It is incredibly hot here again. It’s currently 42.3C and I feel like my face is melting. Hot weather and I do not get along since I developed fibromyalgia. So I’m home, in front of my little portable air con, preparing for my drive off to Mifsa to give the talk Supporting Someone in a Dissociative Crisis this evening. Apparently I decided the best way to prepare for this would be to spend the day on the net getting into big conversations with people.
I’m getting frustrated again that I can’t blog as much as I want to. I have so many things I want to share, my list of posts to write goes into several pages. I’m still hoping to find time to blog about all the great talks I got to hear from at the World Hearing Voices Congress last month. And I’m often in amazing conversations, taking down quotes to write about later but so rarely get to come back to them. I think part of the problem is that often the topics I’m wanting to write about are big ones – suicide, multiplicity, sexuality and so on – and I really want to do a decent job. Sometimes I let myself just spiel and post, but often, especially if it’s a post that I’m hoping will have useful information in it instead of just a bit of a glimpse into my own thoughts and life – it’s not something I can write in a moment. I need to get several parts to read over it, I try and edit it from very different perspectives, and I try and include links to other information or resources when I’ve found them. That’s not a short process. I wish it was. Or I wish I was paid for writing them so I could more easily carve out time each week for those kinds of posts. Which I guess kind of brings me back to my idea about writing a book…
What do you think? A book is a great thing. You can borrow it from a library or friend. You can pick it up and put it down and carry it around with you. You can underline bits and cross things out and write your own thoughts in the margins. But a blog is good too – it’s always free, especially if you use the net at the local cafe or library. You can even contact the author or write comments underneath. It’s a growing, evolving process, with small bites of information. I like the format, it has a lot going for it.
So, today I was talking online with a friend about internet safety, and scams, and how important it is for people to be aware, and I thought to myself I keep hearing this word awareness. I hear it all the time around the ‘days’ we have like the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women or raising awareness about MS, or how to talk with people in wheelchairs without driving them nuts. I have a whole stack of physical and psychiatric stuff going on, and my awesome friends likewise, I still have no hope of remembering everything I’m supposed to be aware of. I find myself wondering if a different approach wouldn’t be more helpful – like a ‘how to engage stuff you don’t know much about in a way that doesn’t drive people crazy’ approach. How to generally be a helpful person open to hearing new things you hadn’t considered instead of trying to be aware of every illness, condition, social concern, and so on.
Isn’t this partly what we’re doing in spaces like Hearing Voices groups – the facilitators don’t have to understand everyone’s different perspective or experience, they are just trying to hold a safe respectful space where everyone can speak for themselves and engage each other… maybe we can support better and more respectful ways of engaging with things we haven’t personally experienced that are easier than massive lists of things to be aware of? Even as someone working to raise awareness of mental health experiences such as multiplicity I think this. Maybe if we work together to create a model for engaging with our diverse communities we can relieve some of the burden of anxiety so many of us feel when we are aware we lack awareness and wind up not engaging or falling over our own feet with stress worrying that we’re being unintentionally wildly offensive or upsetting.
On that note… I read a blog post today where a person with DID is expressing deep frustration with some current ‘awareness raising’ stuff going on over in the UK that they feel falls so far short of the mark that it’s actually worse than the usual ignorance and myths about DID. I felt that Bourbon made some really good points about issues with sensationalism in the media, and misconceptions about how parts can function and overlap. I recommend going over to have a read of it – What is DID? (a response to media campaigns). When Bourbon started talking about their (gender neutral as I’m not sure of pronoun preference) perception of what DID actually is, I was concerned. Here’s a brief quote from the end of the article:
In reality, those with DID feel far from special and intruiging. A life with DID is actually spent hiding away, keeping yourself as small as possible so you don’t get noticed. There is often so much fear and pain and confusion coursing around you and the whole system it can feel like you are paralysed. Of course there are teeny tiny moments when life with DID doesn’t feel THAT BAD, but that can only really be fully appreciated when you take note of the alternative extreme lows.
This is where I feel deeply concerned. I don’t know Bourbon, I’ve read a little of their blog today, some of the earlier posts have been made private but they’ve been writing for awhile and I can see a whole lot of work going into being open and supportive about a life with DID and all the challenges that can pose. It’s always difficult to try and respond as respectfully as possible to someone who’s clearly upset about something that really hurts them, while disagreeing with them. We had a bit of a conversation in the comments before they closed them for a break (which is brilliant, and something I wish I’d thought of with this blog instead of closing the comments entirely for the first 2 years. Although sadly that meant it ate my last reply which was quite long and thought through, sigh). I thought I’d share my thoughts about this here too, because there are some amazing people, like Bourbon, out on the net and in their communities, all trying to raise awareness and share information. And yet so often we make each other uncomfortable in some way, or somehow our stories obscure other people’s stories that are very different. It’s not an easy situation, there’s a lot of effort and goodwill and yet the community as a whole can quickly fracture instead of pulling together.
I was going to just pull a few quotes from our conversation in the comments, but then it seemed like that could be picking and choosing to make things fit my perspective best. So I thought I’d quote the lot instead, although I haven’t run that part Bourbon (as they’ve currently closed the comments and I have no way of contacting them). The comments and blog post are both public and I’ve linked to it so I don’t think that will be a concern. Correct me if I’ve got that wrong!
I get that you are really pissed off and feeling unheard but I was uncomfortable with some of the ways you were presenting DID too. I think for me (as someone with DID) one of the ones I wanted to speak to is your statement that having DID is primarily about suffering, with only tiny moments of relief. That really distresses me. I absolutely get that pain and distress is a HUGE amount of the picture for many, many people, but that doesn’t speak to my experience. I suffer when I’ve been hurt and traumatised, and I’m in terrible pain when things have gone appalling wrong in my life with things like homelessness, but it’s not my DID that makes me suffer. That’s a subtle difference but for me, an important one. When anguish and agony are presented as normal – even inevitable and inescapable daily realities for everyone with DID, that worries me. I think we accidentally set people up for much worse experiences when they don’t hear other stories and ways of thinking about their situation. When we expect suffering we miss opportunities for joy and hope and delight and wonder. I don’t think it has to be this way – and that certainly hasn’t been the story of my own life
I’m really pleased for you that your DID doesn’t cause great suffering in your life now and I am sorry that you feel distressed by me pointing out that a lot of DID is pain and confusion. Don’t think I don’t delight in the fact that one of my littles experiences true joy for half an hour when with my therapist, or I am not appreciative of the fact that I have an alter who reacts quickly to external danger from other people. But at the moment, whilst I am engaging in heavy duty trauma therapy, this is not what my DID is primarily about. I experience joy in my life that has nothing to do with my DID – and that is what is important for me. Life outside of a disorder is important to me.
I take your point that educating people with all the negatives/realities of DID MAY set people up for worse experiences in their own lives – but what I am not going to do is exaggerate and ‘liven up’ the positives in the eye of the public at the expense of showing what DID is like for a lot of sufferers. Like I said, there are little moments when life with DID doesn’t feel that bad; and maybe I could have actually given some examples, like I have done above, but that is as far as it goes.
Reality with DID is tough. Yes our attitude can soften the edges (because even a little having fun in therapy can be viewed as a negative to the disorder – who actually WANTS to be in a 26 year old body but behaving like a 5 year old?) but the public doesn’t need to be educated about our attitude. They need to be educated about the facts, the symptoms, the reality. Attitude is a side-line; not a focus.
What you’ve said here is that you’re doing heavy duty trauma work and that is painful as all out. I don’t see that as being about the DID, if you’d been awfully traumatised and didn’t have DID you would still be hurting like hell and having some horrible therapy sessions. For me they are separate things – the experience of being multiple and the experience of having been chronically traumatised. While they can be deeply connected it’s not the DID that is hurting. Reality as someone who has been deeply hurt is tough. That doesn’t haven’t to be reality with DID. Yes there’s confusion and shame and challenges, I’m really not making light of that. But then, there is for all life, however we experience it. Challenges like how to feel alive, how to connect with communities, how to learn more about who we are, these are universal quests and struggles, experienced as much by people with deafness, people from backgrounds with money and power, people whose babies die young, as they are for people with DID – and for people who used to have DID. The specific challenges might be unique but the call to find ways to live well with others and ourselves is the same. So I don’t see this as ‘just’ an attitude. It’s an essential aspect of what it is to be human. When we tell ourselves that suffering is our lot we lose the capacity to engage life in any other way. When we hold up as examples other people who share experiences with us and write off their lives as being primarily about pain we shut down other ways our communities can live.
Years ago, when I was early in the stages of diagnosis, deeply distressed and struggling to find a therapist to work with, I called Lifeline one night. I was in the early stages of working with a new therapist who’s approach I was finding deeply distressing. By luck I spoke with this guy who actually knew something about DID. He encouraged and supported me while I wrestled with this dilemma – keep working with a therapist who was approaching DID in a way that felt completely wrong for me, or go against all the advice I’d read about how you MUST have therapy to heal from DID and walk away knowing it might be months or years before I found another one? He said something to me that has always stayed with me “Just because you’re split, doesn’t mean they’re (other people) whole. You can choose to engage this experience as an illness, or you can go on a grand adventure of self discovery.” (which will of course sometimes also be painful and confronting and so on, like all adventures)
Being invited to think about DID in a different way has been life saving for me, in that I have a life with DID. I don’t think of myself as disordered because I have parts. I don’t think of my parts as symptoms of my illness, which made me fear and resent them. I struggle and suffer at times. I also have amazing and wonderful experiences at times. Playing co-consciously with a 5 year old part was a profoundly moving moment for me, because I’ve spent years getting over my sense of shame and humiliation about having a 5 year old part. So much of what we with DID are wrestling with are things that everyone who has been hurt are wrestling with, and things that everyone who is trying to be human are wrestling with. We don’t have to sell people an idea about DID that is about sickness and anguish, not to each other and not to the public.
I understand the distinction you are making. I really do. I first started blogging on here saying that I was going to refuse to call it dissociative identity disorder because it isn’t a disorder. But since realising the turmoil me and my system are in day to day then I realise how much of a disorder it is. It seems to me your experience of multiplicity isn’t just about trauma. Fantastic. You’ve built a life outside of that. But my DID is all about trauma. We are riddled with it. My system operates by way of abuse. What I mean by that is abuse is still going on, internally because that is what we grew up believing was the norm. It sounds like you are so much further along your healing that you have made peace with your past and become close to your system. I’m young and only two years into my diagnosis. But I am in therapy with an excellent therapist who has been working with DID for twenty years and one who has written books on the subject. So maybe I will find a way to live with DID in joy like you have. Or maybe I will integrate and be cured of this disorder. Who knows where life will take us? Personally, I hope I’m integrated. But we all know, well all DID’ers do, that is a choice.
I appreciate your words. You are very uplifting and hopeful and maybe this post does need a bit of that so thank you for dropping some with us. It hasn’t gone to waste.
Moral of the story: there are positives and negatives to everything (however large or slight) and BOTH need to be expressed if you are wanting to educate the public about DID to give a fair picture.
This is such a thought provoking conversation for me and something I’ve given a lot of consideration to over the years. I really appreciated the way Bourbon heard me out and didn’t get defensive. I have such respect for that willingness to engage with opinions and difference. It’s not easy, especially when you’re already feeling hurt and unheard yourself. I see so much divisiveness in so many communities I care about. I’m coming to the conclusion that it is such a huge challenge to create and be part of healthy communities with diverse members because most of us have never experienced that or even seen it before. Many of the people I come across in my peer work are being abused or belittled by their communities, they are at the bottom of their family and friend social heirachies, low ranking at work or unable to work, isolated from people like themselves and suffering from the impacts of all of these things such as low self esteem, depression, and self hate – all of which are seen as personal deficits by the mental health system rather that social issues. I’m reading an amazing book The Still Point of the Turning World, written by Emily Rapp about her experiences having a terminally ill young child. She talks about her rage at being dehumanised and having her experience, and her son, treated as a case study, as an example of the worst possible thing that can happen to someone, something to make other people feel better about their own lives. She talks about life as a Dragon Mother, her description of the unique agony and priviledge of loving and caring for a dying child. And I think again of The Gap, of how many gaps there are. Of a world of people who are living and hurting, who are divided rather than united by those most human of experiences – pain, suffering, loss, loneliness.
Then I think about how fractious so many of communities of hurting people are. Love and acceptance start to be treated as limited resources that everyone’s in competition over. The division of people into the camps – people with problems/people who can help – dehumaises both groups as the helpers burn out and the ones with ‘problems’ never have the opportunity to recognise their own gifts of love and compassion. I see a lot of these kind of fractured communities, corporations that work on what is effectively a class structure – with separate facilities, entrances, work and rest areas for each level of client/volunteer/worker/management/upper management and strict rules about how each class is to engage those ‘above or below’ their own. I am at times contacted by hurt and angry members of other DID support groups who want to inform me that a certain member has been removed from their network for ‘faking’ DID or not having ‘real’ DID. I see a lot of hurt, angry, lonely people desperate for someone to reach out to them who alienate everyone who tries to. I keep coming back to an idea – that those of us who are alienated, alienate. Having experienced abusive communities, we reject new ones, or we rebuild new ones with the same imbalances and flaws we’re familiar with and just exchange the roles. It’s such a risk for everyone who feels hurt and disconnected, including me.
Then I think about the challenges of the entire issue of how we as a culture engage with diversity and disability. I’ve written before about whether mental illness is a disability. I drew upon two other communities to explore some of my ideas – that of the Deaf community and that Autie/Aspie communities. I have had brushes but not extensive contact with either groups so my ideas may be uninformed and ignorant – but that’s partly my point – the impressions those of us who have little contact with the communities develop are based party on the most vocal peers who have engagement with the media (and partly on the media itself but that’s another post). So, in this conversation with Bourbon, am I the equivalent of a person with a disability who is not suffering because of it, accidentally drowning out the voice of a more vulnerable person who IS suffering and who desperately needs better supports and resources?
I’ve wrestled with many of these things on this blog – the tension in trying to be seen as a whole person in The Disability Tango. Challenging conventional and sanitised stories of recovery in Recovery is not a one-way street. The risks and usefulness of using labels to describe behaviour and vulnerabilities in Labels – helpful or harmful? About my ambivalence about the way mental illness tangles good and bad experiences together and the way mental health is presented as being ‘normal’ in Mental health needs better PR. I’ve also done my own getting really angry about the limitations of diagnosis and how DID is understood and presented such as Introducing DID brochure and unplanned rant.
So, what is my role? What is a responsible way to present DID? How do I make sure that the voice I have is being put the best possible use? How do we build diversity into the stories we tell about conditions and experiences? I do a few things already – such as whenever I give a talk about DID or dissociation or hearing voices (and so on, or facilitate a group) I love to present with another peer worker whenever I can, and for preference I like to choose someone who has a really different experience from me. I presented at TheMHS with Cary and we deliberately wrote our ‘my story’ experiences to highlight the ways in which we were different (eg. I’ve never been in psych hospital, Cary has had many stays; I find gardening grounding and hate the gym, Cary kills plants by being in the same room with them and runs every morning almost without fail even if she’s injured). I try to write a ‘People with DID are not all the same’ paragraph into every resource I create and explore some of the common differences to reduce the impact that the way my system works has on people’s idea of what ‘normal’ DID is. I love to do as much community consultation as possible when I’m working because so many other people have experiences or ideas I would never have thought of and I learn so much all the time. So that’s a start.
To this other topic – does me talking about DID as if it isn’t all about suffering help or harm other people with DID? As far as my own life goes – it just has to be authentic. I can’t pick an ideal ‘outcome’ and try to pretend my life story speaks to it, anymore than it’s fair to try and force an exhausted and overwhelmed peer worker to try and give messages of hope they can’t currently believe in. All we really have is honesty, as much of it as we are willing to share with each other. And for me, DID is a disability in that it is something about me that is different, for which I need care and support and room to function to the best the way I do. This is a little bit like the difference between creating prosthetic legs that are designed to look as normal as possible and help people fit in and help other people feel comfortable, and designing ones that look and function very differently to a human leg, but allow the person to run marathons. And that’s still coming from a DID is a deficit caused by trauma – model, which doesn’t fit everyone’s experience.
There is profound suffering for many, many people who have DID. The level of stigma for this experience is beyond anything else I have seen in mental health. When a psychologist was in the year long process of diagnosing me, I spent most of that time arguing and trying to convince him I had Borderline Personality Disorder instead. For any of us who know about the extreme prejudice which which many people with BPD and their families are treated by the Mental Health system, this should shock you. I’ve written a little more about this over at the DI page Why are we needed? My people, people like me, are in terrible pain, suffering appalling stigma and discrimination, living in secrecy and fear. Largely ignored and unacknowledged by the wider community and mental health system, people are stuck, in pain, and dying.
So why don’t I equate DID with this suffering? How can I be so indifferent to it? Because correlation is not causation. I do not believe that this anguish is a necessary result of having DID, while at the same time I acknowledge that it is the painful lived experience of many people. A massive amount of this pain is about trauma. Another massive amount of is about stigma and disconnection from community. And the last huge whack of it is about DID systems that are modelled upon dysfunctional communities. This is where my work comes in especially, because the framework we are currently provided to understand DID is, in my opinion, dangerously limited. People are being told they ‘must’ have an inner self helper. People are being told they CANNOT get ‘better’ without 5 years minimum of weekly therapy (and that if they can’t get it they are just screwed). People are being told that having parts means they are sick, that hearing voices means they are sick, that wellness is about being ‘normal’. People are being told that dissociation cannot be cured. People are being told that DID is all about suffering.
We know that there are issues with people living to their labels in DID as in other things. I don’t believe that DID is inherently about suffering, and I don’t believe that people are well served when this is the story we tell. The DID story is deeply tangled with that of suffering but I don’t believe that collapsing the two together helps people. I was utterly incapacitated by these ideas when I was newly diagnosed. I started off very gung-ho once I accepted the diagnosis – I was going to be one of those rare, wonderful patients who did everything right and progressed through therapy at a spectacular rate and was integrated and back studying my psychology degree in a year. I was terrified that most of the DID autobiographies I read ended with people still in a massive amount of pain and unable to work or keep their primary relationships etc. I was tied up in knots by the insistence on a ‘host’ or ‘primary’ or ‘core’ person and the way parts kept getting shuffled into a hierarchy when that felt so so wrong for us. I was scared and alone. I really wished I could talk to other people who had the same things going on, even better to talk to someone else who was maybe a bit further along than I was, maybe a little less scared. I decided to out myself and become a peer worker so that I could try and be that person for other people, to humanise and reduce fear – others’ fear of us, and our fear of ourselves. To some extent, choices I made such as refusing to give out a system map or let anyone know our individual part names was because we now perceived that the standard approach to DID was now the greatest threat to having the kind of life we wanted to lead. Where once that threat was experiences of abuse, it was now the treatment. We grasped onto the lifeline guy’s phrase – ‘A Grand Adventure of Self Discovery’ and used it to navigate every ‘treatment’ offered to us. When ‘trauma recovery’ treatment was more agonising than the original trauma we walked away. When ‘mental health’ was presented as a greyland of limited emotional range and hyprocritical superiority over all the other ‘sick people’ we built our own ideas about health and recovery. When DID was presented as the worst of all possible disorders, impossible to navigate independently, needing extensive treatment from experts, a humiliating, painful, and protracted process of recovery, we asked ourselves is this how we want to spend the next ten years of our life?
What I keep seeing is that when people are supported to find their own paths, instead of being fit into boxes, amazing things happen. I see people who get to have experiences of healthy communities and model their internal communities on those principles – love, fairness, diversity, respect – and these people are not suffering because of their DID. I keep seeing that when people are exposed to ideas about freedom and joy and community, where they are not alone any more, healing and hope can occur. I think that it is extremely important to make room for people who find the psychological model that DID is a mental illness and that they suffer from a disorder, useful and helpful to them. But there are so many people who don’t find that approach helpful, who get hampered by the illness model and can’t find hope or joy or relief from pain when their parts are presented as symptoms of a sickness, that I can’t use this framework in my peer work. Like telling people who’ve had two psychotic episodes they have ‘schizohprenia’ and will suffer from it for the rest of their lives – it’s not only inaccurate it’s such a disservice to the person.
If we struggle against the effects of stigma, if we build better resources and community responses to trauma, if we try to prevent abuse, if we create and model healthy inner and outer communities; I do not believe suffering has to be the lot for people with parts, or that not having parts any more is the only way to not be in pain. Pain is part of our lives, and how we understand it, the stories we tell about it, and the way we respond to pain as communities make all the difference in whether that pain consumes and destroys people, or can become one aspect of lives that are still rich, deep, meaningful, and connected. The same goes for disability, for illness, for trauma, for DID, for anything and everything that opens a Gap and challenges us to find ways of bridging it.
And now I have to run off and give a talk Supporting Someone in a Dissociative Crisis. Wish me luck. 🙂