For many of us with multiplicity, figuring out how to live with inner children can be a huge challenge. I’m certainly no expert on this and don’t have this all figured out with my own, but some guiding principles have worked well for me that might be of help or interest to you.
The first massive challenge for us was to learn to cope with the deep shame we felt about them. For example, we have one who is 5. She’s very sweet, curious, and playful. We first noticed her when we attended uni one day, and she turned up thinking it was her first day of school. She was fascinated by the shiny wrapped chocolates in vending machines and terribly anxious that maybe she’d forgotten to put her underwear on that morning. We were co-conscious and felt blind terror that someone might notice her ‘weird’ behaviour. Our ‘intellectual adults’ in particular were dismayed at being mistaken for this impulsive, cheerful creature who balanced on the edges of the garden beds and skipped down stairs. It felt like a profoundly visible difference, a severe disability that would stop people seeing us as smart or dignified or other things that are really important to some of us. So our first reaction was mainly horror.
Shame went deeper too. Having kids tell the white lies all kids tell, exaggerate an event, make it sound more exciting or themselves more brave, skip something they’re worried they’ll get into trouble over… We didn’t cope. We hated ourselves with a deep passion. When we realised we were multiple, we hated them. For a long time we did our best to completely suppress them.
Reducing this shame was partly about understanding them in context. It helped us to read about attachment disorders and realise that the issues were very common. It also helped to spend time with other kids that age and realise that our expectations were crazy high for our own. It helped to look at photos of ourselves at those aged and take that although we felt mature and responsible and old, we were just very little. We had some mad ideas about ourselves as children that we had to confront, and some internalised ideas from other people we had to start to question.
Fortunately, system members who felt less threatened by the kids also had different reactions to them. One in particular was very co-conscious and curious about the way that people didn’t pick up even when the 5 year old was out. People just don’t think of multiplicity. Even pretty overt behaviour wasn’t noticed, particularly by strangers who didn’t have any idea of who we were usually, or what to expect from us. It was a startling kind of freedom.
We also started to notice some of the pain of being a child in an adult world. How difficult life could be for them, how lonely they were, how bewildered they were by adult concerns and choices. Once this sweet little girl came out, curled up on the couch, and waited for someone to bring her something to eat. She ‘wasn’t allowed’ to open the fridge or the freezer or make a snack, and she didn’t know that no one was coming. Life can be strange and lonely when you miss great chunks of it and the rules change without anyone telling you.
Being able to take a step back from feeling overwhelmingly threatened and just observe and learn was important. This was a slow process for us, years rather than weeks. A system in survival mode is a system geared to feel suspicious and threatened by everything! Initially there was no trust between us and a lot of scrambling to stay in charge and in control by the ones who so deeply feared losing it. All our models of losing control were about disability and loss of functioning, people who wound up in hospital needing constant care. For a long time it felt like we were fighting for our life, and fighting a doomed battle at that, that life long severe mental illness was our destiny while these parts existed. Discovering that sometimes kids brought joy and hope too, was a massive surprise and helped us begin to question our assumptions about what it was to have inner kids.
Humour and compassion are powerful alternatives to shame. Over time I found I could re-tell the story of having a five year old switch out at uni and glue herself optimistically to vending machines for significant periods of time hoping chocolate might come out of it… and laugh, and make other people laugh. Life is bizarre and absurd! Taking it, and ourselves, utterly seriously is a quick way to find ourselves forever disappointed, threatened, and miserable. Embracing the humour and pathos in equal measure has served us well.
These processes of learning and listening and questioning built some empathy and we began to relate to the kids as real people instead of just a burden or nuisance. They weren’t just symptoms of a disorder, or here to make my life difficult, they are just as real as I am. Their joy and pain just as real. It became less stressful to let them have some time out. These days if the 5 year old is out when we’re buying groceries (or more likely, candy) then people such as check out operators generally talk to us as if we are intellectually slow. We’ve stopped being so threatened by that and take it in our stride. There are some awesome people out there with intellectual disabilities. Being mistaken for one of them at times isn’t the end of the world. This is part of what it really means to be inclusive and to believe that people with disabilities are still people. If you think you’re comfortable with and inclusive of a group but are mortified if someone mistakes you for one them, then you’re a long way from walking your talk.
(I’ve seen this a lot, where the act of reaching out and connecting with a marginalised group is supposed to reflect well on the generous supporter, and it’s really all about their needs. They love to be seen as inclusive and brave but it’s nothing to do with equality. Try mistaking a mental health worker for one of the clients and see how thin the veneer of their ‘community’ is as they jump to assert their true status. This is doubly offensive if you’re there as one of the clients!)
Of course, threat doesn’t just go one way. An inner 14 year old who has figured out that their body is adult and flirts with scary drunk men has learned a powerful way to scare and punish the rest of a system who are constantly trying to suppress her. (ask me how I know this!) Kids get scared by their inner adults who are angry, powerful (but not all powerful) figures who feel they are more real, more important, their needs paramount, and their ideas about life decisions the ones that should happen. Kids don’t just get out voted, they often don’t get a vote at all in these systems. Imagine the sense of threat that comes from having other people who don’t like you, don’t care about your pain or needs, and don’t even see you as ‘real’ making choices about your life, your home, your family, and your body. Sound familiar? For some of us, we build our systems on the same dynamics of family or school, the world we grew up in, and sometimes that’s a terrible thing.
Systems that are structured on abusive dynamics, as mine was, deal with the fall out of that. The most powerful might win all the time out and decision making, but the alienated rebel, undermine, sabotage, manipulate, and seethe with resentment. Those who have no choice or overt power protest in passive aggressive ways and behave without dignity. The traumatised stay locked in severe trauma, the isolated express pain and loneliness through symptoms such as phobias, nightmares, flashbacks, tics, and sickness. This is often what we call DID or multiplicity, when in fact it’s a normal response to a really abusive system. Multiplicity with a healthy use of power internally looks very different. It often doesn’t even fit the diagnostic criteria for DID, and we have no alternative framework or language to describe it.
With time and gradual connection, there’s more empathy and less dehumanisation. With this has also come a sense of protection and responsibility. As we’ve learned to unpick our sense of shame about our inner kids we’ve found it easier to understand and interact with them. Long ago, pre diagnosis for myself, I was reading about multiplicity because someone close to me had been diagnosed. I read about a woman with multiplicity who registered that the other patient she saw in her therapists waiting room was also multiple. She gave the shrink a gift of crayons to pass along. When I read that, something deep inside me burned with fierce desire. I wanted my own box of crayons, my own signal that this was okay. At the same time, the iron fist of suppression, refusal, denial locked me down. I absolutely could not do something as simple as buy myself crayons, because that was opening a forbidden door. It was years before I bought a packet of crayons and a colouring book for us, and it was for us, like each step on this road, an act of courage and faith. So very simple, looking back, but so profound and needing such bravery to be willing to face what came up, to trust that there would still be life and hope. When we started Bridges, the face to face group for people with dissociation and multiplicity that we ran weekly for 2 years, we brought crayons and paper to every meeting, trying to pass on this gift.
How simple it has turned out to be, to understand that we’re all sailing in the same ship together. To find joy in the differences between us. Everything we read was about coming together, becoming more like each other, finding a common ground and merging into it. Everything we’d tried was about drawing a line that defined who ‘Sarah’ was and only allowing out those of us who fit within it. Peace has been the opposite process for us. Letting go of that attempt to control who we are and accepting who is here. It’s okay if people get very different ideas about who Sarah is depending on who they meet first. We lead the way by being okay with it ourselves, and most people simply follow suit. We had a house-guest here for a few days this week, who quietly observed to Rose – “Wow, it’s like Sarah’s a different person. I didn’t think she’d be the kind of person who games (first person shooters, by preference, particularly L4D2). There’s a photo of a pretty butterfly on one of her computer screens, and she’s killing zombies on the other!” To which Rose responds “yeah, I see what you mean. Some people are like that!”