I am writing this article as a survivor of complex trauma and a sufferer of DID, both of which are inextricably married. Through my writing, I wish to honour all those with the disorder and to celebrate their survival because of it. Despite the controversy that DID continues to court, I hope this article will enlighten and elucidate, demonstrating that DID is a creative, logical and normal response to what is harrowingly abnormal. I invite you to take a glimpse into my world as a person living with the disorder, to highlight how integral therapy is to our recovery, to share what prompted me to train as a therapist, why I believe a person’s lived experience of DID can enrich their practice and to illustrate the struggles I have encountered in pursuit of my training. Above all else, the purpose of this article is to raise awareness in conjunction with DID day as in disseminating information through an experiential lens, our hope is that DID will be recognised, treated and respected for the phenomenal survival strategy that it is.
Living with DID is exhausting, cacophonous, chaotic, disorienting and dizzying. A mind and body populated by thirty-seven different parts is overwhelming and discombobulating. Equally, living with DID is comforting, cushioning, entertaining, familial and purposeful. DID is a paradox given the isolation it breeds yet I am never without company. It straddles two opposing worlds: the internal and the external, the former inhabited by the parts and the latter exclusively my own. The internal world is blighted by unrelenting pain, its landscape scarred by unimaginable horrors and its populace divided by allegiance to and betrayal of the perpetrators who sadistically and mercilessly defiled them. Conflict wrestles with harmony, exposure wrestles with concealment and entrapment wrestles with liberation. Conversely, the external world invites normality, functionality, denial, structure and routine masking the chaos within whilst deluding observer and observed into well-being. The external world is a defence against the internal horrors whose narrative is held by the parts, a narrative that threatens to penetrate psychic walls, consume and devour. Yet, it is only when those two worlds collide that the narrative can be exhumed from the darkest corners of my mind, integrated and healed.
Every person’s experience of DID is unique but for me, the conflict between the parts’ reality and my own has been the biggest challenge in living with the disorder. Amnesic of the trauma until my early twenties when those amnesic walls began to disintegrate and parts began to surface, it was incomprehensible to me that the horrors they were communicating could be real. Not only were their memories conveyed in flashbacks but somatically, manifesting in dissociative seizures that left me bruised, dazed and exhausted. Their narrative of depravity and heinousness was in sharp contrast to my own, a narrative steeped in love and care. This divisive split between good and bad obstructs integration of the parts’ harrowing narrative and hampers internal communication between myself and selves. To recognise that the revered person in whose eyes I was painted as a princess, was in a fact a sadistic predator and I, his unknowing victim, is devastatingly de-stabilising and a reality too abhorrent to conceive of. I remain unable to marry the two for to bridge such a union is to relinquish all I believed to be solid and real.
Triggers and the switching they provoke are an inherent part of my day. Although exhausting, distressing and relentless, they adopt a familiarity that courts uncanny acceptance. They are plentiful and ubiquitous, animate and inanimate, menacing and innocent. They infiltrate all senses. They fill our days and haunt our nights. They are indefatigable in their expression. My feelings disavowed into a subservient part, I can sidestep their unannounced arrival, an observer in the wings, powerless to prise memory from accommodating part. In my co-consciousness, I am forced to witness a part’s distress, prevented by an inexplicable and unseen force from stepping forward to halt the untold horrors a little one is being subjected to in her inability to distinguish past from present. I watch her body thrust and jerk uncontrollably and her mouth chew on fetid, unimaginable matter whilst denial escapes my grasp and truth grips firmly at my throat. As the memory fades and I am released, I hold and soothe the part, her trauma penetrating my defences and momentarily becoming my own.
I have thirty-seven parts, the youngest being a curly haired eighteen-month-old boy and the oldest, a female, malevolent introject in her sixties. I also have a horribly oppressive part who is ageless, hooded and whose mythology symbolises death. Interestingly and perhaps, purposefully, his initials resemble those of my perpetrator. I have several sets of twins, each the other’s antipode. I also have parts within a part, the oldest part housing younger parts of whom they are fiercely protective. By far the most difficult parts to live with are the persecutory with their incessant denigration and scathing verbal onslaught. However, ironically, they are the most protective, their persecution an impenetrable shield against further external hurt. Each part holds disavowed feelings and traumas anaesthetising me to the horrors that they were subjected to yet rendering me feelingless and with seismic lapses in autobiographical narrative. In ensuring my survival, they manage their own through self-destructive behaviour manifesting in starvation, obsessions and compulsions, self-harm, alcohol abuse and suicidality, behaviours that communicate a historic need to be seen, heard and known.
Therapy assumes a central role in our lives providing a safe and containing space to explore the trauma from a reparative, secure base. Regrettably, our experiences of therapy have been disappointing as a result of inaccessibility to therapists trained and experienced in trauma and dissociation. Given the transition to online working during the pandemic, it has broadened the therapeutic landscape providing opportunity to work with a trauma specialist. What is imperative to the treatment of DID is allowing the parts a voice given their insatiable need to be heard, seen and known. This includes the persecutory parts whose hostile, angry energy is protective and when worked with can be transformative. Internal communication is a key objective of therapy and a precursor to integration posing considerable challenge where there is conflict and disharmony both amongst the parts and between them and the outside part. Given my amnesia of the trauma and consequential struggle to accept its veracity, internal communication has been taxing. To accept the parts is to accept the trauma that conceived them which remains too monumental to contemplate.
The therapist occupies a pivotal role in our lives, cushioning us against the isolation inherent in DID and co-morbidities anorexia, OCD and depression. Mindful of the parts’ differing attachment styles and internal working models, the therapist provides the secure base that was palpably remiss historically thereby enabling safe exploration of the trauma. Navigating treatment is complex with many twists and turns, a dizzying tapestry of varying attachment styles, multiple personalities and harrowing traumas. It is long, challenging, demanding and testing for therapist and client alike but conversely, it offers reparation, healing, empowerment and transformation. Therapy is the only space where I can be me, a person inhabited by multiple parts with many different traumatic narratives and where I can shed the skin of acquiescent normality and reveal my vulnerability, my fragility and, above all else, my many parts. In a society where DID continues to court controversy despite being treated over one hundred years ago by Janet , the opportunity to be me, in all my psychological nakedness, without judgement and ridicule is an unparalleled gift.
It was experiencing the pivotal role that a therapist plays in the life of someone with DID that prompted my desire to train. Living in a part of England where recognition and treatment of the disorder is appallingly deficient and whose resources are stretched and inadequate, I wanted to reverse that deficit by offering a safe, therapeutic space for survivors. Having undergone therapies where we didn’t experience such containment and attunement, it re-enforced my ambition to work in the field of trauma and dissociation thereby reversing the inconsistencies of my own therapies in my work with clients. Aware as I am of the insufferable loneliness DID cultivates, I want to accompany survivors in their pain and ultimate recovery. My want to treat people with DID also emanates from a place of tremendous respect both for their staggering survival of mankind’s inhumaneness and depravity and for the remarkable disorder that enabled that survival. DID fascinates me both for its ingenuity and logicality whilst the brain and body’s resources for survival astound and enthral me.
It is my firm belief that practising as a person with lived experience of DID enriches treatment as the ‘as if’ component of empathy resonates at a deeper dimension. In having a wider understanding of the parts and their roles within the system and being able to relate to them accordingly, trust can be established and the secure attachment that was so remiss in childhood activated. In being a client with many parts, I am well-rehearsed in knowing what responses and behaviours are triggering in the therapist and how they might activate certain acting out behaviours. I am mindful of the scrutiny I would be placed under, hypervigilant as survivors are to any nuance of danger and misattunement. Working with DID is similar to navigating a field of landmines but mindful of where not to tread, I am shielded from an explosion. So often I have been asked by a therapist in a moment of unanticipated dissociation where I have gone to, a question I am powerless to respond to in my voiceless withdrawal and lambasted by hostile parts. Dissociation is my safe place, a refuge from all that is threatening and unstable, yet a place I am unable to articulate. In my role as a therapist, it is not a question I would ever have to ask; it is instead a moment of quiet knowing and respectful connection.
I embrace and celebrate DID Awareness Day, given the controversy DID continues to court, and because both the disorder and the brave people who live with it deserve to be honoured and respected. In disseminating awareness, the disorder will receive wider recognition and consequently, those living with it will receive the correct diagnosis and treatment. Regrettably, DID is steeped in stigma, mirroring the stigma from which it is conceived.
I question whether DID would wear such a controversial cloak if society was less dissociated from child abuse. It may not be until society can associate to such heinousness, that DID can be recognised as the survival strategy that it is. I hope days such as DID Awareness Day help to eradicate that stigma and the survivors’ consequential regurgitated shame of a defiled past so that every person with DID can feel empowered to be proud of the extraordinary survivors that they are and the fierce warriors that they have become.