While dissociative identity disorder (DID) has become a topic of fascination in the media, I have not heard many stories about the condition that represent lived experience accurately. Sensationalized movie plots portray people with DID as dangerous and maniacal. And most of the personal stories I’ve heard simplify the reality of the condition; specifically, these stories fail to respect or understand each distinct personality’s sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and pronouns.
When I try to explain my different personalities, or my “pieces,” I tell people to imagine a sliced pizza. I am the pizza, and those slices are my personalities — which are still part of me. The different personalities, also known as alters, can have their own unique identities with different genders, goals, beliefs and roles.
Alters can all react differently when faced with gender dysphoria, complicated personal relationships and any other tensions. Those who don’t identify with their growing physical body experience extreme distress and feel “trapped.” This can lead to particularly serious reactions and behaviors, including self-harm and suicidal ideation, which requires crisis care and intervention.
Ultimately, when living with this mental health condition, life can feel like a performance; I’m constantly making choices and living my life to respect my alters instead of living for myself.
The Teenage Years: Growing Up and Experiencing Gender Dysphoria
Navigating life in one specific body is challenging when trying to honor the wishes and experiences of several different personalities. As I grew up, some of my alters experienced tension between their unique identities and the life we lived. For some, their personal gender identity does not align with the sex assigned to our body at birth.
This can be particularly challenging during the teenage years — a time that, we can all agree, is a rollercoaster for everyone. Facing our changing bodies and feelings is difficult enough, but life becomes exponentially more complicated as this process happens to multiple identities at once.
At the age of 12, I had my first menstrual period. I remember crying because this new development felt like it made everything 10 times worse. Some of my alters understood what was going on, and they knew that there would be even more life changes associated with being a woman. However, other alters, particularly ones that identify as male, were uncomfortable or even disgusted by the state of their physical body. This placed the pressure on me as the host personality (the dominant alter in the system often at the “front” of the body) to make everyone feel comfortable. For example, I would change my clothes in a bathroom stall in the locker room, so as not to expose myself in front of my peers. I was later told by my gym teacher that I wasn’t allowed to change in the bathroom stall — another high school rule that caused more distress.
Feeling at home in my physical body was not the only challenge; navigating sexuality was equally painful and confusing. As I got older, I heard my peers talk about dating and their feelings for other people. Naturally, the main topics of conversation became who had a boyfriend or girlfriend. I, however, didn’t experience these kinds of feelings for anyone; it just didn’t feel right. I watched, feeling left out, and saw how my peers made connections, experienced attraction and built relationships. Eventually, in high school, I developed a crush on someone, but I never told him. It didn’t feel right.
Adulthood: Conflict and Relationships
These challenges continued into my adulthood. In college, I found myself attracted to a woman for the first time. But I never said a word to her. While some of my male-identifying personalities felt this attraction and wanted to act on it, some of my woman-identifying personalities did not feel this attraction — so any physical relationship would feel “wrong.” And these conflicts among alters extended beyond simple physical attraction.
Later in college, I developed feelings for someone, and, eventually, fell in love. However, each alter felt something different toward him.
As the host, I worried that my feelings would be drowned out by the thoughts and feelings of my alters. And this fear was legitimate; each alter developed their own thoughts and feelings, and my personal feelings blurred.
Have you ever wondered: How do I show feelings for the one I love when my alters don’t feel the same way? How do I make all my personalities feel comfortable in a body that doesn’t match their unique identities?
Likely, you have not experienced these painful dilemmas — ones I am still figuring out. This can be a frustrating journey; sometimes, I feel robbed of a single identity and matching experience.
Present Day: Finding Ways to Cope and Thrive
While living with DID can be painful and confusing, I have found ways to manage the challenges. Communication, while honoring yourself, is key. I ask how my alters want to express themselves and involve myself in any decisions we make.
For example, I do my best to honor certain alters’ wishes when they are “leading.” Specific apparel choices are made depending on which alter is leading; some wear black and white, one likes red sweatshirts, another prefers jewelry. Of course, things can be overwhelming when several alters are voicing desires. When this happens, our expression to the world is by making sure we are wearing converse shoes in my favorite color, yellow.
I also found it challenging to choose pronouns while respecting how the alters identify themselves. So, the ‘pieces’ and I have agreed on our pronouns which are she/he/they/we.
While my experience may be different from others, I hope that sharing my story can be a step in breaking the pervasive stigma surrounding DID.
Brianna McCray is a writer who is determined to use her voice to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. She lives with DID (currently with 15 different personalities) and schizoaffective disorder. Brianna graduated from Rowan University with a master’s degree in writing. Follow her on Instagram @brianna.mccray7.