My life with dissociative identity
Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 8
On the outside, I’m one person. On the inside, I’m many. The severe trauma I experienced growing up left me dissociative, the term I use for what’s commonly called dissociative identity disorder. My dissociation helped me to survive at the time.
Being dissociative means I’m made up of many personalities, or parts. Most of my parts have fully developed personalities and are even different ages and genders. They have their own preferences, needs, worldviews and life experiences. They have unique gestures, behaviours and ways of speaking. Many have names, although that’s not as important to them as it used to be. In this article, I use both “I” and “we”: it’s a collaborative effort by my parts, written as one voice.
As someone who is dissociative, I face stigma on a daily basis—not only the social stigma of being many parts in a society of individuals, but also self-stigma. My parts have internalized many of society’s negative views about dissociation, and we frequently struggle with a sense of shame and a strong desire to hide our dissociation from others.
Even calling it “dissociative identity disorder” perpetuates stigma. “Disorder” means chaos or mess. It suggests the person who survived trauma by dissociating is the problem. In reality, it’s the trauma that’s “disordered” and the problem—not the person. My parts aren’t a disorder—they’re parts of me who’ve been through a lot of pain. They feel hurt and sad at the thought that they’re a problem that needs fixing.
Although it’s not perfect, I’m drawn to the word “injury.”1 “Dissociative identity injury” is more compassionate. It puts the focus back on the trauma.
Most of my parts have traumatic memories. They are often the age at which the trauma happened to them, the age when they dissociated. A few other parts existed solely to handle my daily life. These parts remembered little or nothing about the trauma. They are close to, or the same age as, our physical body. The adult part of me who spends the most time interacting with the world, and whom people know as “Jen,” is one of these daily-life parts.
My younger parts aren’t equipped to handle my adult daily life on their own. But they still participate—for example helping with chores or planning outings.
Big decisions are made communally whenever we can—much like in a large family. Often my adult parts mediate these discussions; we try to actively listen and address everyone’s concerns. No part of me is more “me” or important than any other part—we are all aspects of “Jen.”
All my parts used to be very separate. Parts took over whenever they were triggered by a particular event or situation. Neither the triggered parts nor my daily-life parts had control over these switches. For many years, my parts weren’t even aware of each other.
After years of therapy, we now naturally seem to have more continuity between our memories and experiences. We’re more connected to each other. We love and look out for each other. I am never truly alone.
I still get overwhelmed by emotions and memories from the past (though it happens less frequently now, after years of therapy). When an event sets off a flashback, it can be hard to tell what part of my experience is from my triggered parts and what’s happening in the present; the past literally lives inside of me in the form of my parts.
It’s easy to feel ashamed when I get triggered. My shame stems from the negative reactions I’ve received in the past, when I’ve switched in front of anyone other than a few trusted friends and therapists.
When I’m out in public, it can be embarrassing if people hear me talking under my breath to my parts, or see me nodding or shaking my head (indicating “yes” or “no”). Sometimes when I’m triggered I lose track of conversations with other people, or say something that doesn’t quite fit the situation.
The adult parts of me are more aware of triggers and switches than we used to be, and I can usually work with my parts so that other people aren’t aware a switch has happened. But a switch can still occur without much warning. What I need in those moments is for people to meet me where I’m at—most importantly, to honour whatever feelings I am expressing, even if they don’t seem to make sense.
One of the most distressing triggers I experienced intensified because the other person involved was unable or unwilling to honour my feelings. When I was a teenager, I had to have a general anesthetic for some dental work. I freaked out in the operating room—crying, struggling, pleading for time to compose myself. In hindsight, I realize that I’d fully switched into one of my child parts, but at the time, I didn’t know. The anesthesiologist had no patience for my reaction; he pinned my arm to the dental chair, stuck the needle in and told me to act my age.
What I really needed was for him to have listened to me and worked with me to find things that would calm me. A few minutes of compassion would have made all the difference.
As a teenager, I became depressed and suicidal. The school counselor referred me to the mental health centre in my city, but the sessions did nothing to help my depression. I briefly tried antidepressants, but they made me feel sick and increasingly suicidal.
Not one of my medical practitioners realized I was dissociative. Some of them noted that I sometimes acted more childlike, switched moods quickly and seemed to be experiencing an ongoing conflict within myself, but no one suspected the truth.
When I was 20, I found the right therapist. I’d been invited to attend a group therapy session at the mental health centre. I felt a deep, positive connection with the therapist facilitating the group. Luckily, she agreed to take me on as a client.
After a couple of sessions, I remember telling her I felt like I had different “me’s” inside of me. She started working directly with my parts as we trusted her more.
It soon became apparent that my parts were separate and distinct, and that I had hundreds of them. More parts kept coming forward in therapy, wanting her attention. We did our best to prioritize based on need. We worked with my parts over the next eight or nine years, healing the trauma and building an inner community (explaining we were all part of one person, encouraging and helping my parts to work together). I started to feel calmer, increasingly cared for and hopeful—I started to heal.
Realizing I was dissociative and not depressed gave me a sense of freedom. I finally knew what I was dealing with and had effective therapy. The love and acceptance I found with my therapist helped me develop the confidence and strength I needed to face both my internalized stigma and the stigma within my community.
In my experience, having parts isn’t a problem. The problem is when my parts aren’t communicating well, or when their needs aren’t being met. In my early therapy, healing the trauma and creating a loving community amongst my parts were equal priorities. I still use this approach. Through this process, I have gone from having around 500 fully developed parts to having just under 100. Once a part’s trauma is completely healed, that part merges with other parts, becoming a new part who’s different and yet contains the traits and memories of all the merged parts
It can feel much less chaotic having fewer parts. But it can also feel quiet and lonely if many parts merge at once. One day I may be “one”; however, that’s not my priority. I experience life differently from a person who’s “one,” and my life still has joy and meaning.
As I get physically older, I feel increased pressure to hide my parts and act my physical age. My body is that of a grown woman, and I feel society’s expectations to act and dress in certain (adult) ways.
It can be hard for my younger parts to participate in my daily life. Playgrounds aren’t made for adults, the child parts of me can’t take part in kids’ events anymore and dressing like a teenager feels less acceptable. I love spending time with kids and adults who are young at heart because it gives me permission to be silly and play. At times, I’ve joined activities where younger parts of me can participate without it being obvious, such as sports or choirs.
In the privacy of our home, we express ourselves more freely, through things like art, dance and music, or playing with toys. But what all of us really want is the freedom to be more ourselves in the outside world.
Learning to accept and love all of me is an ongoing journey—for all my parts. In many ways, I believe that our society is on a similar path: we are all learning to accept ourselves and others who are different from us. What gives me hope is seeing the ways our society is becoming more inclusive—from gender-neutral washrooms to starting the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. And I draw strength from friends and therapists who embrace me as I am—so that I can increasingly embrace myself as I am. They see my strengths and struggles in the context of me as a person, not just someone who’s dissociative.
I suspect that dissociative identity is more common than people think, perhaps misdiagnosed as other conditions, including schizophrenia or, in my case, depression. The hurtful assumptions I encountered outside my therapist’s office are still evident in our society today. And many still claim that being “one” person is better than being dissociative, that someone who is dissociative is condemned to suffer, and that they are destined to be dissociative forever.
But I hope that one day there will be space for people like me to be all of our selves without shame or stigma. With this article, I am contributing to that space, encouraging people to think about dissociation differently. I am many and I am one. Though it’s taken many years, “I” am proud of who I am.
About the author
Jen lives in the Southern Interior of BC, where she creates a variety of art and spends time in nature. She’s been dissociative all her life. Through sharing her experience, she hopes to create a greater understanding of what it can be like to be both many and one