Hey folks, I’ve been approached by a person who’s written a screenplay and is looking for a sensitivity reader to advise about the character with DID. Contact me if you’d like me to pass on your email.
My main focus when I engage with any media about plurality/DID is does it make it clear this is one representation of it, or does it imply this is the norm and everyone’s experience? The former makes me happy.
You can check out a couple of my reviews of other media here:
Hey folks, I know many of us with trauma are having a rough time at the moment too. Some of us are not safe in our homes, are facing increased risk of harm from people close to us, or are struggling terribly with awful triggers such as feeling trapped, abandoned, and not having enough resources to survive. Shops don’t feel safe anymore, many of us are losing access to essential supports and are finding our brains are blowing up under the strain.
I’m very busy at the moment supporting my family and clients, but some of my beautiful contacts have been swiftly responding to create free resources for people.
A friend of mine, Jade, is running beautiful resources such as reading kids books online particularly for little’s and kids in multiple systems – check out her work here. Jade has been co-admin of the Dissociative Initiative facebook discussion group for many years, she’s incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. She wrote a huge blog and has published a range of stunning books on trauma, multiplicity, and recovery.
Another friend of mine, Raven, is part of a huge free online conference for survivors. It is accessible from anywhere, and takes place between 23rd-27th of March. Raven is well known for her amazing Puppetry (R)Evolution using creative techniques and hand made puppets to discuss issues such as child sexual exploitation. Her 25-minute video is about using creativity and activism in healing on the 26th March, and I’ve been assured it will include puppets. Here’s the schedule and list of speakers with their topics: http://walkingwithoutskin.com/rape-and-resilience-summit-speakers .
I’m hearing a huge surge in self harm, suicidality, eating disorders, and PTSD symptoms. Anxiety and depression are high, right when everyone around us is telling us to not panic and go out and do a lot of things. Executive function skills are in short supply and bad memories are looming large.
Some of us know that if there are shortages, we’re not on the list of people who will be prioritised. That alone is a kind of social shame and rejection that can send people down a dark spiral. It’s hard to put into words, but we all need to feel like our lives have meaning and purpose, that we’re not just here to consume, and that we’re not expendable.
If this is you, or someone you care about – hold on. If the old stories have kicked back in and death and self destruction feel like valid – or the only – reasonable response to such widespread terror and shortages, hold onto the knowledge that we need you. If the ‘broken people’ trauma narrative has you feeling that you’re not destined or worthy of survival, if the idea of taking up essential resources that someone else might have to go without makes you want to run rather than fight for a place in the world, if it all feels too hard to hold on while the planet tips into darkness anyway…
I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for what you are going through, and for the people who don’t understand. I’m so sorry that at the point where you want to stand up and shine brightest you’re falling apart. I know what it is to feel tuned to the agony of the world, to feel the death of every person, every creature, in your own skin like a million needles. I know what it is to be seduced by the idea of scapegoating yourself, that perhaps the world would be a better place without you in it. That perhaps someone more worthy would have a meal or medicine. That perhaps you could take with you all the darkness and anguish and dive over the edge of the world with it clutched to your heart and vomiting from your mouth and dripping down the inside of your legs and leave behind you a brighter and gentler dawn.
These stories are like parasites that eat us alive and turn our minds against ourselves. I say to you – what kind of world do we want? Because if you want a world that is a little kinder to the so-called broken people, we need you in it. If you want a world that is loving to those in pain, we need you to bear the pain and find the love. You cannot make any of it better or reduce the suffering even one mite by tearing another hole in the fabric of the universe on your way out of it. Stay here. Hold it with us. Mourn it with us. Love it, with us. Stay.
This morning was a rare one, everyone in my little family home for breakfast. I cooked pancakes and realised my heart is never so full as when we are together. My girls are so precious to me, I feel warm, strong, fierce, joy-sadness when I’m with them. Their happiness is my happiness and their hurts break my heart. It breaks and mends over and over.
I am different with them. There’s a theory about the ‘self’ which states that who you are is not a fixed thing, like a rock or a plant. It’s a unique dynamic. That ‘self’ is what emerges in relationship with another. So each ‘self’ in each setting, each relationship, is slightly unique, and has aspects that may differ from all others. This is both separate to and part of multiplicity. I experience this in both which parts are brought out and also the different selves we all have. This is an aspect of multiplicity which is universal to all of us.
This dynamic also goes in two directions. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. When I feel young I bring out the parent in you, and vice versa. You may recoil from my aloofness or warm to my charm. Relationship dynamics bring out age old stories and patterns between us. They move us deeper into the grove of who we have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, or bring to light new aspects of ourselves we had forgotten or didn’t know were there.
This curious TED talk “Rethinking Infidelity” explores the idea that being in search of a self we have lost for a long time is an aspect of why we are unfaithful to each other. (jump to 9.30 if you want to skip to this part) That in time we put away the parts of ourselves that don’t fit with our partner and community. And a new, different person can bring to light a self that makes us feel more vital and alive than we have in years. Unable to see that this is a normal challenge of navigating community – finding the balance between the social homogeneity and the wild individual – we embrace the new person as a salvation and shatter everything we’ve build and loved until now. And then we do it again.
It isn’t that we are looking for another person, but for another self.
Integrity is about the threads of beliefs and values we hold through these transitions. The nature of universal dissociation is that it is entirely common to have three beautiful relationships and one in which we are horrifically abusive. Some nazi guards came home from violence and were loving to their families. A man may be kind to his children and friends and brutal to his wife. A mother may love three children and hate and abuse the fourth. When you think of self as one static thing this is horribly confusing and we keep trying to understand which story is true and which self is real – the kind or the vile. When they are understood as both true, real, genuine, there’s both a kind of devastation and a relief in being able to hold them equally in mind. No longer are they different sides of a coin that cannot be viewed at the same time, they are different aspects of the same person and both true.
So the abused person who struggles to find their way to the ‘truth’ of their situation – wrestling with competing stories of who their abuser ‘really’ is, finds a way out by embracing the whole of them. They are both Jeckyll and Hyde. They are sweet, wounded, sincere, and savage. It’s all real, inasmuch as any self is real. You cannot have a relationship with only one of them, however wonderful they are and however much you adore them. And you cannot soothe the savage ones through further abasement, sacrifice, and suffering. Until and unless the sweet ones take responsibility for the savage ones, they will continue to let their demons take their pain and rage out on you, debasing and destroying you both in the process. In some cases the savage selves use the sweet selves as little more than bait to trap the people they envy and wish to harm.
Some relationships – and these are the precious ones – help us be our best selves. With my girls I have the opportunity to parent, mother, mentor. There’s a groundedness and centredness I feel in that role that I treasure. An opportunity to be someone I have always wanted to be. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to help them grow up and find who they are.
Last year myself and two other systems got to know journalist Tracey Shelton. She’s a fascinating journalist with an inspiring career and she was taken by the stigma and lack of good information out there about multiplicity. It’s been wonderful working with her to put real and human faces to the experiences. Her first article about it has been published today.
The interview process itself was immersive and in depth, exhausting and inspiring. It was a huge behind the scenes project last year that is just starting to bear fruit. It was such an honour to hear in depth from other multiples – not since the days of the support group Bridges I used to run have I had such experiences. Can you imagine that? Consider for a moment that you are gay and almost never meet or speak with another openly gay person. Or Christian, or adopted, or a wheelchair user… All people are different and diverse in some way and having a connection to peers is invaluable.
The connection and support I experienced during this project rekindled my own efforts to humanise multiples. I have spoken just this week with a delightful editor who offers mentoring to get projects – such as my introductory guide to multiplicity – to the finish line. There’s many peers, advocates, and activists out there and in the Dissociative Initiative, all saying the same things: multiples are human. We deserve support and we shouldn’t have to live in fear. I’m so proud to be part of that message. ❤
About a year ago I was interviewed for the launch of Muse Magazineabout my experiences with multiplicity. I was holding off on sharing until they put the article online, but there’s been a hiccup with the mag (hopefully temporary) and it still hasn’t happened. So I wanted to share part of it, I was asked to write a snapshot ‘day in my life’:
Beautiful artwork – not mine though
A few days ago, I was struggling with severe stress at work. My partner, Rose, is worried about us. She’s looking after our baby, Poppy, on standby for supportive phone calls all day. I have a very stressful meeting that doesn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I feel numb and dissociated. There’s very few private places for me to call her. I sit in the empty foyer and phone. My system switches through several people who handle situations where we feel powerless, unsafe, unheard. We are all numb.
Rose is gentle on the phone, human and safe. She directs us outside. We go and stand out by the gardens and the numbness eases. Switching rapidly between parts with different emotional responses and needs, we pace in a circle by the garden, debriefing on the phone. Rose holds the space for us. We calm, like a flock of pigeons that flew up into the air in distress and now feel safer and return to the ground. We can advocate for ourselves again, contain the feelings, feel less frozen.
That night, Rose has a trip planned. I’m home from work and the autumn sunlight is calling to us. I need to be outdoors, I feel dissociated and airless inside. We text our elder girl, Star and arrange to collect her after school from a bus stop in town. We pack nappies and snacks and jumpers for everyone. Rose drives us all into the hills to feel the wind on our faces. We have the windows down. I sit by Poppy in the back to keep her settled. Our primary parent parts watch her tenderly. After a while she starts to wail and can’t be settled. Star needs the toilet.
We reflect inside how we are parents now, not lovers to wander where we will. Now there are noses to wipe and people with short attention and many needs. Rose stops at a park in the hills. I’m enchanted by the trees and switch to a 12 year old who adores trees. Star comes back from the public toilets stressed because the walls are covered in millipedes and she’s afraid they will fall on her. We switch the ones who are frustrated, who want her to be different than how she is away to the back of our system. Gentle parent part comes forward and walks to the toilet with her, feeling for that place between compassion and encouragement. Inside us the child yearns and watches the trees hungrily. The toilet trip is a success. A frustrated part comes out and silently takes a millipede off the wall, not to stress but simply to show that courage is a good thing in life, that the danger is not as bad as it may feel.
For a moment no one needs us. The child switches out, takes off our shoes, runs to the trees. Presses his face against the bark and feels webs in his eyebrows. Feels dead leaves underfoot. Feels human.
Rose calls out for our phone. Poppy is being adorable and she wants to take a photo. We switch to parent again and walk over. Then back to child, enchanted by the sunlight through the leaves. He points it out to Star, but she is feeling cold and goes to sit in the car. Still learning how to be free in these places. Rose comes back with a bag of snacks, shares chocolate and strawberries. The light changes colour. We switch. The carousel inside turns. We soak up life.
Switching is different for all multiples, not everyone switches this quickly or this often or has this number of parts. Some have many more or far fewer or they are all the same age or they switch only every few months or once a year! Please don’t take my system as the ‘norm’.
But that snapshot is quite normal for us, a group existence with many, many switches every day, often quite brief, and frequently triggered by what is needed from us by those around us, or what calls to us in our environment. A carousel that keeps turning. For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category ofMultiplicity, or explore my NetworkThe Dissociative Initiative.
Surfacing from the terrible week, my mind has been clearing. Today it offered only a handful of “I hate myself”s almost like afterthoughts. I’ve been noticing that there seem be to be a particular vulnerability around an bring to do with work or my business. I feel fragile but settled and even joyful.
Yesterday Poppy and I painted in the backyard. She chose a pearl purple paint at Officeworks the other day and spent an hour exploring how it changed her paint water and running it through her fingers. She painted my hand with her finger with such careful seriousness, the moment felt profound. I’m so glad to be a parent, to have these precious girls in my life.
Today we had my birthday party, a backyard campfire with cookies. I decided on cookies because it was much easier to bake a range to fit various dietary needs, and I made large batches and sent gift bags home with the guests. It was such a joy.
Our baker has not been out in awhile, in fact few of us have been out except for the one being totally overwhelmed, and switching was wonderfully liberating. There’s a common misconception that multiple can simply switch out whoever they want, or get rid of anyone being inconvenient. Few systems work that way, and constantly suppressing inconvenient parts tends to have its own downsides. Having someone distressed stuck out is horrible, but it does happen. It has been a relief to get a break from it here and there and see the world through different eyes.
Our baker wanted to make everything, spent a happy morning writing a huge list of everything she c felt like baking and narrowing it to 5 recipes, compiling the ingredients list and cross referencing with what we already had in the house. We made dairy and gluten free peanut butter chocolate cookies, gluten free gingersnaps, regular anzac biscuits, and sugar free banana date balls. We baked spuds on a fire and folks brought toppings with them to share. There were marshmallows and cold drinks. The kids played on the play ground or in the loungeroom with a train set and toy kitchen. It was happy mayhem for the most part.
Birthday over for another year. Thank goodness for that. Hoping this week is better.
I did my first interview recently speaking out against the horrific stigma and discrimination so many people have to deal with as multiple. I’ve teamed up with SANE Australia to bust myths and show a human face to multiplicity. Yesterday they published the article: Nine things you need to know before watching Split. It’s beautifully concise and to the point, a much briefer explanation of the issues than this post. I’ve written here to elaborate on the key points and explain in more detail what is going on, why it matters, and what we can do about it.
The new movie Split has put people like me back in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. This movie speaks directly to a popular myth – that multiples like me are dangerous.
This is crap. It’s lazy writing. It’s been done a million times. And always having the multiple be the bad guy harms people who are already afraid of the huge impact being out about multiplicity can have in their relationships, jobs, housing, education, and custody arrangements. Multiples are an incredibly diverse and highly discriminated against community, so why are we still telling the serial killer story? It’s not okay to constantly present us this way. How dare people make money by exploiting the vulnerable.
I’m multiple and I’m a compassionate, hard working, animal loving poet with a very silly sense of humour. I do not murder hitchhikers. I do not kidnap people. I do not terrorise children. I take injured seagulls to the vet. I provide a safe home for friends in trouble. I weed my elderly neighbour’s garden.
You do not need to be afraid of me switching. Switching is just like someone leaving a room and another person coming in. One of us catches the seagull and figures out how to keep it safe, we switch and someone else comforts the distressed child who saw the bird get hit by a car. We tag team our life. It’s actually completely lacking in drama. In my world multiplicity and switching is just normal.
Have multiples ever been killers? Yes. It’s rare but possible. Are some multiples violent or abusive or frightening? Of course. And so are some people who eat fish. Some Mexicans. Some psychiatrists. Multiples run the full gamut of human expression from demons to angels not because of our multiplicity but because we are human. Statistically, you are far more likely to be a threat to us than we are to you.
Why does it matter?
It’s just entertainment though, right? Don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t take it seriously. No one takes this stuff seriously. It’s not real. It doesn’t make any difference in the real world.
If ‘serial killer’ or ‘violent psychopath’ were the only roles we cast people with freckles in, how would you feel about dating a freckled person? Having a child with freckles? A co-worker? How would you feel about discovering you had freckles you didn’t know about?
I’ve watched a lot of the movies or episodes and read the books that depict multiplicity. Some of them I think are great, and that includes some that are brutal or in which the person with multiplicity is scary or the bad guy. (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings)
As an artist myself I’m not wild about censorship. I’m not saying we should police our creative content and never allow a negative portrayal. What I am saying is that stories are powerful. Stories are part of culture. It’s far past time we started telling some different ones about multiplicity because the culture that surrounds multiplicity is deeply toxic and destructive. We are aware of this culture and the impact of stories enough that we should be responsible in how we tell the ‘negative’ ones.
Just in case Split was responsible, I’ve been holding off on sharing my reaction until I could read reviews and synopsis. I still had a small hope the famous Shyamalan twist might save it, or that perhaps there were cues in the film to distance this depiction from other people with multiplicity. There were not. It would take very little to do this either in the exposition (‘he’s fundamentally different from other people with DID’) or simply by briefly depicting a different person with multiplicity who is clearly not dangerous. Or even the hero for a change. I have a similar criticism of United States of Tara.
Because we so rarely see multiplicity depicted, every time we do that example is taken to be representative. People don’t come away thinking ‘that’s one example of a diverse experience’, they come away with a vague feeling ‘that’s what multiplicity is like’. This is true of all minority or hidden experiences – as a queer person if I’m the only one someone is friends with, who I am strongly shapes how they feel about all queer people. I’m very aware of this in my advocacy work around multiplicity and I always work hard to stop my own experiences being treated as representative. I see it as my responsibility to be honest and to bring the diversity of my community with me in all my work. A lot of my work is busting myths about multiplicity that are absolutes.
I’m particularly angry about Split because they have gone to a lot of effort to use current clinical terminology and mix a lot of real information and myths together in a way that makes it hard to figure out which is which unless you are knowledgeable about the experience. So the villain has been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and is in therapy, real instances of major changes in function such as blindness between identities have been distorted to suggest this change is physical. The Facebook page for Split uses taglines such as “He’s not well“. I’m not personally impressed with the mental ‘illness’ framework for multiplicity or any other form of suffering or difference, but to see the language people use to try to explain their struggles co-opted to engender fear is disgusting. The people behind Split have done enough research to know better.
The website splitmoviehurts.com has a full run down of the movie (behind trigger warnings) and criticism from the perspectives of people with multiplicity, I highly recommend having a look.
The impact of these stories and issues is called culture. It’s ‘the water in which we swim’ – difficult to see or quantify, but ever present and extremely powerful. We keep telling the serial killer multiplicity story precisely because it is part of our culture and we recognise it. It has a pull. Each time we tell it we re-enforce the links between danger and multiplicity.
Multiplicity is surprisingly common but mostly kept hidden. Activists and advocates like me are certainly out making noise, but comparatively we are rare. There are a lot of reasons for this lack of advocacy and visibility. Culture is one of the powerful ones.
In all the time I have been working and living in this field, I have only just encountered my first instance of someone who is publicly out as being multiple being employed in a non-mental health setting. The culture is that negative, and acceptance is that rare.
Not something we tend to mention to mental health peer workers who out themselves as multiple.
The Toxic Triad
The ‘multiples are dangerous’ stories feed the toxic triad of fear, fascination, and disbelief. These are extremely common reactions to multiplicity. They are profoundly dehumanising and destructive. They do us great harm both when we receive them from others and when we internalise them and express them towards ourselves and each other. These are the foundations of the toxic culture around multiplicity that causes so much harm.
The story of Split might not be real, but the fear definitely is. When I was diagnosed with DID in 2007 I was terrified of both other people’s reactions, and of myself. I was so afraid that no one would ever trust me again, that I would not be allowed to work with children or finish my psychology degree and support vulnerable people. I was also terrified of my other selves, afraid they might have totally different values from me and be outside of my control. Afraid I might not be safe. Afraid I might hurt someone. I had never seen or heard of multiplicity portrayed in a positive way, as a regular person, or as a moral, safe, and caring person. These are not the stories we are told. I felt bottomless fear that I might be dangerous and not even know it. On bad days I wondered if it would be better to kill myself than risk that possibility.
This terror made examining the possibility I was multiple a year long nightmare in therapy where I attempted to convince the psychologist I might have borderline personality disorder instead – because I perceived that the stigma about that was lesser. Anyone who knows the intense stigma surrounding BPD should shudder at that. This terror made accepting my multiplicity feel like leaping from a cliff into the unknown. It took courage and desperation and it made me feel alone and afraid for my life. It should not be this way and it doesn’t have to be. I did not know then that I had already been switching all my life and actually had a sense of who we were and our values. I did not know that the dynamic between us was like any group or family with its own values and personality. I didn’t know that a system could self regulate and change who was out if something bad was about to happen, or that some identities could override others for safety. I hadn’t yet read that violence is difficult to predict but one of the few useful indicators is past behaviour – which was good news for my system as we have never been the instigators of violence. I hadn’t yet got to know the rest of us and realised they are just like me.
Other people also expect us to be similar to the stories of multiplicity they have seen. I’ve had a psychiatrist tell me to switch in my first session with them to prove my multiplicity, and support workers tell me in disappointment they couldn’t tell I had switched. I’ve also had a PHaMs worker report they did not feel safe with me when I was open that they were meeting a different part that day – and I didn’t even switch in front of them. At the time this absolutely devastated me. To be considered unsafe touched profound fears in me. I cried like the world had ended. I never went back to the PHaMs program. I was heartbroken.
There’s an obsession with fakers and fraud, caused by the very limited ideas of what is ‘real multiplicity’ and the perceived gain available to those of us who are public – to be treated as rare and interesting. When I outed myself as having DID to the Disability Worker at Tafe she told me I was fascinating. I told her “those are just my problems. You haven’t seen my art yet”. This is not what I wanted to be known for.
People like me are accused of narcissism and attention seeking. We just want to be ‘special’. Perhaps to have money opportunities or fame- how often are people with plain old garden variety anxiety asked to go on Oprah or given book deals? What other experience is described as ‘the holy grail of psychiatry’? Are we building an insanity defence to get away with murder?
When basic resources and access needs are seen as favours or special treatment we are treated with deep suspicion. Competition for the limited roles of ‘real multiplicity’ is steep and harsh. Instead of supporting self awareness, compassion for uncertainty, and equality we struggle in a toxic environment that lavishes limited resources on a special few and withholds basic opportunities for support, employment, and dignity from everyone. If you can’t get a job then an Oprah presentation or a book deal are essential for income. We get stuck in the culture of sensationalism for the same reasons people with physical deformities used to join freak shows – because it’s the only role we are given and the only way to survive.
When I talk about fascination I don’t mean curiosity. Fascination has an ‘othering’ aspect where the subject is treated as less human. There’s a voyeuristic element to it. It’s intrusive, sensational, and hungry for the bizarre, tragic, or humiliating. Curiosity or interest are respectful and compassionate. Questions are only asked if invited, and from a basis of shared humanity. I love curiosity and I’m intensely curious about multiplicity myself. Fascination is repellent.
Sensational, creepy, dramatic portrayals of multiplicity also feeds the idea that multiplicity isn’t real. That it’s just a plot device used in Hollywood. So people like me are deluded or faking. There’s a lot of disbelief about multiplicity in the general community and the mental health sector. Ironically, I didn’t used to believe in it myself.
I turned myself into pretzel shapes trying to figure out if multiplicity was real or caused by doctors, if maybe I just wanted to be special, if I really was multiple, and if I should be afraid of myself. I doubted everything and examined my feelings and motivations ruthlessly. I was relentless and brutal in my attempt to be sure that I was considering this possibility for the ‘right’ reasons. At a point in my life when I felt so alone and so afraid, the toxic culture about multiplicity was making me treat myself with suspicion and disbelief instead of acceptance and self compassion. This was for me, life threatening. I might not have made it through the process of becoming aware I was multiple. It’s often a time of extreme vulnerability for people.
Films like Split also feed the idea that this is what multiplicity usually looks like: florid obvious switches between dramatically different identities who always change clothing and are completely separate and unrelated. For some people this is pretty accurate. But for most it’s far from our reality. Switches that are subtle, blurring or blending between parts with unclear divisions from each other and a lot of overlap in characteristics, even close friends only noticing what seem to be changes in mood rather than different identities – these are common experiences of multiplicity.
There’s an idea that multiplicity must be obvious to be real. There’s another one that it must be subtle and hidden to be real. Like most of these myths we are stuck whatever we do. Someone will try to take credibility from us.
What other process of diagnosis or identity develops this way? It’s incredibly common for people with multiplicity to doubt themselves and fear the diagnosis in ways I do not encounter anywhere else. It’s common for people to be terrified they are multiple and also terrified they are not. We did not create this culture. It is not our fault. But we inherit it and are pinned by the contradictions and trapped between the myths. We pay a steep price for it. Fear, denial, isolation, years of secrecy, torment and suffering. It costs us years, dreams, relationships, and consumes our energy and resources just to survive. Sometimes we pay with our lives.
Diversity is a normal part of the human experience across a great many domains. People with multiplicity are not special, or at least not more special than anyone else. We are people. We do not deserve to be vilified or idolised.
A large aspect of the suffering and anguish around multiplicity is to do with the toxic culture and experiences of trauma. We deserve access to resources and information to help us with these experiences.
People with multiplicity run the usual gamut of decent to awful. We are not a homogeneous group but a highly diverse one. Having multiplicity in itself tells you nothing about whether we are safe, trustworthy, or good parents. It only tells you we have more than one self. We are no more likely to be dangerous, deceptive, or unfit parents than anyone else.
It is normal for multiplicity to be expressed, experienced and understood by those with it and our friends and family in a wide variety of ways. This doesn’t make some more real, valid, or worthy of acceptance or support than others. DID is not ‘more real’ than experiences of multiplicity as part of OSDD (Other Specified Dissociative Disorder), for example. ‘Healthy multiplicity’ is not more or less valid than people who suffer from multiplicity as a mental illness. It’s also normal for people’s experiences and understandings to change over time. We should not be pitted at war with each other to fight for credibility.
Diversity in responses to multiplicity is also normal. Some people hate it and want to integrate. Some people celebrate it. Many of us have complex mixed feelings. People have the right to engage it however they wish and do what works best for them. There is no one path to recovery from distress and no single recipe for an authentic life.
We can do this together. We can support diversity, speak out against myths, and work to get stories of multiplicity where we don’t kill people out there. Change is possible when we treat each other with respect. We need to campaign for resources for those who are vulnerable and to care for and hold to account those who share the stories (creative or personal) and shape the culture. Things are changing and we are all part of that.
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 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.
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.
I am doing a massive clean and sort of our home and belongings to make room for our little Frog who could come at any time now. Today I stumbled across this old artwork, made in about 2002 and exhibited at a psychiatric conference through my involvement in the Amigos program with Second Story. It pre-dates my diagnosis of DID by about 5 years, in fact I’d not even heard of the condition at this time. And yet to me it captures so well some of that lonely, fractured experience.
There’s a lot of new terms to learn when you’re engaging the wonderful world of multiplicity, because in some ways multiples function very differently. Some of these terms are clinical, which basically means invented by shrinks and doctors, and some have come into use through books and autobiographies written by multiples. One of the trickiest aspects of language is that it is not fixed – shades of meaning evolve over time. With a fairly ‘new’ lexicon like that around multiplicity, this is even more the case, and as admin of a large online group, I’m constantly surprised by the new terms or new meanings ascribed to terms I come across. Most people have a fairly idiosyncratic take on language and it’s often helpful to double check what they mean when they use a certain word. Having said that, there’s also value in having dictionaries of definitions to help us communicate with each other, particularly for those who are new to the topic and can feel bewildered by the terms being thrown around. For more common terms and discussion about language see Language, definitions, and common terms over at the DI.
Co-fronting or co-hosting refers to a process where more than one part is out, inhabiting the body at the same time. I’ve personally experienced this, the first time I was aware of it, it was a very strange moment. A sense of shared space slowly dawned on me, and with the awareness came a sense of something precariously balanced that would quickly collapse if I thought about it too much or had too strong a reaction to it. “I” was talking to someone who was struggling with a difficult situation. That tends to be my area, I have the counselling/listening skills and inclination. So the face, the voice, the mouth, the eye contact were all mine as I interacted with this person. However, we were also making dinner at the time. Someone else was doing that – moving hands to chop vegetables, borrowing eyes to read the recipe and use a knife and stove safely. We coexisted for about 20 minutes and then one of us went inside and the other took over completely. It was startling and surprisingly graceful.
I’ve had other experiences such as having an adult out while a distressed child takes over the hands to scratch at raw skin, or being able to soothe that child by asking Rose to gently stroke our hands.
There’s a similar term that means something a little different – co-consciousness. That refers to more than one part being aware of what’s going on in the body/the outside world at the same time. The opposite process of co-consciousness is amnesia, where only the part who is out is creating memories of what they are doing. Everyone else in a system may be sleeping/unconscious, talking with each other, or doing other things in an internal world. They may or may not be aware time is passing. They may be fighting for control of the body, but they are not sharing it. Awareness without any control of the body can be helpful or frankly traumatising, depending on the circumstances. For more about this see What is co-consciousness?
Systems vary widely in their experiences of multiplicity, something I can never seem to say enough. For some parts, when they are not ‘out’ in the body they may have no awareness, or total co-consciousness. Some systems have never experienced co-fronting, while others do it all the time. It can be as simple as one part running the body and cleaning the house and another part quickly reaching out with a hand to snatch to safety an item of value that would otherwise wind up in the trash. To some extent, we all do things with our bodies that are outside of our awareness at times – body language is full of examples of this where our feelings or impulses are expressed through escape movements, muscle tension, micro-expressions, and subtle cues we are frightened, aroused, bored, or resentful. Consciousness, identity, and awareness are all complicated and interesting aspects of the human experience, and it’s certainly not just multiples who have experiences outside of their perception of control and volition – although the scale of those experiences can be much more confronting and intense.
To discuss co-fronting we are also getting into the territory of how switching between parts works for various systems. For some, switching is instantaneous as blinking, while others take a long time. (for more about switching, see Rapid switching) Some don’t so much co-front with two separate selves as blend between selves in ‘switches’ that can take hours or days to resolve to a single part. Some systems experience ‘blending’ or ‘merging’ where two or more parts come together for periods of time and function in a unified way before separating out again. This can be highly productive or sometimes totally the reverse – periods of blending or temporary integration can be times of chaos, dysfunction, confusion, and exhaustion. (for more about this, see What’s the deal with integration?) I know people with multiplicity at both ends of that spectrum – some for whom they are never stronger and clearer than when their A Team has got together, and others who are foggy to the point of barely coherent and shut down for days when their system gets stuck with more than one part blended. For some systems both outcomes are possible at different times or under different circumstances.
The topic of co-fronting raises interesting questions about how parts relate to the body. The multiplicity lingo tends to be borrowed from the old ideas of a ‘brain/body’ split where there is a difference between existing in the mind and inhabiting the body. It gets very interesting when you start to wonder about things like – where do parts come from, and where do they go when they are not ‘out’? How is conscious awareness different from bodily awareness? What are parts, exactly? I’m fascinated by the way we explore these ideas so little in the literature and make such sweeping declarations about how this all works. The reason these questions are so difficult to answer is that we don’t have the answers for non-multiples either. We don’t know how consciousness works, how self awareness and identity interact. How a single sense of self is created from a multitude of brain processes occurring simultaneously. How memory, emotion, and perception overlap and impact decision making processes. We have theories and observations and big gaps in our knowledge base. Every year we learn more and more about our brains, and every new bit of information challenges an existing idea in some way. As nice as certainty can be, it’s not really how science and knowledge work. In the meantime however, finding language to describe experiences and exploring how we are all similar and different is a powerful aspect of learning, connecting, growing, and living deeply.
It’s been a long week. I’m very tired and feeling the bite of extra work from the move… and extra tiredness from all the emotional things going on. I’m feeling a bit run down, mouth ulcers and a headache. I’m hanging out in bed this morning with Zoe.
I keep trying to write blog posts but my mind isn’t quite clear enough to get them structured and polished and out in an hour the way I usually can. That’s okay. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.
Last night we had the first meet of the people interested in being part of a community around homelessness in SA. I was excited about it, but got compressed with admin at the end of my day, then had several small emotional shocks, and by the time we’d made dinner and sat down to talk I was feeling very discouraged. So the catch up turned into something very different from what I had planned.
We talked about the challenges of trying to be part of something new, of the disillusionment, the old wounds from every other project we’ve been involved in that went bad, the anxiety that too much would be asked of us, the confusion about how to best meet needs, the need for bigger picture thinking to link our little concern back to huge human rights issues of poverty and so on, the sense of being overwhelmed by a crisis we can’t fix, of a deep discomfort with the usual way of doing these things – board meetings, roles, subcommittees. I cried. We laughed. We shared and connected as people. From the mess, confidence emerged, clarity emerged, a path forwards, a sense of equality and team and closeness. I reflected and captured the themes, the way I’ve just been taught to in the facilitator training, but not detached: with tears on my face. As one of them. My friends are so beautiful.
And I came away that night feeling deeply moved. Humbled. Part of me that observed the growth, the shift from hopelessness to calm hope, was looking at why it came together, as we always do. What are the principles, the values, that underpin it? Why did it work and how can I capture that for other people to learn and experience, for inclusion in my model about services with heart? For the first time I felt a sinking sense of futility. Maybe it’s simply not possible to capture such an experience in a manual or model. Being human is so… messy, unpredictable, beautiful, how can it be fitted or adequately described?
Then a sense of peace came over me, to let it be what it was and drink from it and rest in it and accept that I cannot count the stars. There will be tomorrow night for star gazing, and the night after, and after that. Right now to accept the gift of a group space that was human and safe and healing.
Something beautiful happened after they left. Our researcher part; brilliant, detached, driven, woke up. She sat trembling with Rose and said it was like having a heart put in her chest for the first time. She could feel our young ones inside her, could hear them as a kind of distant chatter. She inhabited the body and found emotions spilling over. She held hands with Rose, feeling every sensation and feeling the joy in it, to be able to feel touch, the yearning for the warmth of another. She has never lived in her body before, never eaten before, never felt a desire for human contact, never felt strong emotions, never been moved to poetry.
She felt like she had woken up. Every sensation was strong and clear but not raw or overwhelming. She felt like the tin man who had been given a heart, or found it rather, inexplicably alive and red and beating in her chest. Rose was a good midwife for what was being born, attentive and attuned. Rose suggested food to a part who never eats, no matter how many days she’s out for. She turned away from chocolate in disgust but accepted a mandarin.
Peeling the leathery skin and smelling the sweet pungent oils on her fingers was magic. It tasted sweet and mild and watery, bursting with juice in her mouth. She ate every segment, slowly, tasting everything. Then she lay her head on Rose’s breast and listened to her heart beating. Rose spoke with her gently.
She asked Rose if she was part of this family too, if this was her home, her body, if she’d done enough to deserve it.
And she listened to Rose’s heart beating, her head going gently up and down with the rhythm of Rose’s breathing. She thought to herself that Rose was a sea and she was a tiny boat bobbing with the waves, and felt delight in thinking this, in feeling a poem.
And then we slept, deeply. Today we’re going to move slowly, listen to soft music, work on our tax admin. Life is good when nothing turns out how you planned or expected, when you’re not in control and start to find that’s actually better, richer, stranger, deeper. There’s a lot of love in my little house, in my world, in my life. Something very beautiful is happening here.
I’ve taken a key step in my life as an artist – I’ve found a local printer, Black and White Photographics who were happy to walk an anxious and print illiterate artist through the process of converting original works to quality prints. This is a project I have been wanting to get off the ground for a long time, but struggling to find resources and information. I visited many different local printers and none of them knew anything about art prints or could refer me. The urgency was rather increased as someone wants to buy one of my oil paintings and I can’t let go of the original unless I have a high quality digital image of it, and I also want to put it into a better frame. A friend referred me to these folks over Facebook, and Rose took me to see them yesterday morning. I asked a lot of questions and was given a lot of information I hadn’t known about how it all works and how to deal with the reproduction side of selling art.
Then we got back into the van and I cried. It’s exciting but overwhelming! Even leaving my originals with the printer was stressful and strange. It’s so different from poetry and writing… with those, I can win an award or publish a work and I still have it! Usually I still even have the original handwritten version in my journals. But with art – you let it go. And my work is… well, it’s kind of pieces of my heart. Parts of my life story. They are incredibly precious to me. I’ve saved my art collection from several bouts of homelessness and other major crises, even from my own impulse to destroy them (most common when I’m feeling chronically suicidal). Holding onto them has been a kind of expression of… value. To me. That I think what I do has value. Even if I’m the only one. That we promise we won’t destroy each other’s work, even if we hate it or it scares us and we have to hide it from view. Creation has been part of our “those who don’t build must burn” approach to life, something integral that helps to keep us alive, keep our heart alive, document our story.
Other people’s reaction to my work is a whole different ball game. Selling it, different again! The printer told me my work was under priced and estimated a retail price at about double what I was asking. This is the work I was told several times was over priced and would sell easily if I would just drop it down. I stubbornly held onto it. I knew what it was worth to me, I caculated i’s value to me in paint – what would I be willing to bear parting with it for? Better paints, and enough for another few works… I’ve only let go of three original works (apart from those I’ve given as gifts, before I pulled my focus in tighter – more art, less craft, more personal, less generic) and in all cases I don’t have a copy or a quality photograph and it hurts. I stopped selling them and only made an exception for my best friend, knowing I’d be able to ask for it back to get a print done once I figured out how and where I could do that. In my last solo exhibition 2 years ago, I was told the works would not be offered for sale, which suited me… On the opening night, three different people were keen to buy the same ink painting. I took their details and promised to get back to them and never did. How could I? I knew every detail of that painting, where I was when she was born in my mind, what dreams I was having, what was going on in my life, where I sat to paint her, how I mixed the inks, chose the paper. She’s part of me. So I’ve slid quietly away from every offer since. I put up works of ‘backup work’ not finals, for sale in another group exhibit for people with a disability, priced them modestly, sold a couple, and again was told – I’m pricing too high. People would buy much more if they didn’t have to pay $40 for an original. Again I resisted the devaluing, calculated their worth to me in a kind of trade – I want another bottle of ink ($30, with postage), I want to buy a better quality brush ($60), and I’d part with the Blue Rose for a brush I guess, and that dog for a bottle of ink, but not less.
A number of people have contacted me over the last week about buying prints of their favourite work once I’ve arranged that. A few want the originals once I’m ready to part with them. I have two art exhibitions in the works I need to find a gallery or exhibit space for. (and time to arrange!) Rose is helping take on some of this side of things for/with me because I’m out of time and out of my depth. I need to get hold of a website designer to help me set up a beautiful online gallery. Rose has believed I would have a professional art career since she first met me. I’m just able to see it now, as I’m learning about the incredible diversity of arts practice, as I’m finding words like Community Artist and Hybrid Artist that fit what I’m feeling my way into… as always for me – I do things, moved by instinct and guided by values. After I’ve done them, I stop and reflect – what was that? What am I doing? What does it mean? And I have to find something to reflect upon, a language to think about it. Sometimes that takes many years!
So yesterday, I sat in the van, crying, and so exhilarated I could hardly think straight. We went on a trip to Victor Harbour through the mad stormy weather. (Rose drove) I was so crazy silly in the petrol shop the cashier burst out laughing and thanked me for brightening her day. When it hailed on us I was so flooded with joy, the sheer childlike pleasure I was laughing and crying out and felt like my heart would explode. My paints are calling to me and the night is calling to me and the storm is calling to me and my beach is calling to me.
We had a great day and I didn’t explode. We spent it with friends, playing games, eating good food, talking about our lives and families and the futures. Talking about Tamlorn and donors and how sad this path can be, how hard it can be. All day I tugged on people’s shirts in quiet moments to say, in bewildered joy – ‘someone wants to buy my art’!
Driving home late that night, through the squalls and gusts of wind and I’m impossible. I feel like a great, wild creature in me that has been chained has suddenly been freed, and it’s gambolling in bursts in every direction and snapping teeth at everything, it’s feet, the stars, the wind, so fiercely joyful and unbounded and un-contained it’s impossible to be anywhere near… and Rose and I talk about our split desires, how deeply she loves home at the moment, sinking roots into a stable home, planting trees. And I talk about how free I felt in the van, how alive I feel when I sleep somewhere I can feel the night and hear the rain. I am sad and torn and full of wild dreams. I dream up a mad studio for my back yard – a four poster bed, covered in canvas to keep off the rain, with an easel that swings over it for painting or poetry writing and a covered candle lantern for light the wind can’t blow into a bed fire, and netting to keep away the bugs… I can see myself in it some nights, out the back under the moon, the bed like a boat on the night sea, my speckled dog with me, and the wildness in me runs free and howls through my veins, such splendid joy. All the wild things in me turn their faces to the stars and howl, a cacophony of sound, a deep solidarity, a yearning and a coming home. No more the shadows. No more the whip and the bridle. Unchanged and unbroken. Free to be as they are.
I cannot contain such joy. I cannot bear it or hold it in. I am swept along by it, by the intense self awareness – “all things pray by being themselves” – my life no longer devoted to the breaking in of my wilds, to the conforming of my madness. My day people are finally the stewards of my night people, finally unpicking the locks and letting the whips lie still. Even just for a night. I am so alive. We are so alive it is unbearable. I cannot know it, and be unchanged. Everything sings to me. The night calls me home.
Well, I’m here at the conference. Well… In the vicinity of the conference anyway. I’m in the lobby trying to coax breakfast down me. It’s a very nice breakfast, but I feel particularly ill.
Cold water and porridge with stewed apples. Good slow burning carbs and not too rich. I’m doing my best to pay close attention to what my body needs on this trip. I’ve put myself under considerable physical pressure – very long drives, long hours of sitting, cold weather, and often missed meals, and very little sleep. That last one is a killer. Sleep deprivation and fibro do to me what an all weekend bender does to a 60 year old.
My hotel room was beautiful but I’ve only had a couple hours of sleep again – cold weather, many many hours of sitting, and then sudden flurries of rushing around are pretty much a recipe for disaster with fibromyalgia. By 2am the pain my knees and ankle was severe. I wound up spending a lot of the night in hot showers and doing stretches trying to open up the joints again.
This morning I feel badly hungover, with nausea, slight tremors, body aches, that cold sweat, especially on my face and lip, a bad headache, and really heavy head. The only hangover symptoms I don’t get are the thick saliva and fuzzy mouth because there’s no dehydration component to fibro. (unless I’ve also forgotten to drink, obviously)
So I’m moving very slowly. I’ve taken a couple of ibuprofen which is as strong as my pain relief can get due to my drug allergies, I’m sipping cool water and gently spooning mouthfuls of porridge into me as I feel I can keep it down. I’m resting but also walking around and slowly pacing when I can to ease the body pain. Massaging the trigger points above my eyes gently.
Pink Floyd comes on the radio “did you exchange a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?”. And then Neil Finn. Familiar music, my music. Something knotted eases a little inside me. So much of this weekend is about being in a different culture, the minority stress of being queer, multiple, alternative, a stranger, a long way from home. People are being kind, which helps. One new friend is indigenous and she gets it instinctively: like her I’m a long way from home. I have no idea what is like to be her but we’re united by own experiences of constantly being the minority representative in a dominant culture that doesn’t understand, or particularly value a lot of what we do. The pervasive indefinable heart ache that comes with speaking in a different language too much, too long, being the alien. It’s a big Gap. I’m grateful and deeply moved by such acceptance – as Brene Brown puts it in her book, not fittingin but belonging. Different but accepted. There’s been a lot of love around this training, and I’m grateful I’ve been doing all that work on accepting and connecting because I’ve been able to hug and connect and let people be kind – to be genuinely reciprocal, which is beautiful.
Mentally I feel mazed. It’s hard to focus my eyes and I can’t take in what’s going on around me very well. I’m thankful I know so much about fibro and dissociation these days. I know what’s happening and I know what I need to do. How many years it’s taken me to be able to do this! And it’s still hard, days like today. And – all my friends with a disability will get this – there’s a slight reluctance to tell anyone how rough I am in case they think I can’t handle conferences and don’t invite me again, or try to exclude me and caretake in intrusive ways. So I’m doing what always do when I feel that pressure to keep quiet – I’m here, telling the world. You guys, and this platform, keep me sane. Keep me free from the lead role in the cage. Thankyou.
I’ve set up some artwork, our ‘healthy multiplicity’ poster for the DI, postcards for the DI and HVNSA, and a grounding kit for the conference attendees to try out. I’m here representing my tribe; artists, people with lived experience, peer workers, people who have been through trauma, freelancers, people who are poor, queer people, people with a disability, social entrepreneurs, multiples, counter culture people… I hope I’m doing right by each of these communities. I’m doing my best.
Most of us never get a voice at events like this, and everything I’m going through is why. It’s almost impossible. So I’m here, being present, holding a space, representing us. Unpaid, unelected, with all the usual risks: that my voice because a substitute for your voice, that I go native in the dominant culture, or that I burn out. Be with me, all of you. Help me do this. Help my message be – not just my voice but many voices, not my experience alone but the experiences of my tribes. Hold me, I’m so weak. Stand with me. I’m building friendships and powerful alliances that will enrich us and connect us and bridge those Gaps.
But I’m so vulnerable. Help me stay human. Witness me. Love me. I love you. I’m in the clinical mental health sector holding a space that love is the essential response to human suffering, and that dignity and freedom are fundamental human needs that services often accidentally destroy. You know how much we need that message in this culture! And I’m not the only one, I don’t mean to sound like a lone hero. There’s thousands of us trying to build a better culture. But we’re struggling to hear each other and understand each other, and people like me don’t often get a voice or a presence – and without people like me – the ones so often in need of services, those with good intentions but no intuitive understanding of my life will keep pouring out their hearts, our money, and their lifetimes of effort to still not speak my language or create a genuinely safe, mutual, dignified systemic response to human suffering. The gatekeepers don’t understand us and we need them to, because they have the power and the resources. They are dehumanised by these systems too, in subtle ways they can’t see but that threaten their humanity as much as – perhaps more than the threat to service users. No more, please. No more. All voices, all cultures present. All tribes heard.
We, the 30 or so of us who make up Sarah, do not share our personal names. Now, we’re pretty relaxed about the whole multiplicity thing. Open and out! But, we never give a fixed number for how many parts there are in my system, because I never assume that our system map is completely accurate and finished, and I’m comfortable with that.
We have never been happy about openly identifying as individuals – on many blogs by multiples there will be a page where you can read about their system members – and I’ve always admired that, but it makes me feel incredibly exposed. Because we are highly co-conscious and switch many times a day, there’s a degree of fluidity, of somewhat ‘integrated’ functioning. In arguments a whole bunch of us may switch through, speak our piece, finish each other’s sentences, drop back inside. There’s a sort of unconscious dance between us, a façade of unity, and a lot of largely unconscious and instinctive effort to prevent anyone from noticing switching or the differences between parts.
Some of us would love to identify ourselves openly and use our real names, but for others this is an unthinkable violation. The degree of exposure stress is intense – far worse than stripping in public, for some of us this is more akin to taking off clothes, then skin and bone, pulling out organs and uncurling brain matter for people to play with. It violates a deeply held need to pretend not to be multiple. Because multiplicity has worked brilliantly for us as a way of navigating horrible situations, but revealed it can actually make you more vulnerable rather than less. Every time someone not incredibly close to me has noticed or had their attention drawn to an obvious switch, very bad things have resulted. People are positively phobic about switching, and scared people do not react well.
For us, our names are also triggers that often cue a switch. Talking about a part and using their truename will frequently bring them out – or at least to the surface to hear what is being said about them!
Names and identifying ourselves individually are highly personal, private, intimate things. Only my lover, my very closest people, at this point are granted that information. I do not even permit my shrinks to know this or know me like this. This may change later, it may not.
Our feelings on this matter are almost certainly informed by our background in sci/fi and fantasy. Anyone who has loved works such as the Chronicles of Morgan, Prince of Hed, or the Earthsea cycle will recognise the idea that names have power, and that truenames are intimate. Does this mean I’ve imagined my multiplicity to fit with wild fantasy ideas? Snort. It means that my experience of my self and the world has been informed in many ways, by many people, and for me writers have often been better guides than shrinks. I’m grateful to have books like these in my life. I’m grateful to be a writer. And it’s not just writers – theatre, songwriters, painters – all the arts. They tell us so much about what it is so be human. They are so real and so raw and so essential to my life. Without Cave, or Bradbury, I would not be here. I would have broken, broken far beyond repair. I needed others who saw the world the way I saw it, who hurt, or hoped, or learned, and shared in such ways that I felt what they felt, lived their lives with them. I have written often about my love of the arts, how much they have given, how they are the foundation of my ‘mental health’.
Before language about multiplicity, there was just the noise inside. Just the kaleidoscope shifting as switching changed everything about the world. We wrote to each other. We wrote hate. We wrote terror. We wrote love poems. We wrote to see ourselves, and re-read what we had written, and slowly learned about ourselves.
Hate that Cat is a book in poems. It reminded me of that process – instinctive, inarticulate, confused, driven, full of pain and bewilderment. Not done as a ‘therapy’ as ‘obedience’ to some grant recovery plan. Done, in fact, in opposition to those who accused me of wallowing. But somehow my lifeline to my self, my mirror of the world. I understand understanding yourself and your world through poems. They are our first language, our first connection, our home. Other people have other first languages.
How blessed I have been in this. We who write ourselves into being at the edge of the night, how fortunate we are. There is so much richness in the works of those I love. They have been my friends, mentors, parents, companions, ghosts. They have held my heart when it was too broken to live in my body any more. They have kept alive a dream that one day I would have a place in the world, a tribe, a sense of connection. That one day there would be love, there would be intimacy, closeness, people who could hear my soul, those who knew how to listen. Or at least – that there had been others like me, even if they were now long dead. I might be the last of my species, ruined and broken and hopeless, but I had a species. Other people also had breakable hearts, had bled in poems. I might be alone but I was not alone through all time and space. Not the only one ever.
That was, and is, deeply precious to me. Isn’t this what we all need? Isn’t being human finding a way to sing the song I’ve sung to Tamlorn, and finding people who will sing it back to us? To be loved that deeply. What does that have to do with art? Everything. What does art have to do with pain, madness, grief, suffering, mental illness? Absolutely everything.
Between Rose and myself, today has involved touching base with or trying to arrange supports for 3 suicidal people. We’re home now, the doors are locked, the phones are off the hook, and we’re sharing dinner. Rose has cooked using these beautiful little tomatoes from our garden. Someone stole our trowel and I got paid today so I bought her another one. It’s become a project we love working on together, a little hub of abundance in the middle of our busy, at times tiring, lives.
We both know what it’s like to be in that place, how dark, lonely, and desperate it feels. Sometimes there’s concrete things we can do to help, linking people to resources, taking people to hospital, going around and giving them a hug. Sometimes there’s so little we can do except bear witness. To find some way to say “I see you. I hear your pain. If you should die tonight you will be mourned.” I told a friend today that working in mental health with a system that doesn’t support people in ongoing crisis, at times I feel like I am standing at the gates to Auschwitz, helpless to intervene, marking a tally of those who enter and will never return to us. Sometimes counting the dead is all I can do, and it kills me inside. I’ve written about bearing witness before:
These are people, who get thrown out of hospital for being a nuisance, who get turned away from services for being too sick, too suicidal, too much hard work. These are people who are dogged by the impact of chronic trauma and abuse, who fight so hard to stay alive through so many dark nights and simply run out of fight, people who want to live but can’t bear the pain any more and who sometimes want to die, whose ambivalence is misinterpreted as manipulation, whose suffering is disregarded as attention seeking. They are real people. Under the labels like Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, under the other labels used (mostly) when they’re not in the room – asshole, stupid, FITH ‘fucked in the head’, bitch, waste of space, they are humans. They are dying. And if they die, they should not die unloved. If they die, we shall mourn them. If there truly is no hope (a common reason services withdraw help, because they’re ‘probably just going to die anyway’) we should not throw them out of services but move them to compassionate palliative care services. That’s what a caring society does for people who are dying.
I’ve seen this too often. I’ve had to contact media to force a hospital to admit a friend who had been left, untreated, without food or water, in the ER for ten hours with her arms lacerated by self harm. I’ve had to coax a friend into drinking activated charcoal to absorb the poisons that were killing them from a suicide attempt, because they had been marked a chronic complainer with behavioural issues and the entire state public mental health system had been closed to them – even sympathetic doctors could no longer admit them. I’ve myself turned up to ACIS, our crisis support service, homeless and acutely suicidal and been turned away because “we don’t treat people with DID very well, you’ve got a better chance of surviving on your own”… and that doctor was right. I did. I’ve supported people to increase their level of dissociation to survive the night when distraught and suicidal and unable to access any kind of support. I’ve visited people dying of self inflicted harm in hospital. I’ve sat on their bed and held their hand and shared ice cream with them. If I had a dollar for every email from a person with multiplicity who was confused, suffering, lost, and being more harmed than helped by the mental health services, I wouldn’t have a lot of debts left. I’ve lost friends to suicide, and supported others grieving after losing someone they loved to it, and shared poetry about it, and exhibited artwork in exhibitions to raise awareness. Since I was first suicidal at 10, it’s been part of my life.
So today – please bear witness with me. I’m not breaking any confidentiality, I’m not exposing anyone. I’m telling you that people like me stand at the gates and we tally the dead. Everyone we lose is a loss to all of us. A book too short, tragically ended, a life cut off. This is not the way people are supposed to leave us. Each loss makes the world a little darker, the night a little colder. We must find ways, together, to see people in pain. To bear witness to their lives. To sit with their pain. To mourn and to scream and to find ways to live. To burn brightly. To bring warmth.
If you are feeling suicidal yourself, or care for someone who is, you might helpful:
I’ve been very sad today. It’s three weeks after the miscarriage surgery today. I feel heavy and tired and dazed. Plodding along in my own little world at my own tired pace while life moves on around me.
There’s been a lot of things to manage and arranging Tamlorn’s cremation keeps getting pushed back. I have a folder of beautiful and touching contributions by other people. I’m still wordless myself. I turn towards it and look at it and there’s just nothing in me. No poetry, no artwork, no words at all. Just a sadness, unfathomably deep.
I seem to have spent today weeping in cars after very nice visits with lovely people. As soon as I walk away there’s a terrible emptiness, a loneliness in me.
I keep working on the book. It’s something I can do. It’s an anchor when I feel lost. I don’t know that it will be worth anything, useful to anyone, worth all this time and love. I don’t know that anyone will read something so obscure by someone so unknown with so few credentials. Self published at that. I feel very small. There’s a weight of self hate like a blanket over me. I need to be doing homework, chasing up money issues because departments that were supposed to call me haven’t. But the words are flowing. My mind is teasing out the knots and puzzles of multiplicity and my life and my approach, constantly. Between emptiness, nightmares, moments of connection with others like candles being lit in a windy place, there’s the riddle to be solved. There’s just grief and the book at the moment for me.
Oh, the joys. I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, but it’s large and complex. I haven’t entirely done it justice here and I’ve touched on some areas that I’ve covered in other posts in more detail so I’ve linked instead of repeating myself. A lot of us with troubles with flooding get diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and although having a word for it can help, it can also leave us feeling very powerless and different from other people, which in some ways can hurt a lot worse. I don’t think we are either powerless or even particularly different. I think we are experiencing powerful things that our culture isn’t good at handling, and often convinces us to respond to in the worst possible ways.
What do I mean by emotional flooding? That place in which you are drowning. Emotions are so intense, so deeply felt, and so long lasting that you feel like your very identity is dissolving in them. You can’t clearly remembering not feeling this way and you start to lose hope you will ever feel differently again. We have a term for this when the feelings are really good ones – mania. But for the black depths of emotional pain or the anguished hypersensitivity of the chronically triggered, we don’t have a lot of words. Which doesn’t help! Decompensation is one way of putting it, but it’s not pretty and describes the effect of it, not how it feels on the inside.
I call it flooding. It’s the opposite to numb. It’s breaching containment. It’s not just taking the lids off boxes full of strong feelings and painful things you don’t like to think about, it’s falling in and having them snap shut on you so you can’t get out again.
Flooded can be an enduring state or a temporary crisis. I’m really familiar with it because I’ve spent a lot of my life flooded. It’s the state of being without ‘skin’ described by people trying to recover from trauma. It’s the ‘highly sensitive person’ label used by those who flood easily but don’t usually identify trauma. It can be hell. Exhausting, overwhelming all your resources to cope, and rapidly getting you to the point where you hate yourself and your life. It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.
I can only really describe flooding from my own perspective and much of this may be fairly unique to me, but I’m hoping there’ll be points of recognition and useful ideas for others too.
I flood quickly under certain circumstances. The first is when I’m chronically triggered. That might be a particularly bad week where a lot of big triggers happened to line up, or it might be that I’m particularly vulnerable at the moment and triggers I could otherwise handle are setting me off. One big trigger can cue a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that make me exquisitely attuned to all other triggers around me – I lack psychological ‘skin’ and can’t buffer the world anymore. Everything gets ‘under my skin’, everything feels personal, I can’t shrug anything off, and the littlest things feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve touched on these issues before, you can read a little more about them and my coping strategies:
The opposite process can also flood me, not triggers from outside but the result of internal processes. When you’ve come through anything that causes big feelings and intense thoughts and questions, most of us learn that to get out of bed in the morning we have to contain them. We put them in a mental box (or the cellar, or walk away from the big pit, or however our mental landscape works) and go focus on the rest of our day. This is a really useful skill. However it has a couple of risks. One is that triggers can set off a really huge reaction if they breach this containment. That’s why I can go from completely fine to a panic attack or overwhelmed with tears about baby stuff at the moment. My miscarriage is fresh and I have a lot of big stuff in boxes that can flood out and overwhelm me. The second risk is that, once we’ve boxed up the big stuff, we can find that walking back towards it voluntarily takes a bit more courage than we can coax up. Worse, our culture of ‘move on and get over it’ and our warped ‘recovery oriented’ mental health supports – when they think recovery means not feeling big stuff, can punish us for opening those boxes and warp our mindset to a point where we think that being in pain is sickness, failure, or us doing something wrong.
At that point we can shift our focus from containment – a highly necessary skill! to suppression. Where containment boxes stuff up so we can focus and be safe and do day to day things until we have a safe and appropriate time to feel and think and open the box back up, suppression coats the box in concrete and drops it in a lake. We box things up with no intention of ever going back for them. When they rattle and howl and start keeping us awake at night, we concrete the lake too. The trouble with this is that this stuff has buoyancy. The deeper we push it down, the harder it pushes back up.It also contains key aspects of our self. Little bits of us gets boxed up too. The reason the stuff wants to come back up is because we need it. Like iron filings trying to reach a magnet, it tries to come home. But we have split off from it and don’t recognise it as ourselves anymore. It’s like your lost cat turning up on the doorstep in a storm, wet, covered in mud, howling like mad. We freak out and slam the door and shut the windows while it cries, growls, and starts to attack the door.
Suppressed material isn’t trying to torture you, it’s trying to finish a key part of a process that you started – reconciliation. When we never make space for it, it randomly ruptures through a thousand feet of concrete and bursts all over our life with the intensity – and sometimes the unseeing rage – of an abandoned child. When we finally get it back ‘under control’ we feel vindicated that of course this is the right way to deal with it, because it is completely irrational, intense, dangerous, and unmanageable. It is flooded. But the truth is, this is the outworking of our process.
In suppression, we often turn against ourselves with shame, rage, fear of this feeling of being out of control, and often harsh self punishment. This is what does the harm, not the flooding, but our misunderstanding of it and response to it. Intense feelings and confusing questions are a normal part of life. They are frequently but not always triggered by experiences of change, loss, or trauma – not always our own. They are not mental illness or weakness or brokenness. They are our responsibility to figure out how and when to deal with them. Being flooded is not an excuse for flooding or abusing those around us. But it’s not a bad thing, not something to be ashamed of. It’s just human. We need food and air. And sometimes we need to feel very big feelings and ask very hard questions. There’s nothing wrong with us.
Shifting from suppression and self loathing (I hate myself) back to containment is possible. When suppression has been used a lot, initially the mind fights all forms of containment. Even putting aside little feelings can become impossible because you have broken trust – your mind no longer has faith that you will come back for anything you manage to compartmentalise. In an effort of elf preservation, it tries to stop you adding anything at all to the massive, growing collection of suppressed material you already have trying to break back through into awareness. Basically it doesn’t want you to feed the volcano any more. As you start learning how to safely let out small amounts of contained stuff, without blowing up the whole volcano every time (it’s not always possible), your mind shifts gears. It gets that you’re back on board and starts working with you to contain things. You have to coax and prove that you’re trustworthy, but it can turn around surprisingly quickly. This can simply start by inviting your mind to help you put aside your reactions to a trigger until you can get home, and then promising you will make a cuppa and sit in the back yard and let the feelings and thoughts come up – or however it is you prefer to feel big things.
For those of us with multiplicity, parts can be flooded, that can be their role. We often hate the part instead of hating and dismantling the role. In fact, whole groups of parts can be flooded. While they can feel like the worst thing imaginable, and impossible to let out or connect with, they are probably what stands between you and a lot of big stuff. They flood so you can feel sane and think straight. For me, I have taken on the idea that my job isn’t to reject them but to start to figure out how to look after them. If my most likely to self harm part comes near the surface I push her away until we’re home safe, and the she can sit in the bath or write in the journal or paints inks on our skin as she needs. (Wrist poems)
Another common trigger for being flooded is approaches that treat the flooding itself is useful. Ideas around catharsis, ‘letting it all out’, the need for big ’emotional releases’, and some approaches to anxiety use flooding because on the other side of flooding is some outcome they want. A common example is people who have a perfectionist approach to therapy or self improvement and try to ‘process’ all their feelings or triggers all the time. I explore this more in
Flooding can activate attachment and makes us bond to others nearby. This can be a very valuable experience of being safely supported and connected with when we are overwhelmed. It can also be a form of dangerous trauma bonding in which attachment figures are sometimes experienced as safe and sometimes so frightening or intrusive that we flood – and in response to that flood they shift back to being caring so we bond. Some parenting approaches teach parents to deliberately induce flooding in children using methods such as restraints, because the resulting bonding is thought to be helpful – however, most therapists argue that bonds created under such duress are problematic and that the experience of being so intruded upon and overwhelmed that you are pushed into flooding does long term harm to a child’s perceptions of safety and autonomy that the trauma bonding merely conceals for a time. When this occurs without good intentions on the part of the adult the same process may be described as ‘child grooming’.
Some approaches to phobias also deliberately flood people ‘Flooding’ is in fact another name for ‘exposure therapy‘ where someone is deliberately overwhelmed with triggers to try to break the link between the trigger and the flooded state. Forced to confront what they would far rather avoid, for some it may reprogram that link so that trigger no longer evokes panic. It can be a powerful way to reality check a broken internal alarm system – see, you were so scared, but nothing bad actually happened. For others they may simply snap from being flooded into being dissociatively numb. The way exposure therapy is timed – some therapists take patients beyond the point of hysteria, while others move extremely slowly and practice relaxation and calming skills through the process, and the way it is handled – if the patients wants it or is being forced into it, possibly impact which outcome occurs – a genuine changing of the trigger or simply a dissociative break.
We ourselves can trigger these same dynamics with rapid changes of approach to our own triggers and vulnerabilities – going from extreme avoidance to extreme confrontation of triggers is common for those recovering from trauma. It often sets off cycles of being flooded and numb. We also feel deeply frustrated that ‘no matter what we do’ we still feel out of control and overwhelmed.
We can cycle between numb, ‘normal’ and flooded. This makes us feel chaotic and crazy! We can also get stuck in a flooded or numb space. For those with multiplicity, this kind of cascade switching can be a system desperately attempting to self regulate by giving each kind of part some time out. (Multiplicity – rapid switching) The problem is that you don’t get to choose when it happens and feel horribly out of control. You also probably use all the times that you’re numb or feeling okay as ‘proof’ that you’re not ‘really’ needing extra care or having big feelings, you’re just kind of faking or being weak and need to try harder – ie need to suppress more. Self care becomes suspicious self indulgence in your mind, especially if it acts as a trigger and the mind assumes that self care means its an appropriate time to let out some big feelings. It doesn’t work, we think to ourselves. It just makes me weaker and sicker! Being mean to myself is much better, it makes me stronger.
Other people being kind to us or praising us can have the same effect – sudden flooding can be cued simply by feeling slightly emotionally safe. This can make you try to self regulate by maintaining a chronic feeling of being unsafe. Over time you exhaust as well as emotionally starve and your containment starts to fail. Flooding becomes a regular part of your life and you are at constant war with your mind to keep it at bay, using what has always worked in the past – punishment, self hate, chronic anxiety, and staying away from people who treat you well. Traumatic replay of horrible events can easily be part of this dynamic too. These approaches make complete sense but they take you nowhere good in the longer run! Bits of them here and there aren’t the end of the world on bad days, but if this is how you always approach flooding you are in for a rough time.
For me, being pushed for intimacy instead of invited into intimacy can also trigger flooding. Some situations (eg therapy with someone I don’t trust yet, or a relationship where connection is being demanded) will inevitably flood me. If we are being asked for things that are currently in our mental boxes, being contained – whether that is ‘be more vulnerable with me’ or ‘I need you to show me how you feel’, my mind will open all the boxes if that is the only way to be obedient or to have a connection. That isn’t the end of the world unless I or the other person don’t cope with the flooding or I get stuck in it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times and ruin friendships. These days I’m a lot more careful of this dynamic. People who have empathy for your vulnerability will usually cue it just by being attentive. Those who demand it are often those who are least equipped to cope with it.
Good trauma therapists are familiar with these dynamics and don’t panic if someone floods, but they also don’t try to open all the boxes at once. I recall a great example given by Barbara Rothschild where she uses the metaphor of carefully opening a shaken bottle of fizzy drink bit at a time, so you don’t get yourself covered in drink. Here’s a talk by her about this idea with a couple of easy to understand examples like that one:
It takes some practice to learn containment again and work with your mind when you’ve been using suppression and feeling intense fear or shame about your flooding. It’s especially challenging when your social network doesn’t get these ideas and supports the suppression-and-shame approach without realising what that’s costing you. A lot of the ideas around phase-oriented trauma therapy is giving people time and support to really learn, experience, and trust this different approach before opening the really frightening boxes. Of course, you don’t need a therapist to change how you think about and respond to flooding, and many therapists will actually make this process worse. I know of one locally who would insist that any client who wept must leave the room and stand outdoor the closed door. They were not permitted back until they ‘had themselves under control’. Bad therapy frequently confuses obedience and suppression with ‘recovery’ and would make this process of turning towards yourself, tuning in to yourself, and working with instead of against how your mind is trying to work, much more difficult.
It can be done. You can normalise flooding and have compassion for yourself in this state without just being overwhelmed by it or fighting it. You can learn how to open and close boxes again – not perfectly, not always exactly the way you would like, but enough to be both human and able to function. You can find value in the intense states and learn with experience that you do pass through them. It’s not fair that some of us have a much rougher road and a lot less skin and we build up huge amounts of intense stuff to deal with. But it’s also part of a more profound experience of life. Intensity isn’t just about mania or despair or depersonalisation. For myself at least, there are also experiences of deep connection, spirituality, the profound, the sublime. I envy the undisturbed a lot less when I realise how deeply connected to my own heart I am, the passion with which I have lived my life. It is precious to me that I can feel, even that I can be stripped of name and self, that I can find myself at 3am naked on the cliffs before the void in my own soul, in a kind of utter freedom. That I can sink so deeply into love, contentment, peace. I have lived deeply, and I would not have it any other way. I have suffered, but my heart has also been made larger. The size of the cup that brings pain and bitterness to my lips is the size of the cup that brings joy. Even in pain there is something of value, something human. To be deeply moved, to know passion, to know life. To know and recognise and be able to sit with flooding in others without being swept away. It takes courage to live in hard times, to live with an open heart. It can be a thing of great beauty.
I bought my book with me on holiday and I’ve been developing it some more while my companions had afternoon naps. It’s at rough draft stage now, and comes in at around 23,000 words. I still have question marks over particular topics I’m not sure whether to include or exclude. There’s a big editing job to be done. But it’s taking shape! I plan to have it published this year.
I’m exploring the questions so infrequently touched on, or so often dogmatically responded to in the other books on Dissociative Identity Disorder I’ve read, as I find ways to communicate my own, diversity friendly, take on the topic:
What is multiplicity? What is a singular sense of self? What is consciousness? Where does identity come from? Where do parts come from? Where do voices come from? Where do dreams and psychoses come from? How does identity develop? Why don’t some people have one? What about people who lose theirs? What causes multiplicity? Is there such a thing as healthy multiplicity? What does multiplicity tell us about being human? What about being human is important to keep in mind when engaging with the topic of multiplicity?
Being an introductory guide this booklet will not answer all of these questions, but it will at least acknowledge their existence and how problematic it is to declare simple absolutes in this field. It will be as inclusive and useful as I can make it. Somewhere between the rigid dogma and the bewildering lack of certainty are paths, guides, tools, and principles that help people find their own way.
Yesterday I woke up with a book in my brain and my heart light. I sat out in the backyard all day and worked on how to put this massive amount of information together in a useful way. After some lovely conversations with perceptive friends I have decided on a new structure for my book. I am constantly overwhelmed by my own inane desire to write a comprehensive treatise, a PhD thesis on the entire history and cross cultural perspectives on multiplicity, a summary of everything I’ve ever experienced, heard, read, encountered, or wondered. Obviously, for people who need information in a simple, manageable form, this would be about as useful as a free aardvark. For anyone in crisis, it would be about as useful as a free colony of rabid bats delivered to your living room. I know this, but it’s hard to let go of anyway.
So, I am not writing a book any more. I am writing a series of booklets. Smaller, simpler, more accessible, on a very specific topic, and as I publish them I can if I wish and there seems to be interest, group a relevant collection into a master volume. Otherwise tentatively called a book.
A friend kindly pointed out to me yesterday that it’s interesting that a book about multiplicity, written by a multiple, is constantly changing structure. Many of us are working on this and clearly we all have different ideas about structure. Obvious when you think about it! So far this new approach is working, partly because it makes room for a number of different approaches to be part of this series, distinct but connected, such as collections of diverse stories from other people, poems and artwork, workbooks with exercises and tools, crisis resources, and so on.
The first is going to be a summary of my understanding of the experience of Multiplicity – the inevitable “So what is it?” component of every talk I give and the necessary link in the opening paragraph of every blog post on the topic. (when I’m being conscientious) It seems like a good place to start. I’m happy to be working on it actively again.
Today was harder, I had a rough night and feel sick again with nausea and crampy pain. Rose and I took a drive through the hills, admiring the autumn leaves. We bought a few plants for the garden and had teary conversations. I’ve been reading the emails that people have been sending in to grieve with us out loud to her, and we are both so deeply touched by them and feel so glad to have made a small space for others to grieve their own losses too. Much love to all of you. xx
Bear with me, all those of you who are still fighting like crazy to have trauma recognised as important, relevant, meaningful to people’s experiences and struggles. I know that for you the idea that trauma can be overstated or misapplied may seem ridiculous because in so many areas it’s still fundamentally so ignored! But the fields are not flat – in some areas trauma is the focus in a huge way, and sometimes this is unbalanced and makes life harder for people.
I was discussing this issue once with a sexual therapist who was being driven to distraction by the assumption that trauma underlies all challenges people have. People were being presumed to have been sexually abused merely on the basis of having some issue they would like to seek support from a professional like her. The gender and sexuality diverse community has laboured under this myth for many years! I still hear from friends that some doctors and psychiatrists believe that being queer in any way is a sign of sexual abuse in childhood, or means they have unresolved issues with a parent. (Who the hell doesn’t have an unresolved issue of some kind with a parent??)
Trauma being a central focus can also cause problems because of people’s natural desire to arrange things in some kind of order. People often create a hierarchy to trauma experiences and feel humiliated and mystified when their trauma history isn’t ‘bad enough’ to justify their current struggles. Context – so dull and yet so key to the story of post trauma stress – is so often forgotten. Friends, connections, and meaning play such a huge role in our response to trauma. It’s not all what happened to you, it’s also how people treated you afterwards. Some of the most undramatic stories in our lives, loneliness and loss, leave the deepest wounds. Resources that focus on trauma either exclude those needing the same support but due to anxiety or other kinds of distress, or they broaden the definition to the point where all people are traumatised and the answer to every question and result of every equation is trauma.
It’s easy to look at a misfit like me and see trauma, and trauma is a big part of my story! But it is not the only part. I was a creative oddball long before school bullies and self harm. Claiming and understanding my trauma history and how it has shaped me has been essential to understanding myself, but I also find that at times I have to reclaim myself from the overwhelming trauma narratives. My life includes these things but does not revolve around them. I am more than what has happened to me. I am more than a sad story of harm or a triumphant story of recovery. I am also a life, a human life, with all the sorrow and pain, and the confusion, and the sublime. My story is not more or less meaningful, my pain not more or less real, my joy nor more or less extraordinary. I am human, and trauma narratives can take that away from me and put me in some other box of people who are different, lesser, or special. I am not other. I am human.
I remember going to Melbourne to see the Tim Burton exhibition and reading about his childhood and early life as an artist, expecting to see a trauma story given his proclivity for the gothic misfit. There wasn’t one. He was a creative oddball who didn’t fit well – his portrayal of the blandness of suburban life are now legendary! (think Edward Scissorhands for example) Trauma is part of the story of many artists lives, but for many it’s not, and we misunderstand something about the nature of creativity and restlessness when we forget this. When we don’t recall that many artists don’t ‘fit’ at first, we turn that ‘not fitting feeling’ into something about trauma. Being an outsider is always a strange, challenging, and blessed experience whether you’re super smart, disabled, or vaguely mad. Trauma may be a result if you’re isolated or bullied, but it’s not always a cause.
I find myself wanting to talk about how harm can happen when all our dominant narratives become about trauma. When friends struggle through extremely poorly delivered child abuse awareness training where they are told definitively that people who are sexually abused as children are damaged for the rest of their lives and never recover normal relationships or sexual intimacy, I’m so angry. And when those friends try to speak up and say – hey, that was me, and yes, it’s the most horrible thing – but don’t write off our lives! We DO have lives! And are instead told their personal experience is clouding their judgement so they are failing to appreciate the catastrophic impact, I think something is wrong.
I’ve read ‘trauma informed care’ documents that make victims of trauma sound like helpless children, or that insist that healing only happens in therapy and close connections to a traumatised person should never be attempted by someone not ‘suitably trained’. You can almost hear the void around the hurting person as everyone steps back and waits for an expert to come along. In other contexts, we call this ‘the bystander effect’. It’s not a good thing. Friendships and relationships have a language of their own that should be respected! Communities have been finding ways through trauma – well and badly, for thousands of years before we invented therapy. Therapy is one of many tools, and it does not ever replace community and a sense of belonging. (many trauma therapists know this, of course!)
I’ve sat in talks about multiplicity that were so concerned to let us know we may be triggered, we were welcome to leave partway, caring staff were on hand if we needed to talk to someone etc etc that I seriously wondered if they’d considered that I manage pap smears, nightmares, losing people I care about to death and suicide – on top of the various traumas in my more distant past. The focus on my vulnerability left me extremely angry and unseen – my strength, my coping, my competency were all invisible in a space that marked me as a trauma survivor and permitted me to leave the room where the important educated people were discussing the difficult topics of the life and recovery of people like me.
There’s a fantastic looking conference happening later this year I would love to attend and speak at. It’s being held by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Unfortunately it’s happening the month after I’m due to deliver our baby, so I’m not going to put an abstract in. But reading the front page of info really made me want to, because its called Broken Structures, Broken Selves, and describes “The very structures given the responsibility to protect these children, broke down their basic trust in the world, and therefore their very essence – Self – so necessary for their future development.” And I so want to go there and talk about the harm we do when we constantly refer to people as broken! The number of times terms like fractured, broken, fragmented, and developmental failure turn up in books and articles about multiplicity is absurd. People are harmed when we constantly describe them this way! People are harmed when there is no concept of healthy multiplicity, non-trauma-origin multiplicity, or healthy dissociation. I KNOW there is a profound need for awareness and sensitivity to the impact of trauma, to normalise and support people especially when their only other framework is “I’m crazy!” People are harmed by trauma, yes! But when inbuilt defense mechanisms like dissociation act exactly as they are supposed to, I would argue they are a very long way from broken. It is those who harm people who are broken. That is the inhuman behaviour.
I can’t go along this time and say any of that, I’m hoping that someone will anyway, there’s a diverse group of people interested in this field and I don’t but heads with all of them! Some of us have fought so long and hard to have trauma recognised as important, we need to be careful of what happens when it does gain that recognition and becomes the dominant framework. It can be inconceivable that something so fundamentally respectful of people, something so essential and good could be misused or harm people. But such is the risk when any perspective becomes dominant. There’s more to us, to our stories, our lives, and our selves than trauma. Part of what it is to be human is to feel broken, to be aware of our own incapabilities and limits, to mourn what we could be. That story isn’t just about trauma, it doesn’t cut us off from those who lived blessed lives. We don’t have to sit on our side of the fence hating them, watching them live in the sunshine while we drag our mangled hearts through the darkness. There’s pain in all of us, loneliness, brokenness, and hope. This is the human story. It seems so deeply important to me to place trauma in that context, to – if you will – integrate it with our stories of what it is to live and love and be a breathing living collection of fears and dreams all wrapped in skin.
Integration can be a Hot Topic for those of us with multiplicity. It used to be (and sometimes still is) pushed as the cure for our illness, our only chance to be a normal person, and have a normal life. People who couldn’t integrate, didn’t want to, or tried to and had it fall apart on them were seen as more sick, less recovered, less committed to recovery, treatment resistant, or basically in some way a failure. So it can be loaded topic with heated diverse ideas and often some firm opinions and rough experiences for people. Hence why in 3 years of blogging about multiplicity I haven’t wanted to tackle it before now!
It doesn’t have to be so divisive of course, the issues really aren’t about integration, they’re about this idea of failure. If integration is an option rather than a cure, a lot of the heat and stress goes out of this topic. That’s certainly how I prefer to talk about it.
So, let’s start at the beginning, what the heck is it? Well, that can be tricky to define, because different people and different books use the word to mean different processes.
Fusion or Merging
This is the most common use of the word integration. It refers to the combining of two (or more) parts into one. Separate consciousnesses, or selves, become a single self, combining memories, skills, and attributes of both. For those who use a clinical dissociative framework, an analogy might be the dissociative walls between parts coming down, so that every part can be out together, all the time, sharing all of life, all the memories, and all the energy. Generally speaking integration is only used to describe the merging of all parts into one, but sometimes I have come across variations in that too. There’s a experiences of fusion shared in the biographies The Flock, Katherine It’s Time, A Fractured Mind, and Not Otherwise Specified.
Some people use integration to describe a system where all the parts but one have been retired from coming out. One part now runs all the life, and the rest live inside where they may be sleeping, playing, advising, or doing their own thing, but they don’t come out any more. An experience of retirement is shared in Today I’m Alice.
Some people use integration to mean that all the parts except one go away. People might pray away parts, have them exorcised, experience them ‘die’ (without harming the body), or simply find that they have fulfilled whatever function they were needed for and disappear. Sometimes passing on happens spontaneously, sometimes it is the specific goal of therapy or an intervention of some kind. There’s experiences of passing on in Little Girl Fly Away, Fractured, and A Life in Pieces.
While most people see this as an alternative to integration, sometimes this is described as integration, which can really be confusing! With co-operation the parts work together as a team, sharing the body and life and making decisions together. Basically, it’s a multiple system that functions well with parts looking after each other, sharing information and resources, and putting effort towards common goals. There’s experiences of co-operation shared in First Person Plural, When Rabbit Howls, The Sum of My Parts, and Five Farewells.
Several of these outcomes are described in In Two Minds. Most of these books can be borrowed from the DI Library.
So, if you’re reading or hearing someone talk about integration, it can be really helpful to know what they’re using the term to mean! Of course, a person with multiplicity may use all of these approaches, at the same time but with different parts, or at different times in their life – perhaps they work on co-operation which leads to fusion, or perhaps some parts fuse, some retire, some pass on, and the rest co-operate.
Integration is a word that also has different meaning in other contexts. It’s often used in trauma therapy to refer to someone’s ability to process, think about, and link into a personal narrative an experience that has been jarring and out of sync with their sense of themselves and their story about their life. In that context it is always seen as a highly positive thing, and that may be part of the challenge about the way it is used with multiplicity – because in this case it describes a process that people experience in diverse ways, ranging from profoundly welcome and life-saving, to highly distressing, destructive, and disabling.
Integration can mean a connection, as in technology or biology when we’re talking about different processes working together – for example “visuomotor integration” – how well our sense of sight and our muscles work together. Integration can be about harmony in difference, such as architecture that integrates well with the landscape. In science integration is the inverse of differentiation – one example of differentiation from biology is the process by which cells change from being generalised (such as the stem cells that start off building an embryo) to being specialised – becoming nerve cells, muscle cells, and so on. Integration is the opposite of segregation when we’re talking about civil rights or putting kids with disabilities in mainstream schools. When we’re talking about immigrants and culture, the word integrate is often used to mean assimilate – that is, the minority or inferior group should adapt and conform, to become absorbed into the dominant culture.
I see some obvious parallels in these various uses of the word integration and how it is experienced by people with multiplicity. Some people see either fusion or co-operation as the best goals for people with multiplicity. Some see passing on as the only possibility. Some people with multiplicity deeply desire fusion, while others are aiming for co-operation. Some people are terrified of losing parts. Some systems have different parts with very different goals, which they may try to impose on each other and team up with other people such as a therapist, to try to enforce.
Where the big issues come into play is often not what the goal is, but who chooses it and how it is defined. If a therapist, healer, priest or so on chooses the goal for a system then their efforts to create that may be highly traumatic, no matter what the goal is, or how well intentioned that person. If a goal is presented as the only possible option for a good life, then people can be devastated if their system simply doesn’t fit it or can’t sustain it. There is not one experience of multiplicity out there, there are hundreds of thousands. There is not one experience of integration either. Here are some diverse stories I am aware of:
A person with multiplicity who works hard in therapy to fuse back to one part, and discovers that for them, a great deal is lost in the process: memories, skills, and so on.
A person with multiplicity who experiences a part telling them that they have done what they were here to do, and their lifespan is over. A ritual goodbye is performed, and a small private funeral. The part ‘dies’ at peace.
A person with multiplicity who draws upon their faith to pray with a trusted person in authority to have deeply distressed or disturbed parts taken away, and experiences relief.
A person with multiplicity who found a new, more calm and grounded part formed in adulthood and guided their system through stress and conflict.
A person with multiplicity who over many years, without therapy, learns about their other parts, negotiates their way through differences, and comes to work together as a team.
A person with multiplicity who works hard in therapy towards fusion, who’s other parts experience grief at their loss of separate self, but who finds deep wholeness and relief in integration and embarks on a new life direction with zest and hope.
A person with multiplicity who transitioned and went through sex change surgeries so the part of that gender could have time in a body they felt comfortable with.
A person with multiplicity who has no intention of fusing but finds that fusion happens gradually and naturally as part of trauma healing, and comes to term with their new single identity.
A person with multiplicity who is convinced by someone in authority that an exorcism of demons is their only hope for a good life, and finds it ‘works’ for several years as the other parts are deeply alienated and buried in their psyche, but then they return even angrier and harder to communicate with than before.
A person with multiplicity who is thrilled to fuse with their other parts, only to find that when they are stressed they split back into parts again.
A person with multiplicity who thinks that all the parts have gone, only to find a batch of new ones they didn’t know anything about.
A person with multiplicity who fused, split, fused, split again, and finally fused for good!
A person with multiplicity who had parts die only to come back to life some years later.
As you can see, people’s experiences are diverse!
So the stress about integration comes from many places, people who want to fuse but can’t seem to, people who are frightened that parts may die, people who are being strongly pushed into a process that doesn’t fit them well, or who are being told they cannot be whole or healed unless they do a particular thing or do it in a particular way. For some people fusion is amazing. I have seen it and it’s a marvel. For others it is akin to gay reparative ‘therapy’ for people who don’t want it, where people are trying to ‘cure’ something that is a natural difference in how people are, in the process making them much more vulnerable to suicide and self harm. I believe the risks of harm are higher when people are afraid, made to think one way is their only hope, and when they have no exposure to peers and diversity and are vulnerable to the ideas of a person with power in their life. I think the risks of harm are lower when people are able to sit with the idea that there may be many paths for people, and one is not necessarily better or worse than another, that what is supposed to happen for them will happen, and that whether you have single or multiple selves if you are decent to people, animals, and the planet, you are not a failure.
It is entirely possibly there is more than one form of multiplicity, some of which respond well to fusion or other types of integration, and some of which don’t. Certain philosophies and branches of neuroscience consider that it is a sense of having a single self that is an illusion and that all people are a collection of multiple selves and processes. The mind and consciousness are simply amazing. Please be reassured that if you have had bad or frightening experiences trying to navigate multiplicity that you are not alone in that, and that people, parts, and systems can recover.
Personally, when I was first diagnosed with DID in 2007, I had a plan. I was going to be a model patient, obey every instruction, and integrate within a year. I wanted more than anything in the world not to be multiple. I wanted to have a life, to finish my degree, to have a job, to be a parent – and I didn’t think I could do that if I was multiple. Putting my system under that pressure knocked us around badly and our functioning started to fall apart. We’ve ended up walking a much more roundabout route, focusing on specific challenges such as accepting our sexuality and rebuilding our social support, and figuring that if fusion is supposed to happen for us, it will happen in its own time. I’m okay with that! I don’t need to be multiple, it’s not what makes me special or gives my life meaning or gives me an identity. I’ll still be the strange mad creative oddball we are now. I also don’t need to be single to be whole, healed, or have hope. I don’t think single is the best, right, or only way for people.
At least once a month Rose and I set aside some time to spend just the two of us. No friends or kids or work or stress, just us, celebrating us. Often we don’t call this a date night as not everyone in my system is ‘dating’ her, but instead she’s coined the rather lovely phrase Tribe Night. What we do depends on who feels like they need some time together, and how much money we have. As Rose is still waiting unpaid for her new job to start, tonight is a budget one. We’ve got movies from the local hire store, popcorn, and the half eaten gorgeous gingerbread house that was a Christmas gift from a generous, creative friend who cooked it in her tiny toaster oven in her apartment and probably lost a few more sanity points in the process.
Other favourite tribe night things to do are nights at the beach, hanging out in the trees at our local park, going to the movies, our favourite local Asian fusion restaurant, going out to fun art or cultural events, especially the free kind where dressing up can happen, hanging out in the nude with all the curtains drawn and good music, (some of us are lovers), camping nights away, and for the really introverted, reading together in bed.
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 us 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 first hated ourselves with a deep passion. When we realised we were multiple, we hated them instead. 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 we struggled with 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 ages and realise that although we had felt mature and responsible and old at the time, 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 had very 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. It’s not about laughing instead of crying, but as well as crying.
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, seethe with resentment, or submit and hate themselves. 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!”