Everyone zones out from time to time. We lose track of time. We drive somewhere and we don’t remember the whole trip. All of these are examples of dissociation. Everyone does it and it’s perfectly normal. In the group of disorders known as Dissociative Disorders, the loss of time, memory loss and altered perceptions of reality are more severe, chronic and interfere with a person’s life. This type of dissociation is a disorder.
In the category of Dissociative Disorders, there are four main disorders: depersonalization, derealization, dissociative fugue and dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personalities). This article focuses on Dissociative Identity Disorder, also called DID.
When someone experiences trauma, no matter what it is, there is always a reaction of some kind. When the trauma is bad enough or happens repeatedly, sometimes the mind reacts by dissociating to the point where the victim no longer feels present and at that time another part of the victim’s mind takes over to experience or handle the trauma. In some cases there may be multiple parts of the mind that take over in different circumstances. In Dissociative Identity Disorder these parts take over in times of stress or fear. Although the original trauma may not be happening again, if the victim feels fear or stress they will ‘pull out’ so to speak and another part of their mind will ‘come forward’ to handle the situation.
Because these parts of the person’s mind take on different aspects of the person’s total personality, the victim’s behavior will change. Their voice may sound different. Their posture or the way they move may change. Their facial expressions may become different than normal. Their mood will shift. This is called “switching”.
People who experience emotions normally, experience anger, sadness, fear, happiness, anxiety, calmness and other emotions as a whole. In a person with DID the ability to feel and process normal emotions is not present. The mind is fragmented and the different parts of the person’s mind are compartmentalized and take on the quality of a particular emotion or facet of emotion. These different “personalities” are often referred to as “alters”. The actual person, the person experiencing this, what you could call the “real” person, is referred to as the “host”. In some individuals with DID, these alters may even have different names that distinguish them from the host and from other alters. One alter may be full of anger and hatred. Another alter may be child-like and paralyzed by fear. Another may be mature and in control.
An important thing to remember is that Hollywood has exaggerated this disorder for the purpose of entertainment. Films and T.V. shows often portray the sufferers of DID with overly dramatic manifestations of the illness, with alters even donning full costumes. Because of this, when others learn a person has DID, they can become very troubled and nervous, perhaps even frightened, recalling things they have seen on the television or in movies. The truth is that DID can be very subtle. A person with DID may switch without anyone, including their family members, even noticing.
If someone is experiencing dissociative symptoms from any of the Dissociative Disorders, it is important that they be evaluated by a mental health professional so they can receive a proper diagnosis, as DID can be confused with other mental disorders and visa versa. More often than not, it is actually comforting for a person to understand what is going on inside of them instead of feeling like they’re losing their mind and having no idea what’s wrong.
It’s important to understand that DID is the mind’s way of coping with something terrible that has happened. It does not mean that a person is crazy. Treatment is available and help can be given.
Note: The author is not a medical doctor. The author speaks from personal experience with this disorder.