Multiplicity and visibility 

Sometimes I hate my advocacy work. I resent being out – or worse, having to come out over and over again. I count the costs and look back at my decision to be open about multiplicity back in 2010 and ask myself if I would do it again, knowing what I know now?

Some days the answer is no. It’s no through tears, through gritted teeth, through anger and a sense of betrayal at every opportunity once open to me that didn’t work out.

Becoming a Mum brings me into contact with a whole new world. I out myself as queer. I out myself as many things. But mental health? Difference, disability? Back in my first public talk about multiplicity, I sat behind a table to deliver it because I was trembling too much to stand. After a lot of thought, I came out on this blog in 2012 with my post I am not Sarah. How the hell can it actually get harder over time?

Because now I have so much to lose.

The most challenging delivery of my Psychosis without Destruction talk so far was one I did for a room full of GP’s while I was pregnant. I was so stuck leading up to it, so blocked trying to rework the talk into the much shorter time slot. Frustrated beyond belief that I was struggling so much, I finally realised that I was simply scared. Our culture is not always kind to mothers who are different. We judge, shame, and fear diversity in mothers. In the back of my mind was the fear that admitting to psychosis in a medical setting might end with being bundled into an ambulance and sectioned.

Multiplicity? It’s the kind of thing people can lose custody of their kids over, and I have a kid now. It’s a conversation I don’t want to have with new mum friends every time. Because drumming up the courage and the ability to set the tone as comfortable and normal instead of strange or frightening takes spoons I don’t always have. Some days I’m all out of brave. I can hide this so well, why not simply walk away from that part of my life and start to blend in for a change?

And then.

And then last night, I get a phone call from an old friend telling me they think they have child parts. And I say – congratulations. Parts can be the most wonderful thing in the world, the closest and most beautiful relationship. Congratulations on discovering this, on being ready to know. Do you want me to send you a welcome pack? Two – one for you, one for your counsellor. No worries. You got this.

I think who else are people going to call to hear that? Some days I love my advocacy work. I love that people know they can reach out to me. I love that less people feel totally alone and strange and freakish. I love meeting others and learning from them. I love hearing the stories and I cherish the diversity.

When people email me to say they are not sure if there’s a place in the world for them – how can my answer be oh maybe there is, but only if you are good enough at hiding it. How can that be the only hope for people like us? When they say to me I make them feel that maybe there is place in the world for someone like us… All the costs are worth it. They seem so small, even petty. Peoples lives are made better by honest sharing.

I have more to lose, sure. And I’ve paid a price anyway, steeper then I hoped to. But beware of greener grass. A life hidden, secret, and isolated extracts a cost also, sometimes more subtle and harder to count, but there all the same. I’ve been lucky. Look at my beautiful life, my wonderful partner, gorgeous children, my tribe of strange, beautiful, good hearted people. I have been so blessed. If I’m not strong enough to have these conversations, if I’m not willing to hold this space, the burden falls to those who can’t hide it. Those with systems that are struggling, those where the loneliness is killing them, where the pain is like a bloodstain on their shirt everyone tries not to stare at. If they are not the first multiple people have met, not the first contradiction of the serial killer trope, then I have helped ease a little of their burden. It’s not much, but sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

I have known so many multiples over the past few years. We are so diverse, and so normal. We have pets. We have rent to pay, careers we’re figuring out. We get sick, we care for others who get sick. We watch the news and worry about the world. We fight with our neighbours. We stream movies and eat ice cream and get behind on our laundry. We switch and get stuck or  lose parts or  battle with nightmares or have complicated relationships with our partners. We navigate disclosure in a million ways.

Visibility and activism are such a challenge for so many of us. Think about it this way – there are many gay/lesbian/bi activists because visibility and recognition are key needs – to have our identity, or relationships, and our children recognised as real and legitimate. We don’t want to hide, we want to be identified as gay/lesbian /bi etc. There are far fewer trans activists because most trans people do not want to be identified. We want to live out our lives safely and unobtrusivly. Being identified as trans for some of us is stressful – it may increase the likelihood of discrimination, cruelty, and violence. We want to be identified as our real gender, not necessarily as trans.

For multiples, most of us have learned that imitating non-multiples is the key to success and safety. Our systems are hard-wired for secrecy and hiddenness. Our systems may be vibrant and diverse inside but outside parts cannot be distinguished from each other and switches may be merely subtle shifts in mood or demeanour. For some of us we have learned bitterly that others realising we are multiple can bypass most of the protections it offers and make us deeply vulnerable.

The challenges with visibility go deeper though. As a child I recall watching myself switch in the mirror and having no words to express the way my face was suddenly no longer my own. It was terrifying. For awhile I was convinced I was possessed by the devil. I also developed a deep fear of mirrors. Being confronted with the other inhabitants of my mind and body was intensely disturbing. Imagine coming upon a stranger in your home, in your room, wearing your clothes, your deodorant, your grandmothers necklace. Imagine them wearing your face, using your hands, eating your dinner, kissing your partner.

It’s taken me years to be okay with mirrors. Being photographed. Being video recorded. Having my voice recorded. After diagnosis I had to avoid all of them. Mirrors and reflective surfaces would trigger switches. I could start to identify who was in photographs, I could hear different voices and speech patterns, identify switches between us. For someone who was terrified this wasn’t ‘real’ you might think this would be comforting evidence. It was simply terrifying, falling down a black hole where my identity and existence dissolved and nothing was certain. On bad days I would avoid all these things. On good days I might, when feeling strong, stand in the bathroom for a moment and stare at our face, watching the eyes flickering. Here we are. Slowly getting used to it. Exposure therapy. The unbearable fear becomes over time simply a daily reality. Here I am, brushing my teeth, switching. Mirrors hold no terror for me anymore.

I’ve been out since 2010 and we still don’t share individual names with anyone other than Rose. We don’t sign blog posts or artworks, we don’t identify photographs. We use our group identity as a shield and protect us all behind it. We are so open and so hidden at the same time. We are slowly coming to bear being recorded. Visibility of a different kind. It’s still very disturbing to see ourselves on video. Voice recordings are okay on good days when I have some brave left. I cope pretty well these days with having writing and art on display, and photos of us.

All of these used to be impossible. People would do things like tell me that a piece of writing didn’t sound like me, or that they really preferred one of my artwork types over another (and inside someone curls up in shame that their art isn’t good enough, inside the fear of being found out sounds like an alarm, the impulse suddenly reawakens to police who ‘Sarah’ is, who we present to the world, to try and curate our public self for an impression of consistency). People would tell me that they preferred my clothing style one day over another and we would freeze inside, as embarrassed as when a friend’s mother used to compare me with her daughter as we stood in front of her as kids.

Loathing the ‘specialness’ of the sensationalism – ‘the holy grail of psychiatry’, the media full of terror (even an old teacher of mine was once planning a book where the investigator gradually discovers he is the killer), and the dehumanising of talking about us as if we share nothing in common with other people. We are human. We are people.

The opposite impulse is also present for us. Walking up to the podium to talk about multiplicity at the World Hearing Voices Congress a couple of years ago, a 10 year old part offering to switch out and identify herself ‘so then they’ll see that switching and child parts aren’t scary’ while the wounded one vulnerable to self harm screams with terror at being so exposed. ‘Thankyou, my love, but no, please don’t. You would be wonderful but we mustn’t scare the others (inside).’

I’m not the only multiple being visible, of course. Being visible about something people want to hide means keeping a lot of people’s secrets. It means flying a flag so those who have fallen down the rabbit hole of self have a person to reach out to – even better if it’s someone safe, who will balance sympathy and optimism. Someone not embedded in ideas of multiplicity as a crippling disorder, but not gung-ho about pushing an agenda or assuming their path will be everyone’s path. That’s what I hope to be, what I try to be. A safe starting point in that journey of self discovery. There are a lot of us out there, mostly hidden in plain sight. It’s far from safe to be visibly multiple for many of us. But it’s so important that some of us are.

6 thoughts on “Multiplicity and visibility 

  1. I am currently facing this problem, as I transition out from university life to research life at a hospital. I’m most concerned for unexpected instances of switching due to self-doubt in my competency. We (i.e. the Parliament of Mind) have been planning out regular meetings in the evening to help address these issues, but it’s those moments which I fear the most, out of misunderstanding and the ‘breaking down’ of professionalism. I had a near-encounter of this problem with a research supervisor in the past.

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    • I am sorry to hear you have this stress to deal with! Firstly I hope you might take heart that i am seeing the start of some employers talking multiplicity seriously and engaging in training and education much the way they currently do around queer identity…i think our day will come. In the meantime i have been able to explain away ‘odd’ behaviors by explaining i have a dissociative disorder but being vague about the details. As almost no one knows what this is it was a good explanation without revealing multiplicity. Lastly if it is helpful- many multiplies I know who ate working have system agreements about who may come out at work and negotiate time outside of work for other parts… also i have found that people are often surprisingly unaware of switching unless it is accompanied by crisis or intense distress of some kind. I maintain my group identity with very little recognition of switching even by close friends and i am public about my multiplicity. You all sound very competent with excellent communication and self care! I hope the transition goes smoothly for you all. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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  2. a new page a new chapter. Questions to be asked with gentle curiosity. Not to push. Not to assume for only the first petels of the flower a begining to open . still uncertainty, is it a daisy or a weed? all will be defined by lable. but why can it not be just a flower with all its inocent beauty? why must this tiny bud be beaten into comformity? why must it fit into a box ? why can it not be free to be what ever it may become.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. For me, getting to know the kids and people in the system of my wife, Rhonda, was probably the greatest joy in my life. I think about how much I would have missed if I had not been able to get to know them. My family of Rhonda gave me the most happiness I’ve ever know. And I’ve had a very happy life. People miss out on so much if they aren’t able to get to know the people who are hidden. The insiders, as Rhonda and I called everyone, have so much to offer the world. As Nicolette always said, “Let me out!”

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