Guest Post - DID Myths and Misconceptions
This week I am honored and privileged to have permission to share a post from Beauty After Bruises‘ blog. I have had the pleasure of corresponding with the good people from BAB, and am very happy to be getting acquainted with them. Here’s a bit more about who they are and what they do. Their post about common DID myths and misconceptions follows after. Thank you to the team for everything you do!
Beauty After Bruises is a nonprofit dedicated to providing survivors with Complex PTSD and Dissociative Trauma Disorders with the funding necessary to receive therapeutic and/or inpatient care as needed. We also work to improve professional and public awareness for these disorders, and are passionate about offering current and comprehensive education wherever possible. We try to foster as much of a compassionate, warm and supportive environment as possible and are eager to work with others in this community to help strengthen our voices and fight together for survivors everywhere. We are so excited and grateful to collaborate with Jade and are so proud of all the work she has done. Thank you, sincerely, to Jade and to all of her readers. It’s an honor to work with her and, by extension, all of you. We hope to get the chance to meet more of you and look forward to any opportunity to come together!
If you’d like more information on who we are and what we do, or a chance to read some of our other materials, our website is beautyafterbruises.org, and you can find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!
DID MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
Dissociative Identity Disorder is by far one of the least understood mental illnesses out there. It is enshrouded in misinformation, outdated material and coursework for students and clinicians alike, and a seemingly unending barrage of attempts at defamation. The latter seems ridiculous, but probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider that DID is caused by longterm, recurrent trauma in childhood – most often abuse. There is a rather hefty incentive for entire organizations to want to squash its credibility or deny its existence, particularly when some of the founders of such organizations were accused of child sexual misconduct themselves. But, that is NO excuse. In fact, it’s a massive reason for why we exist at all and why we are so passionate about getting solid, credible information out there to everyone.
There will be no shortage of information here on what DID is not, coupled with clarifications on what it is, but let’s at least provide a brief summary for those of you unfamiliar enough so that you can better follow along. DID is a dissociative trauma disorder in which a survivor has undergone longterm, repetitive trauma in early childhood. This trauma, combined with some other factors, results in a fairly dramatic interruption of psychological development – especially as it pertains to identity. This results in “differentiated self-states” – also known as alters/parts – who may each think, act, and feel considerably different from one another. These parts of the mind – who may have their own name, age and personality – can take executive control of the body leaving the survivor without any awareness for the time they were gone. These amnesic gaps in memory can be for just a few moments, a few days, or even entire chunks of their childhood. These alters exist to help the survivor cope with deeply painful and unconscionable trauma, holding it out of their awareness to the best of their ability. But often, once they begin to find safety and/or enter adulthood, this once supremely creative and protective mechanism can quickly become a maladaptive skill that causes real life consequences. And, all of this can be going on alongside the effects of PTSD (flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, etc) or many of the other potential co-occurring disorders that frequent trauma survivors.
So, now that you know a bit more about the very basics of DID, LETS GO DEBUNK SOME MYTHS! Since this is a lengthy one, we divided them into three parts: myths the general public tends to believe, misconceptions that even those familiar with the condition still hold onto, annnnnd then some of the crazies 😉 Let’s do this!
PART ONE: THE GENERAL PUBLIC
✘ MYTH: DID IS VERY RARE.
Not even close. Its prevalence rate (~1.5%) is actually more common than young women with bulimia and even on par with well-known conditions like OCD. While it is very hard to gather statistics on a community of survivors who are built on secrecy, afraid to receive such a stigmatizing diagnosis, therapists who are untrained to recognize it, a condition laden with amnesia (leading many to be unaware something “is wrong”), and intense denial of trauma — it is still inarguable that it is anything but rare. It is a major mental health issue.
✘ MYTH: PEOPLE WITH DID ARE DANGEROUS, VILLAINOUS KILLERS OR HAVE ALTERS WHO DO EXTREME HARM.
Contrary to popular belief, survivors with DID are no more dangerous than those with any other mental health condition or the general public. The crime rate, violent use of weapons, domestic disturbances, etc. are no greater than (and often less than) the general population. In fact, due to survivors’ prolonged exposure to trauma and violence, it is far more common for those with DID to be re-victimized and on the receiving end of violence and/or abuse than to perpetrate it. Many even take very staunch stances on pacifism after a lifetime of aggression and pain.
✘ MYTH: DID ISN’T REAL. IT’S A CONDITION CREATED BY THERAPISTS / EXAGGERATED BPD / ATTENTION-SEEKING / HPD AND COMPULSIVE LYING / ETC.
Research begs to differ. DID has distinct markers that separate it from all other disorders already in the DSM and it’s conclusive that DID results from longterm childhood trauma – nothing else. It’s the only condition that has such pronounced amnesic gaps (“missing time”), differentiated personality states, as well as unquestionable exposure to extensive trauma; it did not just materialize from thin air or without solid precedent. Iatrogenic cases (“therapist created”) do not present the same as authentic DID and can be distinguished (just as malingerers and factitious presentations can be separated). For more information on those: here.
As for the idea of it being “just attention-seeking”: It should be observed that ALL disorders, even physical illnesses, have groups of individuals who will pretend to have them. But DID has no higher rates of this than other conditions, and there is even a specific set of criteria that exists for clinicians to confidently determine if someone is faking the condition. But, primarily: there are far easier, more believable, more profitable, and more “rewarding” conditions to fake for attention or to garner sympathy than DID. DID is a condition riddled with stigma, vitriol, and people from all corners of the world eager to tell you that you’re a liar, it’s not real, or (even if they do believe you) still hurl a bunch of insults at you just because you’re a trauma survivor or have a mental illness. This is not what most are looking for when they hope to cultivate sympathy or attention. While some do try, many tire very quickly when they realize how many small quirks and minor details about their alters they must be able to recall and maintain seamlessly, and most are not trained actors to manage this. Then, there are much, much greater hurdles to clear for anyone trying to seek treatment or therapy (as opposed to just claiming it in their personal lives or online) – so most do not.
We do not disbelieve the existence of eating disorders, cancer or OCD merely because some people fake it, do we? …even though the rates of malingering or factitious disorders for those conditions are higher. Why should DID be any different?
✘ MYTH: IF YOU HAVE DID, YOU CAN’T KNOW YOU HAVE IT. YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOUR ALTERS OR WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU.
While it is a common trait for host parts of a DID system to initially have no awareness of their trauma or the inside chatterings of their mind, self-awareness is possible at any age. Particularly once starting therapy, receiving a diagnosis, or becoming familiar with the condition, the entire path to healing relies on gaining access to all of that information, as well as establishing communication with parts inside. But, even without therapy, some can be aware of a few traumatic experiences, be able to recognize the signs of switching, or learn about themselves through old journal entries, self-photos, reading back old letters shared with loved ones they don’t recall writing, and more.
✘ MYTH: SWITCHES IN DID WILL BE DRAMATIC, NOTICEABLE/DETECTABLE, OR INVOLVE PARTS WHO WANT TO WEAR DIFFERENT CLOTHES/MAKEUP, ETC. “IF YOU REALLY HAD DID, EVERYONE WOULD KNOW IT.”
*buzzer noise* False. Only a very, very small percentage of the population with DID have overt presentations of their alters or switches (5-6%). While some hints of detection can be seen amongst friends and therapists, most changes are passable as completely normal human behavior. DID is a disorder built around concealment. Dramatic switches and changes in exterior or behavior would attract far too much attention, which could be dangerous for the survivor. Alters learn how to blend in, and many who do have considerably different personality traits, mannerisms, accents, etc. often do their VERY best to mirror the host’s behaviors instead. In the presence of loved ones, or those “in the know”, some of these acts of concealment can fall away and alters may feel freer to express themselves individually – but it won’t be anything like what you’ve seen on TV. Child alters, however, are sometimes the most distinct when fronting in a survivor who is very adult, and are often what wins over even the most stern of DID-doubters — but this is one of the primary reasons that DID systems tend to keep these parts away from the front at all costs in public settings. As for switching, it can often look like an inconspicuous fluttering of the eyelids, a little muscle twitch or facial tic, or some other small movement of the body that looks like anyone repositioning themselves (or, y’know, breathing). Switches can be detected if paying very close attention while being aware of the condition, but it’s extremely rare for strangers or acquaintances to ever recognize one themselves. They’d sooner assume something else was responsible entirely.
✘ MYTH: DID IS A DISORDER OF “MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES” — THAT IS ALL THAT’S GOING ON FOR THE PERSON AFFLICTED AND IS WHAT MAKES IT AN ILLNESS.
Having separate identities is merely the byproduct of something greater, not the sole disorder. The real “disorder” lies in the complex trauma and the effects it had on the child’s mind and neurology. Most of the healing from DID revolves around processing traumatic memories and digging through the layers and layers of pain, hurt, sadness and anger that each part holds. Yes, having alters poses very distinct challenges which are often tackled in therapy, too, but DID is a trauma disorder – NOT a disorder of personality.
✘ MYTH: DID HAPPENS BECAUSE THE MIND IS SO TRAUMATIZED THAT IT SPLITS INTO ALL KINDS OF ALTERS. THE MIND JUST SHATTERS INTO PIECES UNDER ALL THE PRESSURE OF TRAUMA.
This was a long-believed model for DID, and one still held by many therapists today who have failed to update themselves with the current understanding of dissociation and identity development. The Theory of Structural Dissociation states that DID results from a failure to integrate into one identity, NOT a whole that breaks, shatters or splits. We have a more detailed (but also very “layman-friendly”) explanation here: You Did Not Shatter.
✘ MYTH: DID CAN DEVELOP AT ANY AGE.
DID only develops in early childhood, no later. Current research suggests before the ages of 6-9 (while other papers list even as early as age 4). Prolonged, repeated trauma later in life (particularly that which is at the sole control of another person, or breaks down a person’s psyche and self-perception) can result in Complex PTSD, which does have some overlapping symptoms, but they WILL NOT develop DID.
It should be noted there are also other dissociative disorders, some that even mirror DID very closely (OSDD and their subtypes), and age may be a very slight influencing factor in the lessened alter differentiation and/or amnesia experienced there — but most are quite young for their trauma as well. And, there are many reasons one may present as an OSDD-type system instead of a DID system, but they are a conversation for another day! Understanding DID is tough enough for most! Still, many of these myths will also apply to many of their symptoms, systems and experiences, too.
✘ MYTH: SURVIVORS WITH DID CAN SWITCH ON DEMAND IF NEEDED FOR A TASK OR SOMEONE JUST SIMPLY ASKS FOR THEM.
Plainly put, this is just not possible. Sure, for some there are moments where they can call upon certain alters for certain tasks, but there are no guarantees or absolutes (and, for any number of reasons). When it comes to outsiders trying to call upon parts, this could range anywhere from “sometimes possible” (particularly in therapy or in extremely safe relationships), to “hit-or-miss” (depending on the person, their intent, the state of things inside, being triggered forward but not actually wanting to be there, and so on), to “never” (either because it’s completely inappropriate and uncalled for, it’s unsafe, they have a highly protective reason for staying inside, they can’t even hear you, or some other very important reason). Survivors with DID are not a magic trick.
NOTE: DO NOT TRY TO CALL PARTS FORWARD, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE NOT A TRAINED PROFESSIONAL OR DO NOT HAVE THE SYSTEM’S IMPLICIT PERMISSION TO TRY IN NECESSARY SITUATIONS. This is a violation of psychological and emotional boundaries.
✘ MYTH: COMMUNICATION WITH ALTERS HAPPENS BY SEEING THEM IN FRONT OF YOU AND TALKING TO THEM JUST LIKE OUTSIDE PEOPLE — A HALLUCINATION. (WE CAN THANK THE UNITED STATES OF TARA FOR THIS ONE.)
Not so much. This is a very rare, inefficient, and an extremely conspicuous means of communication. It also relies on a visual hallucination, which is typically a psychotic symptom that most with DID do not have. However, it IS a possibility, and some do experience this; but it’s typically due to extreme dissociation and mental visualization that just FEELS incredibly real on the outside – as opposed to a true external hallucination of an alter. For most, survivors tend to view and speak to their alters internally — sometimes through thoughts, face-to-face communication inside the mind in their respective bodies (many have an internal world), or through “voice” communication heard in the mind. This is why DID diagnoses can so commonly be mixed up with schizophrenia because these internal conversations can SEEM like “hearing voices” (especially if you have nothing to compare it to), but they aren’t actual auditory hallucinations. Instead, DID voices are very “loud” versions of one’s own thoughts (versus, say, hearing the radio or microwave talk to you, or voices of those whom you know do NOT belong to you in any way). Alter communication is very much a part of you, even if the thoughts, ideas and tones of it are considerably different than your own inner monologue.
Other frequent means of communication are things like: journaling, art, post-it notes, online blogging; and now more commonly things like social media, voice memos, videos, and more.
✘ MYTH: PARTS IN A DID SYSTEM ARE ALL JUST VARIATIONS OF THE HOST AT DIFFERENT TRAUMATIZED AGES OF THEIR LIFE.
Nope. Parts can be any age, gender, or personality type. They can have entirely different outlooks on the world, faiths, sexual orientations, political views, etc. Many are even associated with no specific trauma at all but still have a very important and necessary role inside the mind. Alters are NOT merely “frozen” or “stunted” aspects of the host, marked by when trauma took place (and trauma “took place” every single day for years for a lot of people). This can happen for some – and their parts’ names may all even be similar or variations of the survivor’s name – but even then they typically show a great deal of variation from what the survivor was like at those ages. Personality differentiation is a hallmark of the condition. Without it, it’s not DID.
✘ MYTH: BECAUSE ‘X’ PERSON LIED ABOUT HAVING DID, THEY’RE PROBABLY ALL LYING.
Generalizations have never gotten us anywhere in life. Do some people lie about having DID? Yep. Do some ignorantly use it as a crutch to try and excuse bad behavior? Sure do. Does that mean the millions who are struggling every day just to go on after an entire childhood of trauma — who are fighting an uphill battle of perseverance to overcome the sky-high rates of suicide, while warring with heartless stigma and the lack of access to even basic care — they’re just all lying? No, no and no. Does it instead make the people who lied the ones we should be shaming? ..the terrible jerks who appropriated someone else’s suffering for their own gain? Definitely.
✘ MYTH: PEOPLE WITH DID WILL INEVITABLY CHEAT ON YOU/BE UNFAITHFUL BECAUSE THEIR PARTS WILL JUST GO BE WITH SOMEONE ELSE.
I know it’s hard to believe, but everyone is different. What one person does, their system does, or television leads you to believe will be inevitable DOES NOT apply to everyone. Many exist in highly exclusive, monogamous relationships and instead live in fear themselves of being cheated on; becoming inadequate, a burden, or dissatisfactory to their partners to the point that they are the ones to be left. DID survivors tend to be more concerned with just finding a healthy, non-abusive, communicative relationship than to “go wild” with the “promiscuous alters” (but more on those later).
✘ MYTH: YOU CAN TREAT DID WITH MEDICATION.
There are zero medications to treat DID. There are, however, medications that can be helpful in managing some of the symptoms of PTSD or other co-occurring disorders. Medications to calm crippling anxiety, alleviate depression, lessen nightmares, stabilize mood, help with compulsions, aid in severe insomnia, etc. can all be helpful at various points in a survivor’s treatment. But nothing exists to help the symptoms associated with DID, and many can even make them much worse. Be extremely wary of anyone suggesting they can help with your dissociative symptoms or switching. They are most likely misinformed, or possibly even lying to you.
✘ MYTH: INTEGRATION IS A “MUST”, OR IS EVERYONE’S GOAL IN THERAPY.
As will be a theme here, everyone is different. Integration into one individual identity IS the goal for some. But it is not, and does not have to be, for everyone. It is possible to achieve full healing by processing memories, establishing communication across the whole mind, lowering dissociative barriers, and showing aptitude in all working toward a common goal – without actually integrating. Others may choose to integrate SOME parts, or “downsize”, but still leave a small system to go about their life. There are many, many reasons for why someone may choose any of the above. But integration is NOT a must, and anyone insisting that it is or refuses to accept your decision to remain distinct, does not have your best interests in mind and heart.
PART TWO: SUPPORTERS, THERAPISTS/CLINICIANS AND SURVIVORS THEMSELVES
✘ MYTH: THE TERM ALTER STANDS FOR “ALTERNATE PERSONALITY”, “ALTERNATE IDENTITY”, OR “ALTER EGO”.
No, it came from “altered state of consciousness”. That’s what extreme dissociation is, an altered state of consciousness. When you access another part of your mind, an alter, your mind is operating on a different plane of awareness than it was only a moment ago – feeling different feelings, accessing different memories, and cognizant of knowledge and information that other parts of the mind are not.
“Alter ego” has zero relevance in DID whatsoever. It can stay with Beyonce and Fight Club.
✘ MYTH: PEOPLE WITH DID ONLY HAVE A FEW ALTERS.
Some can only have a couple or a few, but it’s more common to be in teens and twenties. It’s also extremely common to only be aware of a few for some time, and then discover many many more as therapy progresses and it is safe for them to be known by the others. Systems in the 30s and 40s are not uncommon either. For those with backgrounds of ritual abuse, mind control, human trafficking or other organized violence, it’s incredibly common to be well past 100 or even impossible to count. System size does not validate or invalidate a survivor.
✘ MYTH: ALL SYSTEMS HAVE SPECIFIC TYPES OF ALTERS (I.E. “THE REBEL TEEN”, “THE PROMISCUOUS ALTER”, “THE LOVING MOTHER”, “THE ADORABLE CHILD”, “THE DREADED INTROJECT”, ETC.)
Sure, some do have these alters – and it’s often for good reason and themes that exist in abuse, and less so because of themes within the disorder. Many will have none of these parts, others have completely reversed takes on them, and so forth. While it makes for easy book and film-writing, and some survivors do find themes or similarities within their system and others’, there is no universal recipe for a DID system. And getting too specific or trying to organize alters into subtypes can be incredibly damaging and lead to a whole host of new issues (none too dissimilar to trying to fit regular humans into boxes or “types”).
✘ MYTH: ALL ALTERS WILL BE (OR SHOULD BE) THE SAME GENDER/RACE/SEXUALITY AS THE SURVIVOR.
As mentioned before, different genders, sexualities, and even races can exist within one system. Sometimes this happens at complete random, others stem from positive childhood influences, and other times these changes were bred out of traumatic necessity.
✘ MYTH: INHUMAN ALTERS ARE IMPOSSIBLE (ROBOTS, WOLVES, GHOSTS, CATS, ETC).
Not impossible at all and instead very common. For many children, being a human is scary. It gets them hurt. Being invisible, incapable of feeling, becoming a scary entity, a loving creature, a shapeshifter even — these may all feel infinitely safer and more protective. Alters do not come about by conscious choice. They happen within a child’s mind, through their understanding of the universe at the time, and whatever seems dramatically safer than what they’re currently going through. Just as some human alters have no voice to speak, are deaf or blind – these inhuman alters who may be unable to do some of these very same things are just as valuable and important as the humans. They are protective, not weird or unbelievable.
✘ MYTH: ALL “LITTLES” ARE BROKEN AND DAMAGED. OR, CONVERSELY, ALL LITTLES ARE HAPPY, BUBBLY KIDS THAT HOLD THE SURVIVOR’S “INNOCENCE”.
Theme here: all humans, systems, and alters are different. Some child parts ARE deeply traumatized, hardly able to function. While, for others, their kid parts really are the most innocent, endearing, and happy little souls. But then there is every shade in between. Some systems have TONS of kids – hundreds even – each vastly different from the other. Happy, sad, energetic, daring, lonely, scared, adventurous, genius, illiterate, precocious, shy, athletic, girly, mean, messy, pristine, posturing, infantile, newborns, brave, hidden, exuberant….. the possibilities are endless in child parts.
✘ MYTH: “INTROJECTS” ARE INHERENTLY EVIL AND ARE JUST LIKE THE ABUSERS IN THAT PERSON’S LIFE.
The word introject refers to any part who is modeled off an outside individual – mirroring their characteristics or behavior, sometimes even going by the same name and visual presentation. These can be positive or negative; some are even fictional characters. (Again, it’s NOT a conscious process, and it happens within a young, traumatized child’s mind. Pulling from fiction makes complete sense to children.) While positive or fictional introjects are very much a possibility, negative/abuser introjects are far more common in DID systems. And, colloquially, introjects are often talked about in terms of being “the bad guy”. But, it is important to remember they serve a very valid and important purpose, and they are NOT the actual person. They are a part within the mind, the survivor’s essence, and are just copying behaviors that were shown to them because they feel it’s for the system’s own good. Even if they are hurting the body, or internal system members, they are not “evil” in the same way the real abusers are. These parts are just very misguided in what they feel to be ultimately protective – especially when it feels like the exact antithesis.
Introjects can only model these individuals so well because they’ve spent copious amounts of time with them. And, in the case of abuser introjects, it usually means these parts were themselves the most abused by that person. But, by “becoming them”, they may keep you stuck and afraid – which can mean you are far less likely to talk in therapy, tell a family member or friend, seek justice or file a report, go seeking any more information in your mind, talk to certain parts inside, and more. ….all things your real abuser would have threatened great harm against you for if you tried to do them. Introjects’ insults may leave you timid and afraid, so you won’t “put yourself out there” anymore (which, to them, may be exactly what they feel is necessary to keep you safe). Even healing or becoming well might feel too threatening or unsafe (for countless trauma beliefs), and by being a menacing part who terrorizes your mind and body, you’ll stay safe from whatever those “threats” may be. …even if behaving that way creates new threats to your safety. Helping them to see this paradox can often be the first step to getting them to take pause so you can eventually mend. Many of these introjects are actually even extremely young child parts who are just posturing as this ‘big bad adult’ for some semblance of control and power.
But, it’s important to remember that THEY are not evil; they’re usually just extremely traumatized and were given a manipulated understanding of safety and/or love. But also YOU as a whole are not evil just because these parts live inside of you. They are just mimicking behaviors/thought patterns they’ve seen in someone else for years because they believe they’re keeping you safe. Most don’t honestly feel any gratification in causing harm nor do they have any sadistic feelings in their body like real abusers do. There is a dramatic difference between going-through-the-motions and having true malevolent intent like the REAL bad guys.
✘ MYTH: ALTERS WHO PERSECUTE (VIA BODILY SELF-HARM OR HARM TO OTHER PARTS INSIDE) ARE BAD AND SHOULD BE TAMED/GOTTEN RID OF/IGNORED/KILLED/ETC.
In a similar vein, most of these parts are doing these things for a reason – a reason they feel is extremely important or keeps you safer (even if that just means safer from PAIN if they are profoundly suicidal). It’s important to remember that just because these things may not make sense to YOU, since you can clearly see all the destruction and harm it’s causing in your regular life, they aren’t working with the same information, life experiences, or emotional connections to the world as you. If you were locked in a dissociative barrier for years, only able to pull from a select number of life experiences (most that were pretty horrible), you might not be the most empathic or understanding person either. But, moreover, many adopted their concepts of “safety” when you were a child. ..a traumatized child. They aren’t always going to make sense. Ignoring them, trying to shut them up or restrain them, punishing them, or any of the various attempts at “getting rid of them” will not only never work (their needs will only become greater and louder), but they’ll also become more traumatized as you confirm their every belief about the world. Also, you can’t “get rid of them” anyway. So, it’s far better to try and understand them.
✘ MYTH: YOU CAN KILL ALTERS.
Even if mock deaths or temporary experiences of alters “dying” from old age or otherwise have been acted out in some systems, they aren’t actually dying. You cannot kill off a collective part of the conscious mind like you can a person. Their thoughts, memories, emotions will all still be there, and so they must be as well. The part may have gone into extreme hiding, been momentarily immobilized, or merged with another part of the mind, but they most assuredly did not and can not completely disappear or “be killed”. Moreover, THIS IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND TRAUMATIC TO EVEN ATTEMPT. Do not do it.
✘ MYTH: ALTERS CAN’T HAVE THEIR OWN MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES IF THE MAIN SURVIVOR DOESN’T HAVE THEM.
They actually can, and many do. It’s extremely common for individual alters to battle depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar, eating disorders, self harm, etc. while other members of the system experience no such thing. Some extremely differentiated systems may even need that part to come forward and take medication that the rest of the system does not need and will not get. ..and their brain’s neurology responds accordingly.
One note about some disorders, however. Non-verbal, poor eye contact, savant-like, or sensory-processing-disorder alters CAN be extremely common in DID systems. However, it’s important not to just jump to calling these parts “autistic” if the system as a whole is not autistic. It’s possible for alters to behave in ways that mimic their understanding of SYMPTOMS in disorders they know about, while not actually possessing the neurology for them. This is a complicated subject we could try to elaborate more on at some point, but it’s just an encouragement to pause and not automatically label certain parts as having certain conditions just because they show a few traits from them. It can cause a great deal of conflation and misrepresentation of those illnesses.
But, make no mistake, most expressions of mental illness amongst alters are incredibly real and valid and should be treated as such.
✘ MYTH: IT’S IMPOSSIBLE FOR ALTERS TO HAVE DIFFERENT VISION, HEALTH CONDITIONS, STRENGTHS, AND SO ON. “THOSE ARE PHYSICAL. EVEN IF THE MIND IS DIFFERENT, THE BODY STAYS THE SAME.”
Not impossible at all, and instead, extremely normal. We must remember that the mind and body are extremely connected, but that DID also isn’t just “in the mind”. There are all kinds of changes that take place neurologically to encourage these harsh separations. Alters can genuinely operate on entirely different neural pathways of the brain, which then dictate a lot of what the rest of the body experiences, feels, or tells the organs to do. This may mean allergies to different foods, different glasses/contacts prescriptions (reading visual input better or worse), over- or under-production of various hormones, and so forth. The brain is wildly powerful and it not only dictates how the rest of the body operates, but also how it interprets cues, sensations and feedback based on which areas of the brain are most engaged at the time. Much of this is still being studied because it’s so fascinating, but there is no shortage of anecdotal examples as well as those already existing in current research.
✘ MYTH: ANYONE CAN TREAT A DID PATIENT. ALL TRAUMA-INFORMED THERAPISTS ARE CAPABLE OF SEEING A DID CLIENT THROUGH TO HEALING.
DID is extreeeeemely complex. Even some DID specialists can find themselves frequently surprised by the endless curveballs or be overwhelmed by the prospect of unforeseen complications. Most psychological programs that lead to a degree and clinical practice may take only a week or two max on DID (and the majority of the information is out-of-date anyway). Trauma-informed care is rare enough, and is something that most passionate MH professionals must go out of their way to find, and then invest extra time, coursework and continued education in order to competently treat a trauma survivor. And yet, even they are sometimes not fully informed on the nuances of dissociation, personality differentiation, system dynamics, common pitfalls of therapy, memory-processing, or alter integration (if that’s what a patient desires). These are all absolute musts when it comes to rehabilitating a DID patient. And when daily safety is often in jeopardy (either due to self-harm, eating disorders, drug/alcohol use, or ongoing abuse), as well as suicide attempts being very common in this population, there is limited room for mistake. Additionally, just knowing this reality can be extremely (and justifiably) upsetting to many therapists, which can leave them anxious, feeling desperate, or becoming very protective over their clients – which can lead to more accidental mistakes. Specific training in DID, or at the very least, a sincere dedication to learning about it (and quickly) while working with a patient, is highly advised. Not just anyone can treat this condition, and trying to while ill-equipped can be catastrophic.
PART THREE: THE BIZARRE AND THE OUT-THERE
✘ MYTH: PEOPLE USE DID AS AN EXCUSE TO GET AWAY WITH CRIMES -OR- PEOPLE WITH DID CAN COMMIT ALL THE CRIMES THEY WANT AND JUST BLAME IT ON AN ALTER.
Very rarely is this ever used as a criminal plea, and when it is, it’s almost always publicized because it’s preposterous to most. Despite what Primal Fear may have taught you, no, people don’t really lie about DID just to get away with crimes (if for no other reason than it’s very easy to prove they don’t really have the diagnosis nor do they demonstrate any of the behavior consistently). But, oh wait, there’s an even bigger reason: this is not a viable excuse in a court of law. DID is NOT insanity. Regardless what any alter does outside of one’s own awareness, the whole person is still responsible for their crimes and will be persecuted accordingly. If someone uses that as their defense, it will fail them.
✘ MYTH: PEOPLE WITH DID ARE POSSESSED BY DEMONS.
This sounds like something to laugh at, but one short gander in DID communities online and you will find all KINDS of people who firmly believe this and offer unsolicited offers or demands for survivors to be exorcised. Regardless of your faith, this is NOT what is happening in DID, and research has provided us with a complete explanation of what IS going on here. Demonic possession, even if you believe, would not present in such a highly organized, specific, and intelligent way, while also happening to meet all the criteria for a well-documented mental health condition. And, attempts at exorcisms, “praying it away”, or even the mere suggestion of something more sinister existing within them can be so extraordinarily damaging and traumatic to the already-suffering survivor. It was a somewhat-understandable explanation in like, the 1600 or 1700s — but in 2017, this projection onto survivors who simply switched? Is absolutely inexcusable.
✘ MYTH: THIS IS JUST SOMETHING THE AMERICANS MADE UP.
Patently false. It’s been found worldwide, and some of the leading research in the field has come from countries that are not the United States.
✘ MYTH: DID AND SCHIZOPHRENIA ARE THE SAME THING.
Not even a little bit. There aren’t really even any universally overlapping symptoms from person to person. Schizophrenia is a neurodegenerative disorder (frequently labeled a psychotic disorder – which carries its own unfair stigma to overcome), Dissociative Identity Disorder is a traumadisorder. It is PREVENTABLE. No medication can make it better.
✘ MYTH: FILMS LIKE SPLIT, SYBIL, THREE FACES OF EVE, AND FRANKIE AND ALICE TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DID! AND, THE UNITED STATES OF TARA IS AMAZING REPRESENTATION!
Shocking that media might be terribly inaccurate, but when it comes to Split, Sybil, Three Faces of Eve, Frankie and Alice, etc, you would think most are pretty aware that they are garbage. …..but a quick look around and you’ll find that disproven almost immediately. These films specifically are not only abysmal representation, but they are actually severely DAMAGING to the understanding of DID. And, it’s not just the general public who seems unsure. I heard a mental health professional very recently, who treats both C-PTSD and DID, refer to some of these as “good” and “informative”. …a reference point for people to consider. So, I wouldn’t say that knowing just how harmful they are is “a given” even in the MH community, either.
Even when it comes to The United States of Tara, while it is absolutely BETTER than the others, it is not “good representation” by any stretch. Yes, it did touch on some important topics, but most of those are moot when it also displayed the most commonly stigmatizing and damaging tropes in droves and got so dark by the end many with trauma histories couldn’t even finish it. A simple scroll back through these myths and you’ll find MOST of them in the show. (She was violent to strangers and abusive to her family, cheated on her husband, was deemed unsafe to be around children, switches were SUPER dramatic, alter differentiation was absurdly extreme and predictable characterizations of alters, she introjected a therapist without any traumatic premise for the addition, sought extremely toxic “therapy” without ever fully defining it as such, safety was dealt with irresponsibly, and soooo much more.) We could write an entire article on this (and we may even one day), but for now, let’s just squash the myth that it’s “positive representation”. I know that as survivors we tend to think of anything that isn’t actively abusing us as being GREAT!, but just because something isn’t a total disaster or has some redeeming qualities does not mean that it’s positive. At all. And we shouldn’t accept it as such. USoT is great for some laughs and entertainment, but it is not good DID representation. We save our choice words more for films like Split, however — but hey, we still managed to exercise some restraint while discussing that one in this article here.
We sincerely hope this was very useful to you, and we hope to see you sharing it with anyone who needs some clarity!
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