I’ve found that people are usually surprised to learn that a friend or family member (or anyone they’ve known for many years) has dissociative identity disorder (DID). Oftentimes, they expect that such a diagnosis would yield obvious, visible symptoms — behaviors that surely couldn’t be concealed from a friend or relative.
DID, however, can be hidden. In fact, only a trauma-informed professional might observe hints of the disorder at all.
Since there are, by definition, two or more separate identities present in the psyche of a person with DID, those of us who live with the condition manage a complex inner world that no one else sees. Long before I came to accept that I had five primary alters — or Parts, as I call them — I hid them from myself.
I didn’t want to know them; I feared I might have mental illness, and I wanted my Parts to go away and let me be normal. This reaction is common; People with DID are often ashamed and terrified of their symptoms, of finding themselves othered.
Now that I am open about my DID, this is what I want people to know.
DID is not a choice. It is my protection.
While researchers continue to learn more about DID, experts have come to agree on likely causes. Essentially, DID is believed to be the result of the brain’s effort to protect a person from unbearable trauma in early childhood. In response to severe and prolonged abuse, the personality fragments. DID lets us escape overwhelming trauma, creating other identities to protect us.
Because my Parts protected me so well, I did not know of the emotional and sexual abuse I experienced from ages three to seven. My young brain was not forced to confront a horror that it would have been incapable of tolerating.
As I grew up, I knew something was “off” — that I was fearful and distrustful — but I did not know why. My brain, I learned years later, created my Parts to carry that burden and to block my memory. My Parts were always protective. Some were inexplicably happy, and another even loved my perpetrator. That Part would later admit to me that her purpose was to keep me from knowing that no one had wanted or cared about me.
Decades after the abuse, my Parts, their voices and long-suppressed trauma began “leaking” into my life. With the help of a therapist, I began to find ways to safely tolerate the trauma that was previously unknown to me that I held in my body.
Eventually, there came a time that I no longer wanted to get rid of my Parts. I came to understand that they had saved me, and I began to love them. I started the process of “integration,” in which my Parts were no longer separate — and I even held them close. The process included taking on the burden my Parts had been carrying for me.
My journey to wholeness examined the nature of traumatic memory itself — how our brains work to protect us when we are most vulnerable and how caregiver-infant attachment and mindfulness impact emotional resilience. It was a terrifying, destabilizing and, ultimately, satisfying process.
DID is complex, but it is treatable.
DID usually, if not always, coexists with one or more concurrent diagnoses. These might include anxiety, depression, PTSD, borderline personality and bipolar disorders, to name a few. PTSD is my co-occurring disorder. While my Parts are now integrated, and they are no longer fragmented into chaotic bundles of raw emotions that engulf me, I still experience flashbacks to my abuse, but I have learned to manage them. Today, I take an off-label, low dose anti-seizure medication that helps dilute the intensity of flashbacks.
In my reading I found that 1% of the population may have DID, but most go undiagnosed and untreated. Frequently, a concurrent condition will be treated, with escalating effects on the undiagnosed DID.
Therapy isn’t easy, but it has the power to repair.
Finding the right therapeutic fit and developing a trusting relationship with a therapist can take time. My relationship with my therapist was often stormy. I even considered stopping therapy as I struggled to navigate how to be in a relationship, where Parts of me openly distrusted him and sometimes hated him.
Over time, I learned to tolerate our conflicts and all my Parts gradually opened to him. From there, we were able to identify damage and begin our work to repair.
Desired qualities in a therapist and a therapeutic relationship will likely look different for everyone. Even from a position of profound psychological distress, I knew I needed a therapist who practiced mindfulness in its fullness, whose age reflected their experience, whose depth of listening was steadfast, committed, and honest.
People often ask why I didn’t choose a female therapist considering my past traumas, and I can only answer that the therapist I chose was the right person for me — and gender simply wasn’t as significant a consideration. What mattered to me was his mindfulness and his ability to see beyond my diagnosis. As a result, my Parts allowed him into our world, and I learned I was truly not alone.
Telling my story matters.
The stigma surrounding DID is formidable and real, and those of us who live with it have an uphill battle in being heard and understood. It seems to me that many people think first of entertainment, of movies and films about sensational characters with “a bunch of different personalities,” when they hear of DID. They do not know about the human beings in pain in their midst.
Ultimately, I believe that the only way those of us with DID can eliminate stigma is if our lived experience becomes real to other people. This is a driving force in coming out of hiding to tell my story.
Catherine Klatzker is the author of “You Will Never Be Normal,” (Stillhouse Press, 2021). A writer and RN, whose specialty for 22 years was pediatric ICU, Catherine’s work appears in mental health anthologies from In Fact Books and from Lime Hawk Literary Arts, plus a range of other publications.