For most of us who come to multiplicity by way of trauma such as abuse, neglect, bullying, or chronic pain, we’re familiar with the idea of multiplicity as a creative defence mechanism, something that helped us to survive. This can be a powerful re-framing of the idea of multiplicity as an illness, and very helpful! For some people it’s not all of the story. In some ways, multiplicity can make you more vulnerable to harm.
Many of us with multiplicity start out with no idea that we have parts, either we lose time due to amnesia, or experience the world through the hazy confusion of co consciousness. For many of us, the dissociation is highly functional, breaking up information and containing it in ways that help us to manage life, and allowing us to adapt simultaneously to a variety of different environments with very different social requirements. We have found a way of growing and navigating life that works for us, even if we are completely oblivious to it.
I’ve been talking lately about how powerful triggers and anchors can be for people with parts, but it needs to be said that they can also be abused. Even when the multiplicity is hidden or unknown, sometimes abusive people figure out by accident or instinct that certain things will keep a compliant part out, or trigger a part who discredits themselves to other people. They may not interprete these things using a ‘multiple’ framework and language, but they stumble across triggers and anchors and use them to their own ends. It’s worth mentioning that these factors are at play for people who don’t have parts too, in that all people are vulnerable to things like finding they are more submissive in certain settings, or more likely to act out when treated certain ways. But it can be devastating when dissociative barriers prevent a person from being able to access memories or skill sets to help them protect themselves. This can be the catastrophic downside to multiplicity as a protective mechanism.
Sometimes harm is done with no intent to harm. Triggers may be avoided or used unintentionally by family or friends who tell a person with parts that ‘You’re not yourself today’ when they switch to a part their family doesn’t get along with. Sometimes others may learn to fear certain triggers such as what happens when the person gets drunk, or listens to certain music, and switches to a part who’s disoriented or aggressive. People with parts can find themselves under a constant subtle pressure to keep out the parts other people like, get along with, or find easy to manage. Other parts can spend many years trapped inside and be frozen at certain stages of development, never getting the chance to hone crucial social skills, tell their stories, use their talents, or connect empathically with other people. This can leave systems extremely uneven in their ability to function and their experience and expectations of the world. Systems can easily become polarised into the compliant parts and rebellious parts. Sometimes therapy can also play into this dynamic where the parts that the therapist relates to or finds easiest to get along with get to have key roles, while other parts are excluded, supressed, ‘fused’, ‘integrated’, put into lockdown, or convinced they are no longer needed and have no further role to play in life. (that’s not to suggest that these approaches are never useful or necessary)
Self awareness can make a huge difference for people with parts. Understanding that you have parts can be tremendously helpful in buffering the issues that multiples in a non-multiple world can have. Whether it’s someone saying that they like this artwork/outfit/meal better than that one – and inadvertently hurting the feelings of the part who worked on the less well received item, the frustration of losing skills and abilities as parts surface and go away again, or simply the phenomenal daily challenges posed by differences between parts as large as gender or sexual orientation, or as seemingly small as the part who does the grocery shopping love oranges and yoghurt and never buys any bread even though the rest of the parts love toast for breakfast and never eat oranges. Knowing why you have conversations in your head, 4 different opinions about almost everything, why you can be feeling happy, sad, bored, and curious all at the same time, or for that matter, hot, cold, scared, and sleepy… can help make a lot of sense of what has just been one more bizarre and confusing experience.
However, awareness alone is not sufficient for protection. Awareness of multiplicity can make you vulnerable through exposure to the massive stigma about these experiences. People’s relationships and jobs can be at risk if they are outed. There’s also a vulnerability in inheriting a whole stack of rigid ideas about what it means to multiple, for example when people are told that their systems must have a certain number or type of parts, or that they will inevitably remember horrific abuse, or that therapy is essential, long term, and extraordinarily painful. People can be vulnerable due to the language of symptoms where the number of parts, degree of dissociation, or level of incapacity is used as a measure for the severity of pain and worthiness of support of the person. People can also be vulnerable when multiple communities behave in alienating ways, such as being overly concerned with ‘faked DID’. Sometimes people find that their systems are overly fluid, or overly rigid and fixed in ways that make growth and adapting to new circumstances extremely difficult. The dissociation can limit the healing effect of positive life circumstances and loving relationships.
There can also be vulnerabilities in other people being aware of a person’s multiplicity. Sometimes abusive people use multiplicity against a person. This can happen with children who are being poorly treated, but adults can also be vulnerable. For example, people with parts who are in abusive relationships can have horrific experiences such as having a young part who has previously been abused being triggered during sex for the titillation of their partner. Multiplicity can be magnificent and protective, but it can also be devastatingly vulnerable. People with parts who find that their multiplicity is not effective to protect them from abuse or trauma may become extremely fluid, chaotic, poly-fragmented, or build massive numbers of parts. (this is not the only reason systems can function in these ways!) Systems that have experienced this kind of harm can be like labyrinths designed to confuse and hide essential information from an abuser or series of abusers who have discovered how to use the dissociation to their own advantage. Often this design also confuses therapists and the person with parts, and can frighten and overwhelm those who are seeking to understand, map, and make sense of themselves. Realising that confusion is the intention and that it serves a very important purpose can be a valuable first step in learning to love an inner labyrinth. Understanding triggers and anchors and knowing how to use them can be a powerful way of ensuring that abusive people cannot use them against you.
Known multiplicity can also be interpreted in ways that are harmful. For example, some people are put through traumatic exorcisms to get rid of parts who have been understood as spirits or demons. People with parts who have different gender identities have accessed trans support services that haven’t considered multiplicity as a possibility and have unintentionally suppressed and rejected all the parts of one gender. Multiplicity can be misdiagnosed and mistreated, for example if it’s seen as schizophrenia treatment may concentrate on keeping the person lucid and stopping the voices via medication – which can translate to tranquilising the person until they can’t hear their parts, and trying to prevent switching. Some people have accessed therapy that has interpreted and navigated their multiplicity in ways that they later come to believe was deeply harmful.
Multiplicity can also make you more vulnerable alienation, loneliness, and self hate. These are simply things that everyone without a peer group is vulnerable to. For people who don’t have parts, there’s often something strange and fascinating about the idea. What it can be difficult to understand is just how strange people without parts can seem to those of us who have them. This is our ‘normal’, and we can feel very alien and alone in the world. This can be compounded by the issue of masks. Many people wear social masks, the face they present to the world. People with parts are often thought to be wearing masks and then revealing their ‘true’ self when they switch. Pre diagnosis, everyone in my life had a different idea of who Sarah really was, and we ourselves couldn’t figure out who we ‘really’ were. Different people formed bonds with different parts, and most of my relationships were one-part bonds only. Switching caused chaos. I would invite friends over to visit, then switch later on and be confused and frustrated that people who didn’t seem to particularly like me were on my doorstep. They, on the other hand, experienced me as moody, unpredictable, and very strange. A freak. I also had big issues with connecting with other people’s buried parts – not the dissociative kind, but the kind we all have. For example, someone who presents themselves to the world as together and successful may have a hidden part that is lost, afraid, and steeped in grief. For some of us with parts, we are used to hearing and feeling things beneath the surface and we accidentally interact with and draw out the hidden parts of other people in ways they can find both deeply moving and intensely uncomfortable. Certainly not necessarily conducive to stable relationships!
It’s hard to be the only one of your kind. This is why bridging the Gap and finding points of connection and similarity common to all people can be so desperately important! It’s also why connections with peers and peer workers are crucial. Everyone needs a space in which the way they function in the world is ‘normal’ and for a few hours they don’t have to explain everything in full, because people get it. Being the only deaf person, the only kid with two Dads, the only scholarship student can be hard. Diverse communities help, and contact with other people who share your experiences also help. However multiple/multiple relationships can also be fraught, while there’s a common language and understanding, there’s also the complexity of two systems and a different type of relationship between each possible pair of parts who are out, as well as the loss and grief of forming connections with parts who go away or are supressed or overruled by other system members. Friendships between multiples can be wonderful but also fragile.
Multiplicity can be life saving. It can help people to contain, protect, and adapt. It can also be a difference that leaves people at greater risk of abuse, exploitation, and isolation. Here lies a tension that many of us peer workers with parts are struggling to engage. We need to hear that multiplicity can be healthy and useful, that there’s hope and that the illness model isn’t the only story that can be told. But it’s the vulnerability of multiplicity that drives us, the knowledge that people are struggling and suffering and being harmed that makes us want to speak out and create resources and healthy communities. The less stigma people encounter, the easier the path to healthy multiplicity is. (this path doesn’t exclude the possibility of integration or fusion) We’re often sold an idea of multiplicity that is about being broken, profoundly alienated from self, where the multiplicity is conflated with the trauma history in a way that makes it difficult to think creatively and respond with enthusiasm to the task of understanding, accepting, and making a wonderful life with yourselves. We don’t have to pretend that multiplicity is any easier than it is, nor do we have to choose only one way to understand it. Like anything in life, and like any kind of difference, there’s deep complexity and ambiguity in our experiences. We need the freedom to be able to engage those honestly, and we need opportunities to be able to combine our collective wisdom and help to reduce some of these vulnerabilities for people.