Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a mental health condition linked to prolonged exposure to trauma, especially in early childhood. It’s often misrepresented in the media, leading to negative stereotypes and widely shared misunderstandings of the disorder.
Formerly referred to as multiple personality disorder (MPD), Dissociative Identity Disorder derives its name from the perception that distinct identity fragments exist as separate personalities within a single body. However, as research and understanding have developed, it has become clearer that these identity facets are actually components of a unified personality. Yet, these facets might not always feel integrated or harmonious, which can create a sense of disjointedness or lack of cohesion. People with DID may feel like different aspects – or states – of their identity are in control of their behaviour and thoughts at different times, which can be incredibly distressing and disruptive to daily life.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a psychological defense mechanism, disrupting the normal integration of memory, identity, and perception. It’s a mental strategy to handle overwhelming or traumatic encounters. Amid dissociation, individuals might sense detachment from thoughts, emotions, or surroundings, even experiencing memory gaps. This can lead to a feeling of observing oneself from an external vantage (depersonalization) or sensing the environment as distant or unreal (derealization).
Dissociation spans a spectrum, encompassing mild instances like daydreaming or realizing you’ve navigated home without recollection. More severe dissociative disorders, like DID, cause intensified and recurrent dissociation, significantly impacting daily functioning and overall well-being.
Dissociative disorders disrupt normal awareness and alter a person’s sense of identity, memory, or consciousness. Recent research suggests dissociative symptoms are more common than previously thought and often misdiagnosed, leading to delayed treatment. Conditions like dissociative identity disorder and depersonalization disorder can be mistaken for other issues, such as depression, mood swings, memory lapses, or medical problems like headaches. Proper diagnosis by a mental health professional familiar with current diagnostic methods is crucial due to the often concealed nature of dissociative symptoms.
People with dissociative identity disorder often experience a range of unique and complex feelings and experiences. They might feel like they have different alters within themselves, each with their own thoughts, emotions, memories, and behaviors. These parts can feel distinct, as if they are separate individuals sharing the same body, and transitions between these parts can be sudden and unexpected.
Individuals with DID might have gaps in their memory, where they don’t remember certain events or periods of time. They may find items, notes, or messages that they don’t recall writing. Some alters may have different ages, genders, or even different accents or languages.
People with DID might experience moments of confusion, disorientation, or a feeling of being detached from themselves or their surroundings. They could feel like they are watching themselves from the outside, as if in a dream. They might also have episodes of “losing time” where they don’t remember what they did or where they were during a certain period.
It’s important to note that experiences can vary widely among individuals with DID, and some people may have more severe symptoms than others.
What are the Causes of DID?
Dissociative identity disorder occurs in people from all walks of life, however there is generally one unifying factor in the development of DID. It is believed to follow severe or complex trauma, such as persistent physical, psychological, or sexual abuse during childhood. Coping through dissociation allows people to emotionally distance themselves from overwhelming experiences.
In the context of childhood trauma, the process through which a child begins to dissociate is as a coping mechanism. During early developmental stages, children possess a tendency for magical thinking, where fantastical beliefs are common. For instance, children might project their thoughts or emotions onto inanimate objects or imaginary companions. While developmentally appropriate, this displacement of feelings can evolve into a coping strategy for children facing recurrent trauma.
In cases of sustained trauma, such as ongoing sexual abuse, a child may employ this displacement to manage overwhelming emotions and memories. By dissociating from their distressing experiences and attributing them to separate aspects of themselves, they create a psychological distance.
DID can enable children to preserve emotional bonds, and coping mechanisms, fostering resilience amidst adversity. Nonetheless, as dissociation persists into adulthood even when the immediate danger subsides, it can impede or hinder the recovery process from trauma. This underscores the complex interplay between dissociation, coping mechanisms, and the long-term implications for individuals transitioning into adulthood.
Diagnosis and Treatment of DID
Diagnosing DID requires a thorough assessment by a mental health professional who specializes in trauma and dissociation. It’s crucial to create a supportive, safe environment for individuals to share their experiences openly. A compassionate and empathetic approach is vital, as individuals with DID may have faced skepticism or disbelief in the past.
Treatment for DID typically involves long-term psychotherapy, specifically tailored to address the trauma that led to the disorder. Therapeutic techniques such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy are commonly used. Establishing a therapeutic alliance based on trust and understanding is essential for the healing process.
Support networks, including friends, family, and support groups, play a crucial role in the recovery journey. Loved ones should educate themselves about DID and approach the individual with empathy, patience, and non-judgmental support.
Understanding that DID results from how the mind coped with overwhelming trauma can help reduce stigma and foster a compassionate approach to diagnosis and treatment. With the right guidance, support, and commitment, people with DID can work towards integration and healing, reclaiming their lives from the grip of trauma.