“That doesn’t make sense. I’m one person. I’m just T.”
I began to see a trauma-specializing therapist who had spent years working for one of the most respected trauma programs out there. I had been with my previous therapist for nine years, and working through my mood and anxiety symptoms wasn’t helping me anymore. My new therapist diagnosed me with PTSD in the first half hour, even though I spent most of that time instinctively minimizing and attempting to normalize my experiences. I filled out a number of paper assessments afterward, and within a month she told me what her final diagnostic impression was: dissociative identity disorder, or DID.
My reaction, in retrospect, pretty much solidified the diagnosis. About half of me was shocked and doubtful: DID was a disorder that people with real trauma developed. I just had a shitty mom, a less-than-perfect paternal family, and an abusive ex. You know, "normal" stuff. What right did I have to have DID? The rest of me started rushing forward with flashbacks. The rest of me suddenly noticed the blacked out times in my childhood which I attributed to “normally” developing memory. The rest of me led me back to my writing - the letters I had written to parts of myself in my journals, the poetry I had written about parts of myself whom I'd even given names a decade earlier, the particular part of me that I regularly referred to by a different name in my mind which I had labeled as a weird “manic” state of bipolar disorder gone rogue. I came back to therapy the following week with a 7-page detailed character sketch of the different parts of my mind that I was aware of - their names, ages, likes and dislikes, triggers, quirks... complete with subtle handwriting shifts I hadn’t even noticed in the moment. All me, but all serving their own protective purposes, and all having their own stories of good and bad timing.
Even after all this, I still tried to refute my diagnosis because I didn’t have significant gaps in my memory or dramatic switches currently. I later learned that most my dissociative parts are fairly good at working together, especially for someone who is newly-diagnosed. I’m missing almost all of my memories of my childhood before my mother lost custody of me when I was five and a half years old. When my father got custody of me and I began living with him and my grandparents, while the family was problematic in its own way, I started remembering everything. My interest in writing grew almost desperately - daily journal entries, song lyrics, stories, poetry, comics, anything to express my thoughts and feelings. My mind found a way to pass information from one part to another. I no longer black out weeks and months, but only moments of the worst trauma. And of those moments, though I may not have a solid sensory memory, I at least usually have factual information. “[Person] was mad at you and physically hurt you, and that is where that bruise came from.” We call these “headlines.” I’ve even started recovering these headlines for early childhood traumas and abuse that I never admitted to myself because it was not safe. It wasn’t that these realizations materialized out of nowhere, as some believe “repressed memories” might, but it was more like I had the dots and never connected them into a full picture or a full “adult” understanding. These missing pieces protected me from the trauma because it would be too agonizing to live with knowing and being helpless. It was safer to not remember and have that false sense of security with the abuser because I did not have a choice otherwise. (I am frustrated and also I am grateful to my mind for this.)
I learned that all young children begin with a dissociated concept of self, and this begins to solidify into one identity later in childhood. When a young child experiences repeated trauma, typically by someone who is supposed to protect them from trauma, the self doesn’t become a unified identity. The child needs their own various internal protectors to survive and navigate the trauma, and the child grows into an adult still relying on those internal resources for protection, even after they are no longer in the traumatic environment, because that is what worked in the past. Some internal protectors may have healthy concepts of protection, such as compassion and nurturance, and others may have unhealthy concepts of protection, such as self-harm and substance use. Every part of the mind serves a purpose, and every part has gotten me where I am today. Now that I have more control over my life and have a therapist who can help me through the toughest aspects of my story, we (the collective parts of my mind) need to learn how to work together as one T, even though we may always be very different from one another. I’ve learned that I actually don’t need to go through life feeling a constant tug-of-war within me, trying to figure out how to spare myself the most pain or danger every step of the way. (Note: I do not like referring to myself as a collective “we” because this feels unsafe and doesn’t fit my sense of self quite right. I never use it in conversation and I very seldom use it in therapy. I use it here because it gets my point across most effectively when talking about all parts.)
All of that being said, I was diagnosed less than a year ago, and DID is still hard for me to talk about. I’ve struggled with the stigma of this disorder for a while. I have a higher degree in psychology and swore up and down that I couldn’t imagine what it was like to live with DID. That was a protective defense, but it was also secured by societal myths and stereotypes. Although I live openly about my other diagnoses, I do not feel comfortable being open about my DID and I don’t know that I ever will. I fear others will view me as erratic, unpredictable, untrustworthy, dangerous, unstable, confusing, unlovable. I fear others will make assumptions based on media like Split or even the less harmful United States of Tara. I fear others will study me, waiting to catch a switch, not understanding that my parts are all me. I fear others will try to figure out what could be so horrible that I went through to cause this disorder - if they even believe it’s a real disorder at all. I fear others will think that DID is made up and I’m only looking for attention.
Through Lithium & Lace, however, I hope to share more about my experiences living with DID as they unfold. I’m grateful to you for choosing to join me in that. I don’t claim to have all the answers about DID or even about my own experience, but I’m learning and I invite you to learn with me.
For more information about dissociative identity disorder, visit the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation or check out this article dispelling common myths.