Co-consciousness is a term used to describe the experience of someone with multiplicity, where more than part is aware of what is going on. For someone with DID (formerly called multiple personality disorder), they have very high levels of dissociation both in identity and memory, which usually means that they are amnesiac whenever a different part is out. Amnesia can cause distressing experiences such as not being able to recall important personal information (name, date of birth, home address), years of your life, or daily struggles such as ‘coming to’ in an unfamiliar place and having no idea how you came to be there. Some people are really aware that they are losing time or memories like this, others are in a kind of confused fog where until someone asks them a question – where did you get those shoes? when’s the last time you ate? what did you get up to on Wednesday? – they’re actually unaware that they’re experiencing amnesia.
With classic DID, not only is the person experiencing amnesia, but they are confused by evidence left behind while other parts have been out. Obvious things may be clothes in the wardrobe that are unfamiliar and not to their taste, family members upset about arguments you don’t recall having, friends who think they know you by a different name etc.
Co-consciousness describes switching without this amnesia, so that if one part is out going about their day, another part is aware of what is happening. Multiples with high levels of co-consciousness don’t tend to ‘lose time’ or have blackouts, they’re still aware of what is going on. This is mostly how I function, although under stress my levels of amnesia increase. Multiples who have high levels of amnesia often find that to be one of the most challenging and frightening aspects of the condition, and for most, gaining some degree of co-consciousness is an important part of therapy and recovery work. This process usually starts by working on building self awareness and mapping your system.
There is a similar but slightly different called co-hosting or co-fronting, which you can read about here: What is co-fronting and blending?.
Co-consciousness can work practically in a few different ways. For some multiples, it’s like they are seeing and hearing everything that’s going on, even though they’re not the one moving the body. For others, it’s more like being told what happened, or watching a short video of memories. I used to be confused as a kid that so many of my own memories are in the third person rather than the first – that is, I see everything happening as if I’m up by the ceiling, looking down on everyone including me. I’ve since discovered that this is an easy way for me to tell when I’ve personally been out running the body and when I’ve just been watching – co-conscious. My own memories are in the first person, co-conscious memories are in the third. This is different for everyone though! I can really struggle sometimes with new friends or in new environments, especially if it wasn’t me who has met them before or been there before. People sometimes notice me pause as I’m asking inside for the information and if I’m lucky whichever part recognises the person or remembers the event will quickly fill me in, or switch out and take over.
Co-consciousness is incredibly useful, but there are downsides. One of them for me is the mammoth amount of energy it takes for us to track all the different information and memories and hand them back and forth. It’s like I have a whole house full of filing cabinets in each room, and on a busy day I’m mentally running back and forth between them trying to make sure we can keep up and still function as one. The experience of co-consciousness can often confuse multiples who have only been exposed to the ideas of psychosis or DID and don’t feel they fit either box. It can also be distressing to be aware of what is happening but not in control of yourself any more. As a kid I had a number of experiences that frightened me so badly I became convinced I was being possessed by the devil. I often felt at war with myself, trying to stay out and in control, and when I’d switch we would look in the mirror and I would be terrified at this face that was mine and yet somehow clearly not me. Co-consciousness can make you feel both crowded and painfully alone at the same time. These kinds of experiences are called Schneiderian first-rank symptoms and were once thought to be highly diagnostic of schizophrenia. Now we’re discovering they are actually very common for people with dissociation instead.
The technical stuff aside, what does it feel like to be co-conscious? Well, that’s different for different people. In fact, different parts of my system experience that in their own way. Whoever is out is often aware if they’re running everything by themselves or if other parts are ‘close to the surface’ and aware of what is going on. Sometimes those surfacing parts might comment or advise about what they’re observing, sometimes they might be struggling to switch or being triggered to switch. For example, I gave a talk at a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital a little while ago, and it was going well. We got there on time, with the notes and presentation gear, there was quite a group waiting, and we had the right part out who had written and delivered the talk before. There was a slight hitch in that a sad, lonely song was playing over the radio. Music can be a powerful trigger for me, and a sad lonely part was called to the surface by the song and immediately switched and came out. We were panicking a bit because this part could not deliver the presentation, and they knew that and desperately didn’t want to be there. We kept still and quiet and finally the MC turned off the radio to introduce us. Once the music was gone, that part dived back inside and the right part came back out to deliver the talk. Phew! Being a multiple can be very complicated.
My friend Hope has a wonderful description of her take on co-consciousness over at her blog:
Imagine a Combi Van, grab a handful of people and put them in the van. One of those people will drive the van, one may sit next to them. The passenger may just watch where they are going of maybe give directions. They may even pull the steering wheel to try and get the driver to go where they want. The rest of the people are in the back of the van. depending on where they are sitting and if the can see out the windows they may or may not be aware of what is going on and where they are going. They may yell to the driver to go somewhere or slow down. Then right at the back of the van, you may have one or two fast asleep totally unaware of what is happening and where they are going… (click here to read her full article)
For me, my poetry often talks about wells inside, very deep, or an ocean where we are sometimes at the surface and sometimes in the deeps. Here’s a short extract of a poem that describes co-consciousness:
I feel her surfacing
like a scream rising
like a knot of tears
in my throat –
Fingernails into palms
I fight to stay
I can feel her so close.
I catch him
glancing at my eyes
and I know he sees her
I know they’re her eyes now
but still my face, hands, body
still me if I can just drop my gaze.
In the car, on the drive home, alone
she steps into my skin
wears it a little differently
adjusts the mirror, tucks
hair behind her ear
weeps alone in the night
as I fall, like a star, and fade out.