both nonfiction and fiction are valuable. Each provides information about mental illness in different ways. Fiction has the added bonus of allowing the reader to feel and experience through the characters what mental illness is like. It’s a powerful way to develop empathy and see how family members in the story support their loved ones. Characters, after all, represent real-world people. To build on the team approach, you can even create a family book club around specific books. 3. Understand your loved one’s illness from her perspective. Learning about her diagnosis shows her you want to understand it. Additionally, learning about it from her perspective and how it impacts her personally shows her you want to understand her. An important first step to doing this is to accept the diagnosis. Commonly, well-meaning family members want to minimize the concept of mental illness to spare the loved one and the family in general the experience of facing stigma. However, indicating that you accept the diagnosis rather than denying it goes a long way in helping your loved one accept it, too, and with it, herself. Have casual conversations where you invite her to talk about what the diagnosis is like for her and how it’s affecting how she feels about herself and life. Just listening and accepting go a long way toward helping someone know things will be OK. 4. Focus on strengths. This is a stressful time, and much attention is on what is wrong: mental illness rather than mental health; problems rather than triumphs; your own frustrations with yourself and the situation rather than on the strengths you bring to the table. Of course you can’t, and don’t want to, ignore your loved one’s symptoms. However, identifying and building strengths and using them to create positive experiences every day, even little ones, is a powerful way for all of you to live well beyond the mental illness. In the above example, Reese doesn’t want to hurt her husband, Isaac. Isaac doesn’t want to hurt her, either. Yet, they are going through something stressful and difficult as they face Isaac’s diagnosis of DID. They happen to be characters in a novel called “Twenty-Four Shadows.” Their story is based on reality, on both my personal and professional life experience. From this experience, I attest that these four ways to support a loved one are indeed effective. Image via Thinkstock.

Mental Illness Can't 'Erase' the Good in Life

Mental illness in general presents a host of challenges and difficulties. All mental illnesses have this in common: they negatively affect thoughts, feelings and behaviors/actions, and they can interfere in things like relationships and life goals. Mental illnesses also have in common the fact that they don’t take away the good in people and in life. To be sure, mental illness changes things, sometimes negatively. To deny that would be to minimize someone’s very real experiences and challenges. Also, we need to acknowledge the negative so we can address it fully. When I sustained my traumatic brain injury and subsequently received diagnoses of bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety disorders, of course many things in both my inner and outer worlds changed. Acknowledging this played a big part in my ability to transcend it all, to deal with it, rise above it and learn to thrive in spite of it all. Another realization was just as important in overcoming the difficulties: none of it — neither the brain injury, the bipolar disorder, nor the anxiety disorders — took away the good in my yesterdays, todays and tomorrows. Mental illness does add difficulties, but it does not take away the good. In the novel “Leave of Absence,” Penelope Baker is wrestling with her diagnosis of schizophrenia and the effects it has on her life. Her lament here captures the sentiment of so many people who are living with the challenges presented by mental illness: “‘I used to be proud of myself. I graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as an advertising executive at Anderson Fletcher.’ She paused and hugged the beach ball against her chest. When she resumed, she spoke quietly. ‘But then I changed, and I’m not the same anymore.’” Penelope’s diagnosis of schizophrenia did change some things, including the way her brain functions. In some ways, she isn’t the same. But in most ways, the ways that really count, she is the same. Mental illness truly can’t take away the good. Mental illness can’t: Erase what you’ve accomplished Remove your values and beliefs that shape your actions Take away your character strengths Make you less of a person Change who you are at your core. Living with mental illness does present challenges. But you can draw on what you’ve done in the past, who you are and what you value to address the challenges and discover new ways of living despite them. You aren’t your illness, which means mental illness doesn’t erase the core of who you are. You can use your accomplishments, vales and strengths in order to live a life driven by these elements rather than one dominated by difficulties. The below video is a short reading from the novel “Twenty-Four Shadows.” The book is the story of Isaac Bittman and his family and friend. Isaac has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. DID is a completely different mental illness than schizophrenia, but you’ll notice a similar theme to Penelope’s and Issac’s thoughts and feelings. Mental illness can feel like an eraser. It’s not an eraser. Follow this journey on Tanya’s site.