I gave a couple of talks recently about supporting people through a dissociative crisis (more info and resources here). Some of this talk was focused on supporting people who have parts, and explored some common crisis points for people with parts. One of these I described as ‘civil war’ – ie major power shifts and fights between different parts.
Many people with parts or with DID are a mix of aware and unaware of other parts. An internal war like this can be very similar to the kind of massive conflict that everyone can also go through when there’s a lot of stress and contradictory frameworks for how to respond to it. Sometimes the fighting is as clear and overt as Paul hates the way Sky is running things and her choices about friends or career, and has decided he would do a better job. Sometimes the struggle is underground, messy and confusing and conflicted. When parts are at war with each other they can do a pretty effective job of tying the shoelaces of every other part so that no one can function very well and no one gets any needs met. If this is intense and continues for a long time, profound distrust, loathing, terror, confusion, and dysfunction can result. On the other hand, if one or two parts are more powerful and able to dominate, they can effectively become dictators to the rest of the system. If they are compassionate and caring of weaker and more vulnerable parts their leadership can create great stability and peace. If they are brutal and uncaring awful abuses can occur.
Power is an interesting concept to define in regards to how a multiple system works. It can mean different things. Sometimes having the most life skills gives a part power because all other parts will have to allow a switch at some point to be able to manage life. Sometimes it can be having the ability to stay ‘out’ in the body the longest. Sometimes it’s force of personality, or the capacity to be heard by all the other parts as a voice and so influence them, or the ability to chose which parts can come out and when, or being the most frightening part, or being a part most other parts trust and put faith in, or having a lot of environmental triggers that bring a part out often, or getting along the best with the therapist or other people with power in their world, or having been around a long time, and so on. Some forms of power are the same kinds of power we see in any group of people such as the person who knows a great deal and who’s opinions are therefore treated with respect. Some forms of power are quite specific to the way internal multiple communities can work with regards to switching and control over each other.
People with DID have often come through some pretty awful things. Many of us have had little or no experience with healthy communities. Many of us have had little or no experience with the responsible and ethical exercise of power. So it’s no surprise that sometimes our internal communities are structured in ways that partly work and partly cause harm. If all our role models for strength, leadership, and power were abusive, ineffectual, unaware, or disconnected, it’s a challenge for parts to use their strength and power in ways that are connected, insightful, and empathic. If all our experience of group dynamics is that the strongest get their needs met while the weaker ones struggle, the really vulnerable get humiliated and tortured, and the alienated ones rebel, of course we find similar dynamics in our own systems. One of the challenges of being part of a multiple system is to help the structure become one that brings out the best in each part. Many multiples are a complex combination of some great internal dynamics and some awful. The more awful the dynamics often the more intense the suffering, and sometimes the more severe the dysfunction.
In speaking of my own system, I’ve been through a number of major power shifts, some of which were extremely distressing and some of which have been brilliantly helpful. One of the first civil wars for us was when we were 10. 10 was a bad year. People died. Pets ran away and didn’t come home. We moved house. More pets died. Sarah, ie all of us, crashed. The rather fragile sense of emotional security we’d managed to develop was completely swept away. Death bowled us over like a flash flood through a house of sticks. We became paranoid and suicidal. We started self harming in a creative variety of ways. We decided that we could no longer cope with bullying and loneliness at school and did whatever it took to be ill enough to not have to attend. Chronic, severe tonsillitis led to recurrent hospitalisations, tonsillectomy, and severe secondary infections as our immune system struggled. Nightmares became intense, often we would be sleepless and walk through the house at nights checking on sleeping family members to make sure they had not died. We developed elaborate plans for fighting, restraining, or poisoning possible home intruders who might try to kill a family member. In short, it was a catastrophic collapse of the approaches we had been using to navigate life until then. Crisis.
War ensured. Two primary powerful parts with completely different frameworks tore everyone to pieces in a tug of war over who’s approach was best. One of the parts was primarily concerned with ethics and moral behaviour. She’d been educated in sunday school in a deeply unbalanced ‘turn the other cheek’ way where love, self sacrifice, self hate, and shame were deeply entangled. She was also highly empathic and intelligent and understood that surviving was more than a bodily thing, it was about remaining recognisably human. Her deepest fear was making life choices that meant she could no longer have respect for herself as a person. The other part was primarily concerned with survival. She was lonely and disconnected and made choices in the absence of grounding relationships. She had a pragmatic approach to philosophical challenges such as ‘is it better to be a dead pacifist or a live, lapsed pacifist’ and was unhesitating in responding to violence, deprivation, or abuse rapidly and without concerning herself with ethical frameworks to understand or justify her choices. She could stand up to any authority figure if she believed they were wrong on the basis of gut instinct, and either take punishment or run from it. Her deepest fear was death or being trapped.
We have since come to understand that these very different perspectives are both vital. They balance each other and are both needed. At the time however, all hell broke loose as we began to shift from being ruled by twisted ethics to being ruled by anything goes if it helps us survive. We radically changed our sense of what was acceptable behaviour, for example, parts began stealing, while other parts became suicidal with shame about the stealing which they had only the vaguest and most confusing of senses was not actually being done by them. The brain was a battleground while the body was under assault. The head noise was unbearable, and the sense of disconnection not only from peers or family, but from all other humans, became profound.
TW for religious content
We had terrifying experiences of co-consciousness and became secretly convinced that we were possessed by the devil. On occasions we’d lock ourselves in the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror and watch the switching happen, where the face was the same but the eyes were no longer my eyes, and try to work out how something that felt so profound internally as a switch could make so little visible change from outside. Some parts developed a terror of the mirror and became convinced that another girl lived in it and pretended to be us. We had a psychotic fear that if she walked out of the frame first we would be trapped within the mirror as a reflection and she would inhabit our life. Mirrors became fascinating and terrifying daily encounters with something deeply confusing about ourselves we had no language to explain. Religious experiences within a pentecostal Christian church deepened beliefs of possession and demonic power, and terror that we could not be cured, were personally directly responsible for all suffering and evil in the world and the crucifixion of god, and were beyond redemption. Self harm and painful medical experiences served as self punishment and torture for being evil, and helped to keep suicide at bay. Other parts took on nihilistic beliefs instead that made them suicidally depressed.
This particular war settled when the twisted ethics part won the upper hand again. A number of things led to this, intense experiences of shame, punishment, and a particular conversation with an adult who was desperately important to her who told her that due to her behaviour they no longer believed that she loved them, and she would have to work hard to be obedient and good enough to prove this to them. As this spoke directly to her worst fears she gathered all her strength in a desperate effort for dominance and won. Life returned to the profound dark/light split of the compliant and rebellious who operated independently and knew little of each other. Stable, but remaining profoundly unhappy, different parts gathering various symptoms of a person in a state of extreme distress, and chronically suicidal.
As an example of a different kind of power shift, we once found ourselves homeless and on the run from an abusive relationship. The part who had been running most of the day to day life was exhausted, broken hearted, and suffering from intense anxiety. The rest of us were becoming increasingly frustrated with her dominant role considering her incapacity. She was used to her role and did not trust anyone else to be as competent. (for more about this, see Understanding Roles) After a great deal of arguing, the rest of us teamed up and deliberately moved her to a place deep in the system, far from the surface, where she could not be triggered out. This was never intended to be permanent and was not done with malice. Then we proceeded to celebrate our newfound freedom and start learning some new skills and discovering what we liked to do.
After a short time things started to go badly wrong. Burying this part so deep had an unexpected side effect. Dissociative containment between her and the rest of us started to break down. Her intense anxiety began to flood the whole system. Parts who by their confident (some might say cocky) nature, simply don’t experience anxiety started having panic attacks. They were not only inexperienced and ill equipped to handle this, it deeply threatened their sense of sense and was putting the whole system at risk of extreme dysfunction.
We quickly brought the anxious part back out to the front of the system, and containment reasserted itself. But the experience was not wasted. Rather than being angry or frightened at her treatment, she was relieved that we’d proved we could function without her intense over involvement. Like a worn out mother of adult children who had displayed surprising capacity she began to step back more and more and allow other parts to take on more roles and skills. Many other parts were made eager by their taste of a life that was direct and personal rather than vicarious and second hand, and they keenly enjoyed the opportunity to develop and grow with more time out. This power shift was slower, but far more stable and effective.
As this is getting very long, I’ll continue in another post. The third power shift I want to share about was as a result of diagnosis and interacting with the mental health system, and it too has proved to be very stable and useful.