Buck Angel – trans and diversity


This awesome dude is Buck Angel. He was in Adelaide recently doing a number of shows at part of our Feast Festival, which is our annual queer pride event. I was fortunate enough to get along to several of them. I first met Buck as an amazing life size golden statue of him by artist Marc Quinn, that’s in our Art Gallery of South Australia.
Photo from this blog.

I was blown away when I first saw it, that confidence, the way his tattoos have been carved deeply into the statue… So beautiful. To display his unusual body (Buck went through ‘top’ but not ‘bottom’ surgery) with such a sense of contentment and certainty about who he is just blew me away. Apparently it’s not unusual for people to be deeply moved, particularly trans folk.  Then I heard the subject was coming here and I got to hear some of his life story, his transitioning, to hear about how this statue was made and brought all the way to SA. It’s been amazing.

I talked with him a little about the overlap between the trans and multiple communities, the need for more understanding and acceptance. I’ve been building more links between these communities in my work on the Dissociative Initiative. My experience has been that there’s a lot of trans people who experience multiplicity, and a lot of people with multiplicity who have trans parts/personalities. The mental health and the trans supports however, don’t always get along.

Buck got it. His messages of loving your body, and embracing your identity, and not letting the world tell you you have look a certain way or have certain body parts to be who you know you are is a powerful one, especially for trans members of multiple systems. Some of us transition and some, like me, never will. (More about my experiences in What is a man?) I live as a male in a system full of female personalities and a body identified as female. Learning to be comfortable with this is so much easier when you have a hyper masculine, “I love my vagina”, pro diversity role model like Buck.

We talked a little about the massive changes legally and socially that have happened, just in the time since he’s transitioned. It makes me hopeful that things are going to change for those us with multiplicity, who currently are seen as mentally ill, treated as dangerous, or the punch line of a joke. There’s a whole community of trans people who can relate to our experiences around those issues! These are people who understand fears of being outed, how our relationships, housing, and jobs can be at risk, the pressure of trying to pass so no one will know we are different. That’s the reason I’m public about being multiple, to start that change happening. We shouldn’t have to hide! We can find ally’s in communities like this and support each other.

Buck told me – it doesn’t take many of us speaking up to change things. Just a few voices make a difference. I believe that.

Book is happening

2014-12-13 20.59.20-1It’s consuming. But it’s happening. A book about multiplicity. It comes in spurts, days where it’s writing itself in my head constantly and flowing, then depressing blocks where nothing makes sense or connected with anything else. I think I may have finally found a structure that works more closely with the way I write this blog – which I should find a lot easier to work with. I’ll keep you posted!



The Void: dissociation, amnesia, and identity

Dissociative amnesia is not often spoken of. It doesn’t have the fascinating glamour of other forms of dissociation such as ‘multiple personalities’ or fugue states. It seems at times that there’s little to say of the losses of memory, of how frail our sense of the world is when we can’t recall it. It’s subtle but insidious, far more important and powerful than people think.

Some people with multiplicity also have very high levels of amnesia, a form of dissociation in memory. In this case, memories are laid down and stored in the brain, but the dissociation between different parts prevents access to them. So people can live in this surreal twilight world of ‘coming to’ and trying to figure out from context where they are and what has been happening. Life is a bewildering series of changes, something that slips through your hands as fast as you try to grasp it. Other parts live according to their own values, needs, fears, and understanding of the world, and you return to inherit their choices. The world of cause and effect can become brutal when you cannot recall the causes but must live with the consequences. Between skips of memory can pass hours, days, or years. Like Rip Van Winkle, you can wake to find your whole world is unfamiliar.

Other people experience amnesia without multiplicity. Sometimes it gets forgotten that this is very possible. People are told that if they cannot remember great chunks of their day – or their life – that they are probably multiple and other parts must have been living them. It’s actually very common to have amnesia without dissociation in identity, trauma both physical and psychological will often affect our capacity to remember, as can a massive collection of physical illnesses and injuries. Emotion is a key aspect of memory, so dissociation or disconnection in emotions can also affect our capacity to remember. Our ability to remember is also linked to our awareness of the passing of time. Memory is very complex and not particularly well understood.

We’re familiar with the challenges of minor memory loss, the scattered way of life when you’re constantly looking for your shoes, keys, car, phone. It’s not hard to extrapolate that to bigger, but still tangible losses – having found my car at last in the shopping centre car park, I can’t remember where I live. Standing at the checkout desperately trying to remember my PIN number, crying with frustration because I’m 19 but it feels like I have dementia. Trying to fill out welfare forms and having to ask other people what my birth date is. These bigger gaps are like black holes in the world, only in your world. Other people walk over an unbroken path, I fall through, into an emptiness. I float in a void and hope desperately I’ll find the other side of it, pick myself up quickly, dust myself off and keep walking, hoping no one notices my lack of normal functioning.

Other losses can be profound, harder to imagine. People who recall nothing of their lives before the age of 35, except small scraps. People who find that amnesia follows them, at a distance, like a stray dog, eating recall of all memories older than two years previous. People who wake in the morning next to their partner of 20 years and find they don’t recognise them. People who look in the mirror and are bewildered and surprised by who looks back at them. That moment of panic as a stranger approaches you in the street with an easy smile and greets you by name. For some there’s an overwhelming sense of shame, of being damaged and desperately trying to pass for human. For others the loss takes even the grief of loss, there’s a shrug, or a little wistfulness, or even relief. For some, behind the shield of amnesia, dreams and nightmares and all the things they once felt deeply about lurk in their shadows, haunt their sleep, beat against glass walls in their mind, evoking terror.

Without memory, it is difficult to have a stable sense of self. State-dependent memory cuts off a sense of connection to other parts. Each part has their own memories of life and draws their own conclusions based only on their own experiences. Mood dependent memory is the way we recall with ease our happiest moments when happy, and drown in all our saddest when sad. For people in the grip of intense, flooded emotions, such as some who are given the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, their whole lives and sense of self changes with each feeling. We sparkle when happy, and our whole world is beautiful! We are generous, kind, loving, full of good humour and good will. We bathe in the milk of human kindness, nothing is too big to forgive, too much to ask. When sad, the world is black, bleak, dark, terrifying, choked with misery, full of bad omens and evil portends. We radiate despair and flood everyone near them. We are preoccupied, desperate, overwhelmed by a sense of doom, like prophets who understand the world is ending and shake our warnings at people too blind to stop their partying and take up the ashes and sackcloth. When threatened we are sharp toothed, short of temper, we jump at shadows and see danger everywhere. We bite hands that come too close and nurse the aching wounds of all the wrongs ever done to us. We see the world as violent, unpredictable, deceptive. We look for the trick in every gesture, the hidden meaning in every word. We live with our teeth bared and bite before we’re bitten.

There are a thousand shades of emotion that people don’t even consider, like shades of colours. We are swept from heights to valleys, through quiet contemplation, deep sorrow, burning rage, cheerful spring mornings, restless wild moods, agonising pain, mischievous playfulness. When these states are split off from each other, people’s sense of self changes with each of them. Our sense of the world completely changes, our values and goals change, our expectations of the future changes, our approaches to our relationships change. The thread of consciousness that gives us our sense of stable self is snapped and chopped into bits. What has the potential to be a deeply lived, vivid experience of life becomes fractured, tormenting, and without growth.

For people with parts, fractures along these lines are common – one part will remember all things wonderful in life, another all things painful. When switching and trying to understand the self, multiples get lost in the many versions of self that leave evidence in their lives, the many handwritings in their journals. As a child I sometimes asked other people to describe me, feeling devoid of clarity about myself and seeking to use their eyes as a mirror. There’s an empty feeling beneath shattered memory that can make people feel like they don’t exist. Switching can be like forever walking into a room at the moment someone else walks out.

I once watched a documentary about Clive Wearing, who suffers from chronic severe amnesia due to a virus that damaged his brain. He has almost no recollection of his past (although he has what is called procedural memory, that is he can still do things he once learned to do, such as walk, dress himself, and play music). Clive cannot hold onto to new memories for longer than about 30 seconds. He lives entirely in the moment. He has a diary that moves me deeply. Each previous entry he crosses out, as he cannot recall having written it. Each new entry is achingly similar.

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

There’s an agony here, an awareness of loss and a claiming of life that turns out to be without permanence or meaning. It’s deeply painful to see his distress and be unable to knit back together the damaged areas of brain that leave him in the void. The process is familiar to me, I recognise echoes of the same voids in myself and others.

For those of us with multiplicity, even when co-conscious, the emotional distance of watching but not living all our lives can create subtle breaks in our sense of self. Disconnection in emotion can fragment our ability to emotionally process our lives. Switching can be our own version of suddenly feeling awake. We sweep aside all the knowledge of other parts, sometimes even of our own previous memories, with this sudden conviction that now, I am truly awake. That now, I am really alive. This time, I understand. That this time, I’ll make it work. We do the same things, with the same tools, from the same values, backed by the same seeping aside of our history, and are horrified, surprised, and devastated when we get the same results. We cut ourselves off from our own wisdom, learn nothing from our history, disregard all previous insights. We make abrupt, unsustainable life changes, that change only the names and places, but repeat the same crisis dynamics over and over. When we are briefly aware of this sense of being trapped in a cycle, we feel so helpless and ashamed that it’s a relief to let amnesia or switching sweep it all aside. It’s like having an internal reset button, we go back to the start of the maze and go looking for the cheese all over again, often with the support of people around us and mental health staff who are pleased we’ve stopped being paralysed by our awareness of our futile cycles and are tackling our lives with vim again.

Health and recovery is sometimes sold to us as stopping this process. Limiting the extremes, preventing the switching, shutting down the states. A single part is chosen to be the ‘real’ one, a single emotional state or small collection of them are selected as the ideal, calmest and most rational. All the knowledge in the rest is discarded, all the wildness that gives life deeper mythic meaning, the wrestling with angels and demons, the being moved by things we can’t name are suppressed instead of connected. The goal becomes staying still instead of learning how to dance through them. Life becomes staid, the suppressed grow wilder and stronger, we find ourselves fighting not only with our weaknesses but also our strengths. We dissociate more and more from ourselves and our experience of life.

These processes are not unique to multiples. We all use dissociation to contain memories and feelings, to compartmentalise our worlds so that we can function. Not enough dissociation, being unable to contain emotions and memories can be just as destructive. It can be very difficult for any of us to step back and see the whole, to watch our own patterns and honour our history. We are all partly dependant on the stories we’ve told through which we understand ourselves and the world, and the perspectives of others. Sometimes they help, something they make us blind or tell stories that do us harm. Step back too far and we become numbed observers. Remain forever utterly in the moment, and we fall into the void. In that place, we run to anything that makes us feel better, calmer, safer, no matter how crazy. We self destruct with passionate, spectacular indifference. We search for a sense of self that the search itself destroys. The experience of the void can induce a sense of absolute panic, a desperate, frantic need to DO something, anything, to feel like you exist. Even blood, agony, the fireworks from your whole world being destroyed can feel better than the void.

For me, my journals – and now this blog, are the trail of breadcrumbs I leave for myself to help me see my selves. I write, and then I read, and re-read, seeing my selves through different eyes, charting my life. I find causes for effects. I learn about those people who have the most profound impact upon my life, but whom I have never really met – my other parts, the rest of ‘Sarah’. I am startled by the complexity of life, all the things I do not see that they do, the vast spectrum of colours I cannot perceive, of feelings I know only as words. There’s a sense of being blind, but learning life and self by its feeling in my hands, its taste in my mouth. Sometimes someone comes out who is missing so many threads of information, so much of what we have learned and how we have changed. Sharing our history connects them back to us, to the present moment, to all the gains and losses of our life.

I reconnect the thread of self by honouring that I am alive now, and that I have always been alive. All the parts are real, all the emotions are meaningful, all the experiences are important. I look for the common ground between all the states and parts, and I also learn to celebrate such wildly diverse ways of experiencing the world. I find the things that stay the same no matter what – a fear, a value, a need, a tiny chip of identity. I look for ways to carry them with me through all the changes, I notice the way that feelings or switching changes a value like kindness, the way different light sources make a gemstone look like it’s a different colour. Ideas are refined. A sense of self is not so much found as created. The void remains, but it no longer consumes everything, and my life is no longer spend running from it in fear and back to it in need.

Multiplicity and Love

How do you get engaged when there’s more than one of you?

There’s a million different ways. I’ve written before about multiplicity and relationships, and also about how switching affects relationships. Some people don’t know they have multiplicity when they enter into long term relationships. Some have a single part bond – one part is engaged, the others may have reactions ranging from excitement to indifference to horror, or be entirely unaware this is happening until they come back out maybe months or years later. Some may have group bonds where many parts have relationships of various kinds with the other person.

I’ve done romantic relationships before I knew about parts. They were tremendously challenging. Things would be going brilliantly and suddenly completely derail without warning – what I now know was being caused by different parts switching and needing completely different things. Child parts would be distraught at being kissed on the mouth, wild parts would need to run in the night, the poets needed ink and solitude and contemplation and freedom to be melancholy, the researcher craves new information and sharp minds to discuss with. The experience for the partner is one of ‘consistent inconsistency’. Some days I drink my tea this way and some that. Some days I love licorice and some days hate it. Some days I sink into a hug and some days flinch. Part based roles make it challenging to engage relationship boundaries – this part remembers all the good things, that part the bad. When the former part is out they are happy, easy to get along with, generous, and malleable. When the latter is out, they are frustrated, suspicious, and desperate to repair whatever trust has been broken or boundaries violated. Hence the bounce between ‘everything is awesome’ and ‘everything is broken’.

The real challenge was in discovering that they are both right but also both a little unbalanced because of the skewed information they have to work with. For years we thought my part who recalls the painful and frightening things was simply us being ‘depressed’, and that we should ignore everything we think and feel during those times as merely being the product of mental illness and low mood. Turns out she actually had some really important points, and that without her perspective we’re really vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. On the other hand, most of her proposed solutions were drastic and destructive. We had to take her input and work on something more useful to do with it.

I’ve also tried my hand at romance once I knew about my multiplicity but wasn’t ready to share it. That was challenging in a whole different way. Concealing switching was easy because that’s how my system usually works anyway, but trying to get a partner not to take it personally or think they’d done something wrong when I needed things to be platonic for child parts, for example, was really hard for me. I found that I started to feel like a sleeper agent with a cover story. There were real feelings and people and lives around me, but a central secret about who I was disconnected me, and the constant need to conceal and the terror of being outed caused me tremendous distress.

I’ve been in romances with multiples as well as singles, guys as well as girls. They are wildly different in some ways, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as fundamentally ‘easier’, just different. I’ve found that we gravitate towards people who have access to a wide range of ‘sides of themselves’ if they’re not actually multiple. That is, what we usually mean when we talk about parts of ourselves; ‘part of me wants to study tonight, part of me wants to go hang out with my friends’. People who have found one way of being in the world and stick with it through all circumstances tend to confuse and sadden me. I can often ‘feel’ their buried parts or cut off emotions, and struggle not to interact with those sides of them. I can find myself impatiently waiting for them to reveal more of themselves – particularly when their approach to life is clearly not working for them – why don’t you switch already? Sometimes I feel like the lucky one and people with so little access to other perspectives and ways of being in the world feel like the ones who need help.

That’s not to say that these other ways can’t work! At one point I was in a relationship, as an undiagnosed multiple, with another undiagnosed multiple. When it worked it was beautiful, a synchronicity, us against the world, at last someone who functioned the way I did, needed the things I needed, saw the world the way I saw it. When it didn’t work it was agony. People find themselves in very different situations and navigate their relationships in different ways. There’s no right or wrong answer here, just different ones, and the challenge to love without harming or being harmed.

Rose is the first person I’ve been involved with as an ‘out’ multiple. I vastly prefer it! It means that the night one of my deep, very wounded parts came out and had a panic attack when Rose touched her made sense. I could explain what happened. Rose could adapt. Rose now recognises almost all of my system by sight – how we talk, walk, hold our body, the colour of our eyes. She knows our individual personal names. Even when she can’t tell who it is, she can tell the basics that she needs to know – adult/teen/child, male/female/other, romantic/platonic, reassured by touch/traumatised by touch. With that information we can both navigate the switching and build and maintain relationships between everyone. She’s met most of us who switch out, and with most has formed a strong relationship of some kind. In our case, there’s several who are romantically involved with her, then there are friends, ones who relate more as sisters, ones who only get involved occasionally, and so on. We’ve proposed as a group, and so we didn’t ask her to marry us, but to be our family, because what we’re asking for and offering is different for each of us.

There’s challenges! Everyone doesn’t always get along. Parts have different needs. It can be easy to fall into a carer/caree dynamic as that is how we are seen in the mental health world. There’s the added pressure of being treated as ‘trailblazers’ who are proving that relationships with multiple are (or are not) possible. Rather similar to the way that our relationship is seen as representative of all lesbian relationships in friendship or family circles who haven’t been directly exposed to any others. There’s the challenge of embracing Rose without writing her into my system – letting my child parts love her but not treat her as a parent (that’s our role), not catching her up in the inevitable rescue fantasies that most of us who have at some point been deeply hurt find written into our approach to the world, not seeing her as others who have hurt us when things aren’t going well.

There’s also upsides. Like the time she asks for the part who handles physical aggression when we’re walking at night and group of guys is watching us in a scary manner… and I can say to her – already here love, don’t worry, I’ve got your back. It’s late night video games with my kids, it’s climbing trees with the wild ones, it’s sharing stories of homelessness with the survivors, and having huge conversations about peer work and youth work and social work and community and mental health and power and families. It’s Rose having someone who gets her experiences with flashbacks, nightmares, body shame, and self loathing… and can make her laugh about them. It’s about us having the stamina to switch out the tired ones and make it through a week of Rose in hospital, also keeping the pets alive, easing her trauma reactions so she doesn’t wind up sectioned as well, being there through severe pain, and putting all our needs on hold until it’s over. It’s about the contradictions that make up all people, writ large; the edible glitter on cupcakes and the goth nightclubs, the gardener and the naked body painter in a psychotic whirl, the person who takes lizards off the road and nurses orphaned kittens and the one who burns with rage when Rose is being hurt.

As I keep saying, multiplicity is normal human function, writ large. It’s a dance, between adult and child, light and dark, male and female, the apparently functional and the apparently wounded, the ones who fit in and the ones who don’t fit anywhere. We dance together, sometimes she needs me to make her laugh and my cheeky imp turns up and turns the house upside down. Sometimes I need her to hold me and tell me “don’t worry love, everyone gets to see your charismatic ones. I’m privileged to know the ones who don’t stand up in front of crowds”.

There’s days she cares for me but she’s not my carer. There’s times she feels deep empathy for me, but she’s not with me because she feels sorry for me. There’s needs she has that I’m good at meeting, but we’re not together to exploit my capacity. There’s ways in which we’re similar and also big differences. Navigating multiplicity is a key aspect of every day and every part of our relationship, and in another sense, it’s irrelevant. Once you get used to kids turning up in the lolly aisle at the supermarket and know not to be scared and wander around hand in hand talking about the virtues of kinder surprises vs gummi bears, knowing that I’ll switch back to an adult in time to drive home, it’s just not that big a deal. Once you’ve learned what helps in a bad night, then swinging into action to rub my back and listen empathetically as some wounded soul howls or flashbacks or recounts a nightmare is just part of our life. Trauma is part of our world, some times a big part to manage, sometimes so small it’s barely there, but it’s just something to live with. It’s not a source of shame or fighting or horror, we make plans around it just like we would if I was still in a wheelchair. We don’t compete about who is in the most pain, we don’t treat my experiences or my multiplicity as worse or more important or more amazing than Rose’s experiences of trauma and loss and triumph. She is neither healthier, nor sicker, nor luckier, nor less creative, than we are.

We’re both just people, frail humans, with capacity for light and dark, with frustrating and enduring weaknesses, with amazing strengths. We work to keep our power in balance, to love each other, to own our own stuff, and to make a great life together. Just like anyone else. Love is love.

New resources

Another day working on my free community resources. I’m still crook but able to get things done, albeit slowly. Very focused on the work today but also very dissociative and spacey. Hoping tomorrow will be easier.

Today I have

I would love to hear your thoughts. The DI site is almost to the point where I’m happy with it and ready to move on and properly flesh out the Hearing Voices site, then I can get on to the Homeless Care site and back to my own Business development. Tired! But happy with the progress.

Do you need a ‘DID expert’ therapist?

This is an assumption I come across a lot. People with dissociation or multiplicity are supposed to need extensive, painful therapy, by an expert in the condition, to stand any chance at a decent life. Hogwash!

First, the caveats: can therapists be awesome? Oh you bet your last cup of coffee they can! Can experts who have trained highly in their field, who are passionate and informed, be a huge damn relief to talk to and learn from? Hell yes. I’ve already written a little about what the point of therapy is and how to recognise good therapy.

Having said that, I tend to beat the drum of ‘you don’t need a shrink to have a life’ quite a lot for a person who sees shrinks. Why? Isn’t this ridiculously hypocritical of me? Do I just not want to share my shrinks? Well, it goes like this. I used to see shrinks because I was scared and overwhelmed and had no idea what the hell was going on in my head/relationships/life. It was SCARY. Super scary. I was terrified of everything about the process and used to sit frozen on my allocated seat, hanging on every word uttered by the shrink who was almost godlike in status and had the power to uplift or doom me with a word. I discovered over time that the idea that psychiatry is a science, that diagnosis is an accurate and sensitive tool, and that shrinks are infallible and highly knowledgeable about the complexities of life and how people work on the inside is pretty laughable. I collected diagnoses like some people collect shoes. Pick your shrink’s speciality, pick your diagnosis. I’ve seen a lot of shrinks over the years. Some have been great, some have been average, some have been horrible. Most have been at least a somewhat mixed experience – partly helpful and partly not. Horrible shrinks have been as much, if not more of a threat to my mental health than other horrible people in my life.

Going off to see shrinks meant I had ventured into a world that was selling me a bunch of ideas about myself and my life such as: I was sick. That someone else’s ideas about me (after a 45 minute conversation) were more accurate than my own. That all shrinks should be trusted, immediately, and any reluctance or failure on my part to engage in that proved that I had problems. That massive power imbalances in relationships are helpful for people with trauma/abuse backgrounds. That having a good shrink is the most important thing you need in order to have a decent life after crap has happened (not friends, or housing, or access to a really, really good library, shrinks). That I needed ‘expert therapeutic help’ to be able to function. That I needed someone in my life who could take control away from me and put me into hospital. That multiplicity meant I was broken, damaged, or in some way inferior to other people. That someone else can heal my pain. That my history and pain is about my choices and my reactions rather than a broader social context. That my suffering is caused by a random breakdown in my brain.

I haven’t found any of these ideas to be at all helpful. I see shrinks now, because I value having a safe place to talk about really tough or very personal things. I love to team up on thorny issues, to pick their brains about information I don’t have, and to explore difficult territory without shame. I do the same things with some of my closer friends.

I don’t give shrinks any power over me. If I disagree with them, I argue. If I’m not happy with their approach, I leave and find someone else. If they’re ignorant, narcissistic, or in some other way a person I really don’t like the idea of spending an hour with, I don’t hang around and let them start playing with my brain. I run the show. I choose who, when, and how to engage. My shrinks don’t cure me. They join me in my process, or they get out of the way. I employ them to help me achieve my goals. They are equals on an exploration, they are not a surgeon with a patient waiting numbed beneath the knife. Am I discounting their skills in describing them this way? No! It takes a lot of skill to be an explorer. Any old hack can cut into a vulnerable person, and every other bugger is convinced they can run anyone else’s life better than they can. But exploring? Now THAT takes skill. You have to be able to not know answers, to explore new territory, to listen – really listen, to be equally vulnerable and human, to be able to be present in the face of pain, to construct theories and ways of understanding the world, and be willing to turn them inside out when they don’t work. Good shrinks are highly skilled, wonderful people, and I love working with them. I’m aware of the context of the relationship – that is, the ideas embedded in psychology/psychiatry/counselling etc that I disagree with, and I make efforts to prevent them from taking up residence in my brain.

Frankly, interacting with shrinks takes a lot of skills, and this is often not acknowledged! You need to be able to tolerate the power imbalance. You need to be able to assess them for safety. You need to able to walk away from the bad ones. You need enough assertive skills to be able to give them feedback about their approach. You need enough articulation to be able to communicate with them. You need a whole stack of courage, a whole huge stack of it, to actually make therapy useful by being willing to get into some tough stuff. You need the ability to be able to keep seeing the shrink as a human being – either when you feel dependant on them, or pissed off with them, or really excited about them (or in love with them), it really helps the whole process if you can not turn them into angels or demons in your brain. (in some therapies, I grant you, that is the process) Basically, you do a lot of work! In fact, there’s a tenant of therapy I love which is ‘Never work harder than your patient’. The person who does the work, has the power. As imbalanced as the relationship is, it is still a relationship. Some of us are better at eliciting useful responses from our shrinks than others. This is also a skill. You also need to be able to grieve everything your shrink is not and cannot be for you, that they can’t be your parent or partner or lover or take away what you’ve come through. Sometimes this grief is so intense it overshadows every other aspect of the relationship.

Therapy is not useful for everyone, and not useful at every point in life. Even the very best therapy. Nor are support groups, or books, or meditation, or almost any approach to pain except keeping on breathing. Therapists are human. Even the best ones make mistakes, have areas they don’t know much about, or use frameworks and ideas that get in the way instead of helping. I’ve learned a lot from the good shrinks I’ve seen over the years and I really appreciate that. But no shrink has had all the answers or all the skills. I’m glad I’ve seen a few, as frightening and stressful as it was to lose or walk away from a good one. It’s been liberating to discover that I can find new good shrinks and get something useful from their different approach, and that I can cope without a shrink and look after myself.

I’m often contacted by people who are frightened they can’t navigate DID without a shrink. A good shrink will help this a lot, yes, but no shrink is way, way better than a bad one. If bad ones are your only options, get the hell out of there! It’s messy, but frankly, so is therapy. If you think trying to make sense of DID on the back of your book reading, some rudimentary peer support online, and a lot of slowly learning about yourself is really hard, then spare a thought for all the people dealing with involuntary hospitalisations, parts who hate the shrink and go berserk whenever an appointment comes around, and littles who bond to them as if they’re parents and are heartbroken when they can’t come over and hug them after a nightmare… it’s not all roses! Having another person involved with your system can be tremendously supportive, but it’s also a whole additional person with their blindspots and history and reactions and crazy ideas to deal with.

I’m often asked what kind of therapy is best for DID… and I can’t answer that question because there is no therapy for DID. There are a bunch of therapies for people. Some of them help shrinks to be better, more courageous, more patient and inspired shrinks. Some of them have frameworks and approaches that are more useful for more people. Often the type of therapy is way less important than your relationship with the shrink. Some of the most useful therapy I’ve had was counselling through a sexual health clinic, which has nothing to do with DID and yet – conversations about shame, development, desire, abuse, power, and love – everything to do with DID!

Experts are also often not all they’re cracked to be. Being an expert in something sometimes means it’s hard to see everyone as new and different. You get used to seeing the same patterns and using the same frameworks. You have blind spots, which over time you become less and less aware of. What was once a guide, over time hardens into dogma. As an expert therapist, you speak with authority, so less people turn up in your office and contradict you, so you don’t get exposed to new ideas. People get used to your ideas and approach and don’t feel like spending money to sit in a room with you and be told their approach is wrong. The expert position can be an ego boost, and a pretty comfortable chair to sit in. Dismantling it from time to time can take a fair bit of energy and courage. Great experts do this! They are proud of their work and passion and history with the topic, but they wear the label of expert pretty lightly, and they keep in mind that none of it outweighs the expertise in their own life of the person sitting in front of them!

One of the psychologists I saw for a year had no expertise in DID. I spent about the first 6 sessions having to reassure her that this wasn’t a problem. As I said to her – you don’t need to be an expert in multiplicity – I am! Sometimes there’s advantages to learning with a shrink, because you find and fit frameworks to your experience, instead of the other way around. Good shrinks that don’t know anything about multiplicity but are willing to engage it anyway are worth 100 experts who don’t click with you, listen to you, or understand your unique quirks.

So, by all means, go hunting for a therapist if you want one. 🙂 Look for someone who has heard of the word dissociation, and who can spell it… But don’t panic if you’re among the masses of people who can’t find this, or can’t afford it. You have lived with this a long time! You have a massive store of wisdom within you, and clearly, a will to survive. And if you’ve found someone good but totally out of their depth – great. Go exploring together. Don’t believe everything you read, try stuff out, be open to new ways of thinking about things, and go make a life. If you’ve fallen on your feet and have a great shrink who is helpful and knowledgeable about DID, awesome! I hope it’s brilliantly helpful, try not to be too surprised if things don’t go exactly as you think they will, and don’t be too scared if you lose them or things change at some point. Get the most out of it while you can. 🙂

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

What is it to have child parts?

It’s many things; funny, beautiful, inconvenient, sad.

This morning it was waking when the front door clicks shut,
to realise she’s leaving like the last ship
pulling away from shore.
There’s a teddy left on her side of the bed and a house
so stuffed with emptiness I can’t breathe.

It’s calling out her name and running
to the door to blink through tears
and try to memorise her face, to beg
a last cuddle before she walks into her day
and we creep back to bed
where the nightmares are waiting.



Rose and I are away again, house sitting in the hills with Zoe. It’s bliss. Yesterday friends visited for fire baked spuds and card games. I’ve spent today sleeping or reading in front of the fire. Rose is spoiling me. Last week was busy, I’m still embroiled in tax paperwork, my cert 4 in small business management started and there were some stressful emotional days. By Friday night I was teary with exhaustion and pain was making me short fused. The effort of getting out of the house, especially with the dog crate and so on for Zoe, was almost too much. But we did it, and it’s been wonderful.

I was thinking the other day how normal it’s become to be multiple. When Rose I go shopping, and I switch to a little kid in the lolly aisle, we are both so unconcerned. Mostly people don’t notice, and we don’t draw attention to ourselves. But we’re not afraid or ashamed either. Those who do see something different probably assume that I have some kind of intellectual disability or delay. I’ve long stopped being distressed by that or feeling ashamed of being seen that way. So what? In some ways, I am ‘delayed’ at that moment, by about 25 years. 😉 I’m not afraid of being thought of as disabled because I don’t think about disability the same way any more. Me switching is so normal for us, not a big deal, not a source of shame or anxiety. (I switch many times a day, and my system ages range from 5 up and cross various experiences and expressions of gender – most who don’t know me well would not be able to tell that I’ve switched – Rose usually can)

This is such a difference from the years I was terrified of someone else finding out, from my first disclosures where people reacted so badly. So different to being diagnosed with a “terrible disorder” that would prevent me ever getting work, that would ensure I spent years in and out of psychiatric facilities, that would wreak havoc on my relationships and require thousands of excruciatingly painful hours in therapy for any hope of peace or happiness. I feel like someone who was told they would never walk again who goes dancing on Saturday nights. They got it all so very wrong, and I’m so glad I didn’t listen.

So I’m different, in some ways that people can’t see, and in others that are at times visible. So what? Welcome to the world, it’s a very diverse place. I’m not a freak show, and I’m not scared of a conversation about dissociation with a checkout operator either. I am so blessed, so at peace. I don’t live like a spy in a foreign land any more, watching everything I say, always concealing some truth of my identity that would destroy everything. How much of what we put down to the ‘mental illness’ is the stress of this way of living? The loneliness of it, the chronic, grinding fear? I’ll never forget having new members to Bridges, the group for people who experienced dissociation and/or multiplicity that I ran for several years, weeping when they first attended, because it was the first time in their lives they’d met anyone else like them. I’ve been lucky to know and care for and love and learn from so many people, and so many fellow multiples over the years. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve lost a few along the way, but I’ve learned, I’ve been humbled, I’ve tried to take the lessons with me, the hard won wisdom whether through success or terrible disaster.

I feel set free from those old, dire prognosis, and I hope my work, my choices, the way I live my life, also helps to set others free. My life is not without pain, I live in chronic physical pain, I have experienced extreme emotional anguish. My story includes grief, darkness, suffering. I live with ghosts and old wounds that are very deep. I am not ‘recovered’. But I’m also not waiting to get better before I feel alive, or at peace, or hope. All lives touch pain, tragedy, disability, loss. Some more than others, yes. I don’t have a good life in spite of multiplicity or illness. I have a good life because I’m here, present in it, drinking it in, the sorrow and the joy, the pleasure of driving myself hard at work, and the bliss of a day reading by the fire. The warmth in the arms of my lover. I love and I am loved. It is my heart that is the source of my greatest pain, and my brightest happiness, and in matters of the heart I have been fortunate indeed.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.


26-2014-01-09 17.50.10

I sat down yesterday and wrote about how my world is opening up, changes in my system and approach, how I’m managing the ‘adult’ world of tax and business and admin completely differently and with far more skill. Then I found myself going back to old posts about my experience of psychosis, reading my sharing of the darkest nights of grief and loss. There’s a disconnection at first, that familiar awareness that I’m reading someone else’s writing, reading about someone else’s life. And then the growing recognition of us, that tiny glimpse of how far we stretch – from the darkest poet to the lightest administrator. And I find myself marvelling how freedom has changed everything for us. Where the literature wanted each of us to compress, to move closer together, become more similar, compact ourselves into a box marked Sarah and never step out of it again, we have found life in the opposite process. I am more ‘mentally ill’ and yet more functional. I have parts, and psychotic episodes, and days I shut myself in the house and do not speak, and sometimes I wear wrist poems as dark, painful souvenirs of a scream that sounded in my skin at 3am. And yet, I’m getting up and doing my tax with a clearer mind than I can ever remember. We’re getting out of each other’s way. We’re sprawling, stars filling the sky from horizon to horizon. I don’t have to choose one colour, one perspective, one way of living, one identity, one name, one life. We are moving around each other and enriching each other’s lives instead of stealing time and fighting for control. There is trust and sorrow and joy and anguish and pain and nostalgia and hope. This is not what it is to be a multiple – it is what it is to be a human. This is what life is, beautiful and tragic. I’m not turning into a ‘recovered patient’. I’m no one else’s success story. I’m not always comfortable to be around. I’m not leaving anyone behind, or killing anyone, or carving anyone out of my system. I’m finally keeping regular sleep hours but without excluding the poets and night people all the time. (that’s still a big work in progress) We’re building a business and a life as a structure that protects what is vulnerable and precious and unique about us, instead of excludes it, relies on pretending it doesn’t happen, or exploits it. In a weird way, it feels like integration, without fusing us back to one. It feels like I’m finally figuring how to grow up without dying inside.

So much to tell you…




Wowee what a week! I have so much to tell you about!

Rose and I have just come back from a couple of days away in the bush, celebrating a friends birthday. It was a bit hectic fitting it around work (still doing too much work on my weekends) and only possible at all because kind friends came to our rescue last minute and dog-sat Zoe for us. 🙂 But we had the most wonderful time connecting with a new bunch of people. It’s often still so novel when we’re in a room full of queer families, we’re used to being ‘representative’ but in a space like this we weren’t the queer couple, we were the young couple among many other families queer or queer friendly, with kids already. Awww it was nice! Having conversations about donors with other people who have been there, being part of a beautiful little community of people navigating the complications and joy of rainbow families. The location was spectacular, with clear starry skies and kangaroos outside the windows. Rose and I feel so at home out in the scrub, and sharing meals and bathing kids in a tin by the fire, it was a wonderful taste of things to come. We fell asleep on the couch by the fire, watching the stars out the window, and soaked up the beautiful countryside on all the driving. We’re now planning to do something similar for Rose’s next big birthday – rent a large space somewhere beautiful and have friends and family visit us. It’s a sign of how much things have been changing for us that we can even consider spending money like that – Rose’s job has been a blessing and my business plans are looking hopeful!


Life continues to be whirlwind! I’ve written my first business proposal – for all my plans around freelance mental health work – and have just been accepted into the free Cert 4 in Business as part of the NEIS training – a government scheme to provide support to people receiving some form of welfare who wish to start a small business. I’m going to be doing my first online study, which is exciting because it will be a test run to see how well that format suits me… If well, then it opens the doors to finishing my psych degree or any other study that keeps my researcher part happy and not left to pick wallpaper off the walls. 😉

So this will take three months and overlap somewhat with the Cert 3 in Micro Business I already have. However I’m still keen because I’ve been finding that with all the work I’ve been doing lately on mindfulness and my anxiety levels, and having finally seen a tax accountant to get all my overdue paperwork sorted out, my mind is so much clearer and I am coping with and processing this kind of information so much better. I am gradually transforming into a business woman! It’s been a long, tiring, amazing, complicated process, but I am watching it happen. It takes a lot longer than people seem to think to regain mental space for skills like this after crisis and homelessness. I think the sexual health counselling also made a huge difference, in that I am feeling less out of my depth, less like these things are part of an adult world I don’t and can’t understand. I’m not corporate or comfortable with bureaucracy by nature, but I’m finally seeing past the bluster, the incomprehensible language, and really there is only a little man behind the curtain. For the first time in my life I am doing admin without panic attacks – in fact without even stress. I’ve had to rewrite my excel spreadsheets for expenses/income/profit and loss to accommodate changes recommended by the tax accountant, and although I could certainly think of more fun ways to spend my morning – and also appreciate friends who help trouble shoot for me!! – it wasn’t a big deal. Which is blowing my mind. I’ve also opened new bank accounts, started new systems for tracking receipts, and had possibly the most productive week in my life, lol.

I’ve overhauled my Glitter Tattoo kit and completely restructured how we store and display them at gigs – I had the change to test it a couple of times over the weekend and it WORKS so well! I’m enjoying the realisation that I am good at setting up systems that work and tweaking designs and procedures to make them easier and more efficient. I now have nearly 200 tattoo stencil designs that I use at gigs, which needed a very different set up from the 40 I started out with a year or two ago. It’s these little successes that make me feel so self-satisfied, ha haa. 🙂 And I’m thankful for that because it’s helped to buffer other moments this week where I’ve felt very vulnerable or disappointed, like my new little fish dying unexpectedly, or getting a stack of abuse from the member of an online support I volunteer admin. It’s amazing to shift from the glow of contentment to feeling so fragile and hurt, but I seem to be bending with the wind and bouncing back better.

I’ve also been doing a lot more to be aware of my system and cues that I haven’t been noticing. Such as picking up on when inner kids are close to the surface and my ability to be adult is fragmenting – before an actual switch. If I keep pushing and don’t pay attention to those needs – often around feeling vulnerable or bored – child parts naturally try to balance my adults who are all work and no play – then things get really hard. I keep working, I’m still adult and still able to reference an adult perspective but my needs and emotional responses become more and more child like and my capacity is reduced. It’s like revving the engine with the handbrake on, I do make progress but it’s ridiculously slow and frustrating and overall pretty damn hard on the car. Really, this whole mindfulness process is just taking my capacity for self awareness and extending it into all kinds of areas of my self and life I hadn’t thought to before… this is about moving out of that crisis functioning where you have to ignore limits and push right through them, and back into thriving in regular life, where the more sensitive and aware of your own cues, triggers, and needs you are, the more responsive you can be to them before you’ve pushed yourself into burnout, collapse, or internal war. It’s about listening to the small voices. Everything feels different with this sense of being tuned in. I don’t feel that horrible sense of being a machine anymore, with parts as cogs that turn, trapped and dehumanised. It feels like I remember it used to, back before diagnosis and self consciousness; a dance – spontaneous, responsive, beautiful. The system feels organic instead, something that lives and breathes and grows. It’s goddamn beautiful.

2014-06-26 07.52.33-1In other news, now have a dishwasher. I was super lucky and given one for free by friends of friends who found themselves with a spare. WOW. I have been in two big crunch spaces recently – handing up a semesters worth of assignments at art college, and doing tax, and my house is still reasonably clean and functioning – due entirely to this awesome machine. I can cook and trash the kitchen for dinner, then clean everything into the dishwasher and run it twice a week! No more back pain leaning over the sink, no more constant shame and frustration at the state of my house. I don’t actually have room for a dishwasher in my unit, so I’ve removed my washing machine and put it in the laundry. Going to the laundromat once a week is a nuisance, but far outweighed by the benefits! The energy I’m not using to stress about my dishes is being used to keep up with tidying, sweeping, cleaning the bathroom – or at the moment, mainly tax admin. I’m so happy about this!

Health wise it’s also been a busy week. I’ve seen a lot of specialists lately and that’s likely to continue for a little while yet. I’m coping okay with this! I have a sense of humour, I feel more in control of the process and less overwhelmed by memories of being vulnerable. Which is a massive turn around from the three week triggered spiral I went into after seeing the gastro-enterologist recently. The consensus has been that my sinus surgery IS needed and important and likely to help, and that I’m in good hands with that specialist. That’s a huge relief. Just to underline my awareness of the need, I have another sinus infection and feel like I’ve had a few good punches to the face again. Argh! I’ve had the astonishing rare experience of specialists including each other in their letters/advice, the TMJD dental specialist actually wrote not only to my referring dentist, but also to my GP, sinus specialist, and physiotherapist! I’ve been encouraged to go back to the physio, and use heat, massage, and stretches to manage the facial pain (when there isn’t active infection going on) which is great news for me as surgery or medication options will have large down sides with my liver. Basically I need to try to budget for physio type care in my business plans to keep me as well as possible and manage my pain levels better with all the work I’ve been doing. I also need a different car, preferably with power steering and a good heater/air conditioner. So there’s things to work on that don’t involve hospital/being a patient/being in pain/destroying my liver. Also continuing to look into more options for fun ways to exercise (Rose and I are starting trial classes in martial arts!) going on more walks with Zoe when I’m well enough, and cooking healthier foods.

My new book that teaches how to use In Design has arrived at last – I am going to set aside 1/2 a day a week to study it and learn how to lay out my own books for self publication. This morning I’m up blogging in my dressing gown while Rose catches up on sleep. The garden is beautiful, the animals are lively, I have friends visiting for afternoon tea, and I’m feeling on track and excited about life. It doesn’t get a lot better than this. 🙂 I may consider shifting my blogging schedule now that I’m working so actively on my books, I love and value sharing here but certainly can’t keep up with my daily posts. I may go to weekly, or do little photo-based updates instead of longer posts. I know that mostly it’s the mental health information that is so valuable to people, but it’s challenging to create that in book and blog form at the same time. Maybe I’ll just learn to be more concise. 😉 At any rate, chronic infections and tax notwithstanding, life is pretty awesome over here. I hope you are also feeling good to be alive and connected to yourself. 🙂


What is a man?

Happiness is trying on men’s clothes at a second hand shop with your queer girlfriend.

At least, that was yesterday’s definition over in my world.

Some multiples have parts who have a different sense of gender. I’ve touched on this before in About Transgender. This can be a challenge. We have one who doesn’t identify as male or female, but who doesn’t come out very much. We also have a couple of guys in a female – dominated system, and a female body. We’ve struggled with this. The neat and simple thing to do is to accept and welcome and move on with life. Some multiples manage this really well. We, for various reasons, haven’t. It’s not neat or simple or easy at all for us. Gender is a loaded concept for us, with lots of baggage. So we’ve suppressed and hoped we didn’t have to engage. Why have male parts? Why are they here? Why continue to be here? Can’t they let go of their sense of male identity? What is a male identity anyway? Why do they feel so different from our ‘tomboy’ parts, those who tend to reject the feminine while still feeling female. How do we create a safe space for them when most people don’t cope with parts on any level?

When we first started to make sense of the mutliplicity itself, we were so suspicious about it all. Like a lawyer, we attacked every aspect of it – how do I know I’m multiple? Have we invented it to please the shrink? Is it iatrogenic? Do we just want to be ‘special’? What if we’re mistaken? I find the same suspicion about the trans parts. Do you have to be this bloody complicated? Can’t you just all identify as female? Do you have to have recognition externally, isn’t it fine if people just think you’re butch? Aren’t you just trying to alienate yourself/piss off your father/prove something? Wouldn’t you have to let go of your sense of identity to integrate anyway? You’re holding us back. You’re making us vulnerable. Go away.

You’re not a real guy.

You’re not a real trans either.

There can be a powerful sense of being an imposter when you’re a trans part. I don’t belong to the trans community because I’m only a part. And most of my system is female and out a lot more than I am. We’re never going to transition. But what makes a guy, anyway? It can’t just be about bits. It can’t be about a bit of flesh in my hand, or being able to pee standing. It can’t just be hating my breasts and thinking I’m ugly and weak. It can’t be rejecting the feminine, I like poetry and reading and have a system full of women and girls I think of as my sisters. I’m not into misogyny or rejection. But I know being called a woman makes me angry enough to spit. I know that the thought of my girlfriend recoiling from me in fear or disgust makes me want to die. I know that I want to be a better man than my father. I know that the cultural ideas of masculinity seem like grotesque parodies of the tenderness and strength and complexity I admire in good men.

I now know that having Rose take me shopping to buy guy clothes, to laugh at the shop assistant who looked at us in disgust, to go home with a bag of trousers that are too long in the leg and tshirts with collars on them and guy shoes makes up for the glitter nail polish on our hands and the nose piercing and the way we are always identified as lesbians when we hold hands in public.

What makes one belief acceptable and another one psychotic? If I thought I was a rabbit or an astronaut instead of a guy, what then?

I’ll never forget watching a movie, many years ago. The main characters kiss. We switch back and forth, one moment the woman feeling his stubble graze her skin, another the man, tasting lipstick and the sweet drink on her breath. Co-consciousness can be mind bending at times.

I think of Jung’s ideas of anima and animus, the male and female aspect in all of us. I think of an old boyfriend, when I was young, pointing to the ground – here is male, and across from it is female. Then in a diagonal cross – and here I am, and here you are. Both and neither. Different but connected by our inability to relate entirely to one or the other. I remember borrowing his clothes to wear some days/

With suppression comes shame and loneliness. There’s been a kind of hope that without a place in the world, we would quietly unravel, unknit back to yarn, the raw stuff of self. Let go of shape and identity. It hasn’t worked. I can’t answer the question ‘Why am I here?’, but maybe I hold the key to some of the self hate. ‘What would you tell someone else in your situation?’ Rose asks me. Your approach isn’t working for you, try something else. 

It is what it is. There’s glitter on my nails. Rose holds my hand, unthreatened, unafraid. The words and labels are only ways to describe and explain things that are far deeper than words. She pays for a bag of clothes for us, makes a space in the world for us, tries to use the right pronouns. I’m part of a whole, and most of that is female. I refuse to be afraid of that.

What to do with a suicidal part

I am so damn tired. It’s been a rough week with a lot of stress in my head and the lives of a few of my close friends. On the upside, I have a lot more material for the part of my book that’s about managing overwhelming emotional pain… sigh. Silver linings!

One of my big stresses recently was a part becoming suicidal. This can be a huge issue for multiples! I get a lot of emails and contact from people who are struggling with one or more parts who are in absolute meltdown. Whole systems can fall apart under the stress, and processes which were fair or reasonable can become abusive and totalitarian.

Most people who have felt acutely suicidal have experienced that disjointed place of desperately wanting to die and being terrified of your own feelings and actions at the same time. It’s a profound conflict, an inner struggle that consumes all resources and leaves people utterly drained and deeply afraid of themselves. For multiples the struggle and the conflict can be more polarised and even more intense. Parts who don’t feel suicidal are often terrified of being killed – as far as they are concerned, not by suicide but murdered. Fear does not make us kind. We recoil, disconnect, and attack when we feel like our lives are being threatened. Systems can rapidly devolve into massive power struggles, and outright war with other parts trying to permanently suppress or annihilate suicidal parts. Child parts especially may become so terrorised that they dehumanise a suicidal part and see them as a witch, demon, monster, or other evil creature. Being trapped in a body/mind with a suicidal part can be very traumatic. Experiences of fear, horror, and helplessness may contribute to the development of severe trauma responses in other parts, including PTSD. As a suicidal part becomes increasingly attacked, dehumanised, and alienated from the rest of their system their despair usually intensifies, their behaviour becomes more dangerous, and the restraining factors of empathy, connection, and a sense of responsibility to the rest of their system are eroded. Sometimes this ends in catastrophe. The loss of anyone to suicide is utterly devastating. Having spoken with frightened, non suicidal children and other parts in the hours or days prior is almost unfathomable.

Versions of this dynamic tend to repeat themselves with parts who self-harm, have addictions, re-contact abusers, suffer eating disorders, or have other frightening and self destructive behaviours, with varying levels of intensity. There is no one magic fix for this situation, and different multiples manage it in many different ways. I can share some thoughts and ideas that I’ve found useful and you can possibly use them as a spring board to trial your own approaches.

My first observation is simple but important. When we are frightened, we will try to control. When we are frightened of someone, or some part, we will probably want to reject, dehumanise, and alienate them. It’s okay to have these impulses, they are human! It’s okay to feel everything this horribly stressful situation makes you feel – scared, frustrated, confused, angry, overwhelmed, defeated, hurt, exhausted, burdened… It’s a really hard place to be in. Some of your feelings are going to want to make you act in ways that will feel right but make the situation worse. You have every right to feel everything you’re feeling, but you need to be careful before acting on impulse.

Exactly the same goes for the suicidal part/s. You probably can’t make them stop feeling the way they do and rejecting their feelings and pain will probably intensify them. They have every right to be feeling the way they are, it’s their impulse to act on them that is the issue. I have one part who has a strong desire to self harm, and at least two who are very vulnerable to feeling suicidal. So how come I’m still here (touch wood)? My observation has been that parts who are at greatest risk of killing themselves are parts who:

  • misunderstand the nature of multiplicity and think they can kill the body without the rest of the system dying. This is pretty common and important to check with any suicidal part!
  • are disconnected from or rejected by their own systems and don’t feel empathy towards the other parts
  • are being abused by their own systems
  • are being abused by other people in their lives
  • are angry and resentful towards their own systems and deliberately seeking to frighten or punish
  • do not feel loved
  • do not feel hope, and feel responsible for finding a sense of hope for the whole system
  • have horrific roles within the system – for example, the part who remembers all the bad things, the part who feels all the shame, the part who acts out all the stress for the system, and so on
  • do not get their needs met
  • do not feel safe
  • feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame, believe they are evil, believe their death will protect someone or make the world a better or safer place

Obviously there are other risk factors too. Some of the protective factors I’ve found support suicidal parts are:

  • having a safe place or person to express their intense feelings without censoring or judgement by their systems – other parts often feel shame about these feelings and may refuse to allow a suicidal part to speak to a therapist, write honestly in a journal, and so on.
  • feel a sense of connection and love from their systems. They work together as a team to manage the feelings and impulses. Their system expresses empathy for their situation, and they can feel empathy for the situation their feeling puts other parts in
  • understand that suicide will kill everyone in their system
  • are able to allow other parts or people to find or create hope in their lives, accept support from others
  • are able to negotiate some role changes when needed
  • are given respite from demands of life. eg. when out, these parts are allowed to stay in bed, email the therapist, not leave the house etc, or they are willingly switched back inside if functioning is needed that day
  • are willing to compromise on ‘needs’ – so eg if the intense experience is a ‘need’ to cut, they work with their system to find alternatives that sate that need somewhat, such as Ink not Blood.
  • are treated with respect and gratitude for their role
  • are treated as though they are important, valuable, significant members of the system

As you can hear, a lot of this is about relationship. This kind of connection takes more than an afternoon to build, and for a system under such extreme stress it’s a hell of an ask. On the other hand, it could save your life. In my experience there’s usually one member at least who is able to connect and empathise better with a suicidal part, and it can become their role in the early stages to intervene on behalf of a suicidal part and the rest of the system (assuming a system of more than two parts). Part of the basis for this can be realising that there is a lot more common ground to your situation than it seems at first. Suicidal and non-suicidal parts are both often feeling trapped, stressed, scared, overwhelmed, and unhappy. If you keep seeing the problem as being the suicidal part, all your reactions and solutions will be about controlling or eliminating them. If you can see the problem as the experience of being suicidal, you can approach the part with more empathy and team up with them to help manage that experience. Here are a few approaches that people sometimes find helpful:

  • directly influencing a part’s feelings, memories, or autonomy. Some systems or parts can do this, some can’t. Sometimes you can directly engage to dial down intense emotions, shift who is ‘keeping’ bad memories – perhaps spread the load a little more evenly, or keep a part inside in lockdown while they are a danger.
  • engaging suicide on a symbolic level such as allowing a part to ‘exit’ from life, refuse to come out, disengage from relationships, change their name and so on
  • killing or supporting the part to die without affecting the body. Some systems can do this, some cannot. There are complex ethical concerns here that suggest this as an option of last resort.
  • containing the part except for safe locations – eg. hospital, in therapy, in a ‘safe’ place where they can express feelings (safe is dependant on their likely methods of suicide – it may be an empty beach if drowning does not appeal, or a craft room if scissors are not a concern, etc)
  • increasing the part’s dissociation so they are buffered from their intense feelings and less likely to act on them. eg. sometimes if a suicidal part is close to the surface whoever is out in my system will trigger dissociation by surfing the net, watching tv, sitting in the bath, anything that makes us ‘zone out’ until we feel safer
  • comforting the part internally by doing things such as hugging them, talking to them gently, singing to them, making a safe nurturing space for them internally (not all multiples have internal worlds, and not all multiples can communicate internally)
  • take on the parts’ unmet needs as problems the whole system needs to engage and manage. eg. if they need better social support the whole system works on building stronger supportive friendships or finding a good support group online, or if they need a musical outlet the system works together to save money for an instrument and lessons. Take the burden of solving problems, finding hope, and meeting needs away from the part who isn’t coping.
  • explain the part in non-frightening ways to scared system members such as children. Humanise them and help to develop empathy towards them. Sometimes kids will have the most profound and effective connections with deeply wounded parts.
  • make the most of the multiple experience of never really being alone. Support and be with each other.
  • stagger behaviour in order from least to most harm done. If an extremely bad night is going to be survived only with self harm then better that then death. I write more about this kind of approach in ‘Feeling Chronically Suicidal‘.
  • merge or fuse a suicidal part with a hopeful or naively optomistic part to create a more balanced single part from them both
  • try taking a caring, invested, parental approach to a suicidal part. Coax, coach, nurture, and set limits with them
  • understanding and affirming that no systems are invulnerable without also being psychopathic. Part of what it means to be human is our capacity to feel shame, suffering, and hopelessness. We also have the capacity to heal. Most people who survive a suicide attempt later feel far better and are relieved they did not die. I’ve no reason to think that parts are fundamentally different. Keep these things in mind if killing or otherwise removing a suicidal part is your intention, there may be unintended consequences assuming you are successful.

In some ways, what helps suicidal parts is pretty much what helps anyone. Other approaches are more specific to being multiple. Some of these ideas may seem increibly far away or even impossible for you, especially if your system is at war. Please be assured that even small steps make huge differences. Little gestures of compassion or connection can start turning everything around. Only you and your system can find what works best for you, and only you can decide your own take on the values and ethics with which you will engage these very challenging situations. Please be assured that you are certainly not alone in these struggles, and that it possible to live with suicidal part/s. Wishing you all the very best.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.


Yesterday was an extraordinary day. The pain has eased, not that in my body, but the soul pain that was driving me insane. I can breathe again, the phrase was like heart beating in my mind, over and over. Monday is art college day. We always learn something, no matter how sick or exhausted or in pain, no matter the occasional tutor who drives me up the wall, or the frustration of ‘concept development’ invading every class I have loved. Today I painted with oil washes for the first time, creating a likeness of a small creature I first crafted from newspaper:




I’ve never worked with oils, inks, and charcoal in the same painting before. I like him.

In photography class I talked with my painting tutor about our project topic – identity. I had been exploring pain, disability, illness, public and private selves. We talked openly about being multiple but that we did not want to explore that in a crass way for the project. The reductionism of the assumptions about identity grated, people were making their sense of self down to lists of attributes, to collections of likes and dislikes. I am not these things, I argued. The tutor said self is a synthesis of these things. I said no. If you ask me to photograph my self, I want to photograph my soul.

We switched, away from madness and suffering and despair, away from the futile rage. Tonight Rose and I ate dinner on the beach, watching the planes fly in over the water. My heart cane back, my dark heart, my poet, my one who eats pain and is not driven mad. All the world shifted and there was no despair any longer, no anguish. The night sang, sweet and wild and beautiful. I thought about so many people being driven mad by pain, trying to learn how to eat it. I thought about how the life that distracts me, the pain that prevents me from making art is not a distraction but is the subject of art, something I understand intimately. That things of which I’m ashamed, like my need for wrist poems, are places where art keeps me alive, where art gives me unscarred skin. And here, on this blog, it’s where I tear down my public image, over and over, before it crushes me. Where I search constantly for the truth of my own story, for my humanity.

Tonight the shackles fell away, and I was alive, and free as anyone can be. It won’t last, but then, what does? I don’t need it to. It is enough to drink the night and hear the ocean and breathe the stars and smell the skin of my lover, her hair like jasmine and her mouth like roses. Everything can be broken and wrong and heart full of grief and body of pain and still there is this place in the night, beyond fear, where something within you can fly if you remember how. I hope you know it too.

It’s my birthday!

I often struggle around my birthday, but fortunately Rose is very good at celebrations so I’m getting spoiled. We usually get badly depressed this time of year, but with some extra loving and being the other side of 30, it hasn’t been intense this year. Plus my life has gone through so many changes over the past month that my head is still spinning, a birthday hasn’t really had a look in. I’ve finished my working week, which was painting at the Zoo again, good work but painful. Last night was dinner and cards and chocolates with friends, a good laugh as always and just what I needed after a hard week.

Today is presents and breakfast in bed, a trip to the plaster fun house for my kidlets, and a campfire with friends around tonight. There will be baked potatoes and chocolate pudding and hot spiced mead and bunting in the trees. We’re a bit excited! We might be going out dancing at the local goth club tonight too. One or two of us who just freak out have had some time to write in the middle of the night and hide out. Birthdays can be complex when you’re multiple!

Tomorrow Rose is whisking us away on a surprise holiday to I don’t know where. I love trips and I love surprises so this is pretty special. People are looking after my animals while we’re gone. I used to be so lonely and miserable on my birthdays, a hang over from years without friends. Now my world is taking good care of me, and I’m very lucky.

Recovery & contradictions

I’ve found something I love now that this blog is nearly three years old. I’ve written enough to be able to take some of my earlier articles and write the shadow article, the contradictions. For me, a huge aspect of being multiple is that there is so often more than one reaction or opinion going on. I have to clarify my thoughts to be able to share them, here or in my work or relationships. Often this process over simplifies, it strips back complex concepts to a simple one. There’s huge value in this, especially for people who are in crisis or new to a field of information. They need somewhere to start, something that can be easily grasped hold of. But it gives me such a shiver of delight to be able to go back and contradict myself, to write in the shadows cast by all these ideas. Grounding techniques can be the most amazing tools for managing chronic dissociation and trauma issues. They can also be completely and utterly the wrong approach at times. Sometimes you do not need to be more grounded, more adult, more sane, more sensible and responsible, more a creature of the day. Sometimes the screaming and the madness are because the night is calling you and your spirit needs to fly. Sometimes it is not that you are too dissociated, but that you are not dissociated enough. Sometimes you need less safety and more adventure.

In the talk about recovery I give at Tafe, I usually point to a number of contradictions in my story, precisely because they are so commonly overlooked and reduced to a single, simpler story. I mention several in particular –

    • My childhood was terrible/my childhood was wonderful
    • Dissociation takes away from my life/dissociation protects my life
    • I am vulnerable/I am resilient
    • I need help/I can offer help to others

Each of these things is true, I say. And yet so often one obliterates the other. One story hides the other in its shadow. They are posited as ‘either/or’ facts when they are ‘and’. My childhood was both terrible and wonderful. So often when we talk about recovery, we hear a story arc that goes – Things got hard, I got sick, I found help, I recovered. Recovery is an endpoint where madness is no longer welcome. We do not talk any more about agony. There is a bizarre idea – totally at odds with my experience of life – that mentally healthy people do not suffer pain. Wildness is gone. The contradictions are all neatly ironed out, no more wrestling with doubt. Everything makes sense and all the loose ends are tied.

The human experience is so complex and strange. I like the contradictions and I’m suspicious of stories that don’t have any. Within contradictions I find an honest reflection of life; of the magnificent beauty, the breath taking, heart rending love, the horror, anguish, and misery of what it is to be alive. To love vulnerable and flawed people, to have dreams and watch some of them die, to struggle and succeed and fail and find that life is complex and unexpected. This is what it is to be human. Recovery as an idea, if it is to have any worth, must embrace that complexity rather than shrink from it. It cannot be a whitewashed place of pretending that we no longer bleed when pricked. That is a trap in which peer workers, those who’s very jobs depend on their capacity to prove they have ‘recovered’, will starve.

So, we have the idea, and the shadow of the idea. To be able to pick it up, turn it over, look beneath it, scrape the soil from the underside and smell the cold night scent of it, this is what I love. I built theories and frameworks and ideas and I love to do this. It helps me, like navigating the night by the pattern of the stars. I love to take masses of complex, unrelated information, break them down, and put them next to each other to see what happens. I love building ideas. And I love knocking them over, not treating them as sacred, not being scared of the truths in the shadows. I believe with my whole heart in the work that I do, and I love it down to my bones. But it’s not a house of cards that a contrary wind can blow over. They are stones in the palm of my hand. They are boulders on which I can stand. They reveal a truth, and they conceal another truth. I make them and I love them and I love the shadow beneath them. Life is not meant to be a neat, comforting story. In the contradictions are the depth and beauty. People are not meant to be so recovered that they walk without touching the ground, with no shadow, no dark uncertainty, no hint of wild abandon. We should not abandon complexity and uncertainty to territory marked ‘sickness’, ‘madness’ or ‘here be dragons’. Contradictions are also part of health, freedom, and love, an essential part of what it is to be human and to be alive.

About Growing Up

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Some people with multiplicity point to key experiences such as wishing whatever was happening, was happening to someone else. I’ve never been able to relate to that. But the idea of not wanting to grow up? Oh yes. And what better way to achieve that then splitting off child parts and forming more parts when circumstances required new skills?

There was not a single adult in my world I envied. No one whose life I wanted to have. What I saw around me was a lot of pain and loneliness. Often they didn’t even seen to be aware how unhappy they were, but for me it was painfully visible. I could smell it on the air, feel it in my chest. An empathic child, I felt the cast off emotions and denied anguish of everyone around me. I felt stuck, in a body growing older, when there was nowhere I wanted to grow to. Perceptiveness can be lethal. I saw, and understood, far more than I could emotionally process. I was constantly caught between the dark and the light, between the way everything seemed to be on the surface, and the underworld. A good loving family, and the constant threat of violence. An upright private school, and the casualty list of victims too underprivileged to be worth protecting from the bullies.

Adults close to me had their own issues with the adult world. One told me that the process of growing up kills your spirit. Adults don’t play anymore, don’t climb trees on the way to work. They’re numb. I promised myself I wouldn’t turn into an adult. Another told me how children are innocent but adults lose this. In Sunday School we were told stories about children who could ask the challenging questions of hurt and angry adults, and be heard, where another adult would have been shut out. Many used me as a secret keeper. I heard horror stories that many had shared with no other person. I became tasked with this impossible goal, of not growing up, by adults who were mourning their own lost inner children. I tried very hard to comply. I kept the secrets of my peers also, even those who bullied me. I was steeped in the knowledge of unspoken pain.

“Adults are the corpses of children.”

Oddly enough, I was expected to function at an adult level at a very young age. For an oldest child in a family under massive stress, this isn’t an unusual story. Not all of that was a bad thing. But some of it hurt. Some of it was lying in the dark at night, afraid of the shadows, because I was now too big a kid to have a light on. Some of it was lonely and overwhelming, heavy burdens of expectations and responsibly.

I grew up surrounded by the myth of the Golden Age of Childhood. Constantly being told these were the best years of your life. I swore to myself never to rewrite my history and pretend this had been the case for me. I lived in this surreal world where everyone was locked away with their private pain, where everyone pretended there was no war and no dead bodies. It was like being able to see blood all over the walls and no one else acknowledging it was there.

A boy stalked me when I was 14. He was profoundly distressed, suicidal, and self harming. When I sought help for him from the head of our school department, I encountered endemic denial. The boy had started coming to school with extensive fresh injuries on his arms from cutting. I begged the head teacher to intervene. He asked the boy how he received the injuries. He reported back to me that they were ‘from falling into a rose bush’. I cried and said you know that’s not true! The teacher said well there’s nothing else we can do, with the relief of an adult out of their depth who has been allowed to keep running with the easier cover story. You could scream for help very, very loudly in my world without anyone hearing.

My peers were not the same. They yearned for adulthood. They craved power, freedom, and sex. Impatient with childhood, they raced towards an adult world that contained everything they desired and were denied. This difference became a rapidly widening gulf between us, bigger every year.

My sexual development was screwed up by weird attitudes, secrets, teachings, and abuse. I feared my own desires. I feared power and corruption. I had no illusions about the freedoms of adulthood. The only freedom I craved and lived for was to leave school. Responsibility and failure weighed heavily upon me.

I’m 30 now, undeniably an adult, at least physically. I have child parts, and sometimes I think they are the best of us. We have on some levels, admirably succeeded in our attempts to not grow up. It has been a painful mess. Sometimes I think that child in an adult body is one of the loneliest creatures in existence. My little 5 year old would sometimes just switch out and sit alone on the couch, waiting. She was hungry and wanted ice cream, but kids aren’t allowed to open the freezer so she would just wait for a grown up to come and help her. I live alone, no one was coming. I feel them yearning in me when we pass children at the park. When I read about a multiple giving a box of crayons as a gift to another newly diagnosed, a great desire leaped in my heart. It was another year before I was brave enough to buy crayons for us.

So here I am, painfully suspended between the worlds of child and adult. There’s so many ideas to untangle. That adults live in the ‘real world’. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fit myself to that real world – the world of admin and responsibility and success and bills that need paying. I also keep rebelling against my own goals, switching in the rain, running away from my own life. I’m starting to develop new ideas. I’m starting to think that perhaps the task of all adults – multiples and otherwise – is to love and look after their own inner children. I’m starting to think that there is no ‘real world’, that the real world is just as much a dream as any other. When I live in a caravan, what am I ‘really’? White trash or a gypsy dreamer? Adults get together and dream up their version of what reality is, of what love is, and what success is. I think my idea of the real world is a nightmare. A bad dream, dreamed by a lot of hurting adults with very lost and lonely inner children. It’s not even about success, when I look at some of the ‘successful’ people I admire – like Amanda Palmer – she doesn’t live in the real world! Oh, she does admin and pays her bills, but only as a means to ends, not as a goal in themselves. They are the poles that keep up the tent in which the magic happens. The magic is the real world, the creating and adventuring and connecting and being uniquely oneself.

I’m starting to dream new dreams of adulthood that don’t scare me so much. Some days I have the most glorious glimpse of life as a mother who is very imperfect, who is sick and strange and full of dark art. And I see her painting the kids to be dinosaurs and chasing them round the yard. There’s joy and freedom and silliness. There’s a different world, that has nothing to do with the real, nothing to do with adults who are dead on the inside.

Rose and I have both been so sick this week, and yet, when I let go of the idea of what we should be doing and how I expect this to play out, something magic happens. The day becomes infinity. I’m captured by the fall of the light through the curtains, by the colour of the skirts of leaves, by the warmth of her skin, the feel of ice water in my mouth, watching the kitten chew the dog’s foot and laying back to laugh. What was a wasted day, a sick day, a day in which nothing good would happen, a day to be endured as I wait to get back to the real world, becomes the most beautiful day of my week. I read lovely books and slip in and out pain and sleep and let go of the driving and the haunting sense of failure and I am given back the most beautiful day.


Maybe crisis was the best thing that could have happened

Sometimes when I’m working with other multiples who are in crisis and feeling overwhelmed by their internal chaos and frightened and frustrated by their parts, I think to myself that discovering I have parts and then going through a few years of crisis might have been the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s a weird thought, because if I could take back years of homelessness, isolation, confusion, and pain, I would in a heartbeat. And yet, it provided an odd protection for me. I rallied, or rather, we rallied. To survive. And the thing we protected ourselves from, most of all, was a story about what it means to be multiple that would have crippled us.

I recall, back when I was working with a MH PHaMs worker, her sending around emails trying to find me a psychiatrist to work with. At my request she was asking for someone willing with to work with a person with DID without trying to integrate them at this stage. At the time I was homeless, caring for someone who was suicidal and often in hospital, highly vulnerable and under horrific stress. I was well aware that having parts was greatly helping me. While some parts were burning out, others would step up and take on our very complicated and painful life. We were running a complex relay where infighting and conflicts gradually made way for a deep mutual respect.

Like a platoon of soldiers in an appalling conflict, we started to bond. We started to realise how deeply we relied on each other, that we were all in this together, even the ‘crazy’ ones you would never have befriended back home, even the ‘useless’ ones you would never have chosen to have by your side in a war. You fought for them, you protected them, you demanded their respect, simply because they were your platoon. We might hate each other, we might not understand each other at all, we might be very, very different from each other, but we’re fighting the same war. We’re mates. So you don’t steal each other’s rations. You don’t play mind games with each other. You might yell sometimes. You might hold your hand over the mouth of the one who won’t stop crying, just until the enemy pass by. You might hit them when they bite you. But then you say sorry and you tussle their hair and when you find a box of pencils you save them for them.

Maybe over time you find they’re not as crazy as you thought. Maybe you find that when you’re kind to them they don’t cry so much and don’t screw things up so much. Maybe you get to the point where you can let them sleep next to you and when they can’t sleep for the nightmares, you sing a little to them. Maybe someday an old story comes out about them, about how they were in the war long before you, back in the early days. About how brave they were and how broken they were, and you realise that really, they were protecting you, all along. They look like crazy kids because they were young and they got hurt early and being brave wasn’t enough, and their army wasn’t big enough to win. So you hate them a little less and you make sure they get a bowl of soup when there’s soup to be had. It’s hard to be disgusted by someone, however weird, when you find out they’ve saved your life. Things change, they have to.

I was lucky because the war was still going on, so I didn’t see my parts as the enemy. They weren’t destroying my life, outside forces were still doing that. They were still trying to keep us alive. So the story never really fit me – this ‘once having parts was helping you but now it’s messing everything up’ story. I know it fits other people, but it didn’t fit us. We couldn’t afford to have our most useful way of managing crises removed from us while we were still in crisis. And we really couldn’t afford to abdicate responsibility to a shrink. So the ‘you must have weekly therapy for years to manage DID’ story didn’t fit well either. Most people couldn’t manage what I was managing, and most shrinks were rapidly out of their depth too. Some just denied the DID or laid the chaos at my feet – your life is a mess, you must be borderline. Which is a lovely cop out for the brutal reality that life can be extremely bloody hard at times, and sometimes that’s just bad luck. Some laid the mess at the feet of the DID – you will always be lonely and chaotic while you have it, you need to integrate as rapidly as possible. But I was watching friends and family burn out and fall away, where I could keep going. I was doing the impossible, every day. I could switch instead of freeze and face down the most violent and frightening person in my life – someone I had never seen anyone stand up to, someone who scared even the therapist. And I could do this because we were parts, separate, because we could switch to whoever had the most useful approach. I simply couldn’t deny the reality that having parts was currently keeping me alive.

So I had to build different stories. And the more I looked, the more I realised how narrow the old stories are. There are so many people they don’t fit. There are so many people who get lost in this idea that someone else – a shrink – is the best person to lead their lives, because they are broken and damaged. There are so many people trying to figure out their parts and fit them into frameworks of ANP’s or ISP’s or Protectors, and in such fear and pain when they don’t fit. When the stories fit they can be so liberating – someone else knows what I’m going through! But even then, they obscure. There is such uniqueness to each person. I have heard hundreds of stories of multiplicity and YES of course I tell people ‘such and such is common!’ when they feel crazy and scared, but I also constantly want to honour the diversity. Each story is so unique. And I’m so sad at the long, painful, tortured road so many people seem to have to take through years of treatment to get to a place that crises got me to so quickly – I’m blessed.

Even my most dysfunctional parts are trying to help us survive. That love is the best way to engage a system. That I’m not crazy or broken, or at least, no more so than anyone else. I can’t helping thinking how much quicker and less painful this road is if you don’t start with stories about sickness, brokenness, needing other people to help you survive. Maybe this is what happens, all over the world, in places where they’ve never heard of psychiatry. Maybe this is what happens to thousands of people who don’t quite meet the criteria for DID and never get that diagnosis, as they come out the other side of crisis and take stock. There are so many stories about multiplicity we never hear.

I’m not anti-integration! One of my favourite lines is from The Flock, saying that perhaps it will happen when and if it is supposed to. I have personally approached it, initially with great enthusiasm, and now with caution. I don’t see it as my goal. If it happens as a by-product of my living and healing, how wonderful! If it does not, how wonderful! Life is a strange and amazing thing. There is no one road, we all walk our own. But certainly, sometimes, when I’m listening to people taking on the standard stories about multiplicity, framing it as an illness, seeing their parts as the problem instead of their inexperience, self hate, or trauma as the problem, I’m so sad! It seems I was lucky that life gave me another kick in the teeth just after I was working this out, because it sure has helped us work together. It’s an odd thing to wish for someone else, especially someone already struggling, and it’s not really true. I don’t wish crises or suffering on others, but I do wish they have the chance to write new stories.

Most of all, I want people to be free from other people telling their stories for them! I want people to be free not to fit themselves into other people’s frameworks, but to find their own. I want them to have the chance to greet the possibility they have parts with courage and love and joy, instead of stories of terror, loss, and suffering. It all rather reminds me of a strange old prayer:

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger,
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection,
Starvation and war.
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain to joy. 

And may God bless you with enough foolishness,
To believe that you may make a difference in this world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Dissociation is a super power

“Please tell me there is an bright side to dissociation“. Someone found my blog the other day by searching for this phrase. It makes me ache with frustration and sadness!

Of course there is a bright side! There are so, so many bright sides. They get lost when we talk about illness, disability, deficits. When we share the ‘once it was helpful but now it’s a problem’ story. When we collapse a whole life into a single, painful narrative of difference and limitations. Dissociation can be horrific and devastating and I don’t make light of it or of the suffering people experience. But this isn’t the whole story! Let’s start talking about bright sides, shall we?

Not all dissociation is pathological

Dissociation has been broadly defined. This means a LOT of highly valuable, important skills are being included in the category. Some level of capacity to dissociate, when it is broadly defined like this, is actually essential in our ability to function. Disconnecting from things is helpful in our ability to focus. People who struggle to damp down any of their sensory input are overwhelmed and highly distracted by it. Being able to put aside most of the input (the sound of a fly buzzing, the prickly feeling of rough socks, the worry about your friend who isn’t talking to you, the slightly sick feeling after drinking too much water) to focus on something important, like an exam, is very helpful!

People who are struggling with severe and chronic dissociation, the kind that leaves you numb, confused, lost, unable to feel, taste, touch, smell, or remember the faces of the people you love, often think of these kinds of dissociation as existing on the other side of a continuum of health. That once they’ve got the ‘bad’ dissociation under control, and they’re back to ‘normal’, maybe then they will get to experience some of the good kinds.

I disagree. Those of us who are drowning in the kinds of dissociation that takes away instead of enhances our lives are closer to the useful kinds of dissociation than many regular people. We are well versed in it, we are used to it, we have a huge aptitude for it, and often we are only drowning in it now because we once stumbled across it as something incredibly helpful. Do we need skills other than dissociation to navigate life? Certainly! Does depending on dissociation exclusively leave us uneven and struggling? Of course. But, sometimes when I’m talking to people who are absolutely overwhelmed by intense dissociation, I talk about dissociation as a super power. Sometimes working on reducing it through grounding techniques and trigger management just isn’t working. Sometimes the first step is to learn how to live with it better, how to use it to your advantage, how to stop hating it and feeling destroyed by it. Sometimes we need to become better at being dissociative, rather than less dissociative.

We are so used to this idea that dissociation is bad. We are so used to this idea that our minds are damaged and broken, and that we need expert intervention to help us be more normal and functioning. Dissociation can be a terrible thing. But it can also be a gift.

  • Dissociation can be learning self hypnosis to turn off your experience of pain during a dental visit.
  • Dissociation can be letting go of the bad memories for awhile so you can have new experiences.
  • Dissociation can be the ability to attend uni and study despite homelessness and self harm and carer responsibilities and your dog dying.
  • Dissociation can be discovering that you have a part who has not experienced any of the loss or heartache, a part who loves like their heart has never been broken, who hopes and dreams and cares and helps to lead your whole system to better places.
  • Dissociation can be sobbing into the night, overwhelmed with grief at the loss of your child, and still being able to get up the next day to hug and cook breakfast for your other child.
  • Dissociation can be disconnecting from the panic and terror and the overwhelming smell of blood to be able to help out at the car accident.
  • Dissociation can be laying in her arms and touching her face and feeling the minutes stretch out to whole days, to years that you’ve lain here like this, alone together with no world intruding.
  • Dissociation can be not noticing you haven’t eaten all day because the book you’re reading is absolutely brilliant and captivating and you can see all the characters in your mind and hear them talking to each other and at night you dream about them.
  • Dissociation can be walking away from every cruel and unkind thing ever said about you and finding new ways to think about yourself.
  • Dissociation can be having other parts to ask for help, not being alone anymore through any of the hard things.
  • Dissociation can be a four year old inside singing you to sleep when you’re lying awake worrying about the world.
  • Dissociation can be going numb when you’re feeling suicidal.
  • Dissociation can be reliving the most wonderful, exciting, hopeful, inspiring moments of your life as if they happened this morning.
  • Dissociation can be smelling a perfume and vividly remembering your Grandma’s garden and the feel of her hugs.
  • Dissociation can be having a conversation on the phone with a sick friend, getting the lunch boxes packed, finding your shoes, filling up the cat food bowl, helping knot a tie, and getting out of the house on time to catch the bus.
  • Dissociation can be the way, for just a moment, while you’re swimming, or drawing, or listening to your favourite music, or watching him play, everything in the whole world is okay.
  • The ability to compartmentalise is what helps us to do our best in a situation. For a doctor to concentrate on a patients needs even though their marriage is rocky and they’re stressed and anxious about it.
  • Dissociation can be part of the experience of artists who lose time when they paint, and athletes who forget they are tired when they’re running, and happy nerds who don’t notice someone calling their name when they’re lost in a good book.
  • Dissociation can be about mindfulness. The ability to be captured by the movement of the breeze in the lavender bush, to taste every drop of beer and be immersed in the smell and laughter of other humans.

You can learn how to use your dissociation. If you can turn it on, you can turn it off again. You can learn how to trigger it, how to use anchors, how to dial it up and down, how to go with the flow. When to trust it, when to shape it, when to learn other skills. We have so much to learn! Something that can help you put aside overwhelming feelings, or not feel physical pain is simply amazing! We have this idea that you have to lose all of those things in order to be well, in order to not be overwhelmed by dissociation in a way that steals life. Maybe this is true for some of us. But I’d caution making that assumption for everyone. And if you’re stuck (at least for now) with some of the downsides of being highly dissociative, why not at least explore the upsides? Maybe we don’t overcome everything by fighting it.

There’s balances. My experience has been that using dissociation as a blunt instrument for every purpose has great costs. Choosing not to feel all the painful feelings often costs you all the wonderful ones as well. Containment often works better than suppression. Being guided by your own needs rather than imposing a schedule or ideas from outside. But if I told you that some people can choose not to feel pain when they’re injured, not to remember awful memories when they are busy getting out of that life, that some people still watch movies like little kids do, where the characters are real and make them cry, that some people find that doing their favourite thing in the world makes time stretch into something approaching infinity… you wouldn’t tell me these people are sick, you’d say they have super powers.

When Multiplicity doesn’t protect us

For most of us who come to multiplicity by way of trauma such as abuse, neglect, bullying, or chronic pain, we’re familiar with the idea of multiplicity as a creative defence mechanism, something that helped us to survive. This can be a powerful re-framing of the idea of multiplicity as an illness, and very helpful! For some people it’s not all of the story. In some ways, multiplicity can make you more vulnerable to harm.

Many of us with multiplicity start out with no idea that we have parts, either we lose time due to amnesia, or experience the world through the hazy confusion of co consciousness. For many of us, the dissociation is highly functional, breaking up information and containing it in ways that help us to manage life, and allowing us to adapt simultaneously to a variety of different environments with very different social requirements. We have found a way of growing and navigating life that works for us, even if we are completely oblivious to it.

I’ve been talking lately about how powerful triggers and anchors can be for people with parts, but it needs to be said that they can also be abused. Even when the multiplicity is hidden or unknown, sometimes abusive people figure out by accident or instinct that certain things will keep a compliant part out, or trigger a part who discredits themselves to other people. They may not interprete these things using a ‘multiple’ framework and language, but they stumble across triggers and anchors and use them to their own ends. It’s worth mentioning that these factors are at play for people who don’t have parts too, in that all people are vulnerable to things like finding they are more submissive in certain settings, or more likely to act out when treated certain ways. But it can be devastating when dissociative barriers prevent a person from being able to access memories or skill sets to help them protect themselves. This can be the catastrophic downside to multiplicity as a protective mechanism.

Sometimes harm is done with no intent to harm. Triggers may be avoided or used unintentionally by family or friends who tell a person with parts that  ‘You’re not yourself today’ when they switch to a part their family doesn’t get along with. Sometimes others may learn to fear certain triggers such as what happens when the person gets drunk, or listens to certain music, and switches to a part who’s disoriented or aggressive. People with parts can find themselves under a constant subtle pressure to keep out the parts other people like, get along with, or find easy to manage. Other parts can spend many years trapped inside and be frozen at certain stages of development, never getting the chance to hone crucial social skills, tell their stories, use their talents, or connect empathically with other people. This can leave systems extremely uneven in their ability to function and their experience and expectations of the world. Systems can easily become polarised into the compliant parts and rebellious parts. Sometimes therapy can also play into this dynamic where the parts that the therapist relates to or finds easiest to get along with get to have key roles, while other parts are excluded, supressed, ‘fused’, ‘integrated’, put into lockdown, or convinced they are no longer needed and have no further role to play in life. (that’s not to suggest that these approaches are never useful or necessary)

Self awareness can make a huge difference for people with parts. Understanding that you have parts can be tremendously helpful in buffering the issues that multiples in a non-multiple world can have. Whether it’s someone saying that they like this artwork/outfit/meal better than that one – and inadvertently hurting the feelings of the part who worked on the less well received item, the frustration of losing skills and abilities as parts surface and go away again, or simply the phenomenal daily challenges posed by differences between parts as large as gender or sexual orientation, or as seemingly small as the part who does the grocery shopping love oranges and yoghurt and never buys any bread even though the rest of the parts love toast for breakfast and never eat oranges. Knowing why you have conversations in your head, 4 different opinions about almost everything, why you can be feeling happy, sad, bored, and curious all at the same time, or for that matter, hot, cold, scared, and sleepy… can help make a lot of sense of what has just been one more bizarre and confusing experience.

However, awareness alone is not sufficient for protection. Awareness of multiplicity can make you vulnerable through exposure to the massive stigma about these experiences. People’s relationships and jobs can be at risk if they are outed. There’s also a vulnerability in inheriting a whole stack of rigid ideas about what it means to multiple, for example when people are told that their systems must have a certain number or type of parts, or that they will inevitably remember horrific abuse, or that therapy is essential, long term, and extraordinarily painful. People can be vulnerable due to the language of symptoms where the number of parts, degree of dissociation, or level of incapacity is used as a measure for the severity of pain and worthiness of support of the person. People can also be vulnerable when multiple communities behave in alienating ways, such as being overly concerned with ‘faked DID’. Sometimes people find that their systems are overly fluid, or overly rigid and fixed in ways that make growth and adapting to new circumstances extremely difficult. The dissociation can limit the healing effect of positive life circumstances and loving relationships.

There can also be vulnerabilities in other people being aware of a person’s multiplicity. Sometimes abusive people use multiplicity against a person. This can happen with children who are being poorly treated, but adults can also be vulnerable. For example, people with parts who are in abusive relationships can have horrific experiences such as having a young part who has previously been abused being triggered during sex for the titillation of their partner. Multiplicity can be magnificent and protective, but it can also be devastatingly vulnerable. People with parts who find that their multiplicity is not effective to protect them from abuse or trauma may become extremely fluid, chaotic, poly-fragmented, or build massive numbers of parts. (this is not the only reason systems can function in these ways!) Systems that have experienced this kind of harm can be like labyrinths designed to confuse and hide essential information from an abuser or series of abusers who have discovered how to use the dissociation to their own advantage. Often this design also confuses therapists and the person with parts, and can frighten and overwhelm those who are seeking to understand, map, and make sense of themselves. Realising that confusion is the intention and that it serves a very important purpose can be a valuable first step in learning to love an inner labyrinth. Understanding triggers and anchors and knowing how to use them can be a powerful way of ensuring that abusive people cannot use them against you.

Known multiplicity can also be interpreted in ways that are harmful. For example, some people are put through traumatic exorcisms to get rid of parts who have been understood as spirits or demons. People with parts who have different gender identities have accessed trans support services that haven’t considered multiplicity as a possibility and have unintentionally suppressed and rejected all the parts of one gender. Multiplicity can be misdiagnosed and mistreated, for example if it’s seen as schizophrenia treatment may concentrate on keeping the person lucid and stopping the voices via medication – which can translate to tranquilising the person until they can’t hear their parts, and trying to prevent switching. Some people have accessed therapy that has interpreted and navigated their multiplicity in ways that they later come to believe was deeply harmful.

Multiplicity can also make you more vulnerable alienation, loneliness, and self hate. These are simply things that everyone without a peer group is vulnerable to. For people who don’t have parts, there’s often something strange and fascinating about the idea. What it can be difficult to understand is just how strange people without parts can seem to those of us who have them. This is our ‘normal’, and we can feel very alien and alone in the world. This can be compounded by the issue of masks. Many people wear social masks, the face they present to the world. People with parts are often thought to be wearing masks and then revealing their ‘true’ self when they switch. Pre diagnosis, everyone in my life had a different idea of who Sarah really was, and we ourselves couldn’t figure out who we ‘really’ were. Different people formed bonds with different parts, and most of my relationships were one-part bonds only. Switching caused chaos. I would invite friends over to visit, then switch later on and be confused and frustrated that people who didn’t seem to particularly like me were on my doorstep. They, on the other hand, experienced me as moody, unpredictable, and very strange. A freak. I also had big issues with connecting with other people’s buried parts – not the dissociative kind, but the kind we all have. For example, someone who presents themselves to the world as together and successful may have a hidden part that is lost, afraid, and steeped in grief. For some of us with parts, we are used to hearing and feeling things beneath the surface and we accidentally interact with and draw out the hidden parts of other people in ways they can find both deeply moving and intensely uncomfortable. Certainly not necessarily conducive to stable relationships!

It’s hard to be the only one of your kind. This is why bridging the Gap and finding points of connection and similarity common to all people can be so desperately important! It’s also why connections with peers and peer workers are crucial. Everyone needs a space in which the way they function in the world is ‘normal’ and for a few hours they don’t have to explain everything in full, because people get it. Being the only deaf person, the only kid with two Dads, the only scholarship student can be hard. Diverse communities help, and contact with other people who share your experiences also help. However multiple/multiple relationships can also be fraught, while there’s a common language and understanding, there’s also the complexity of two systems and a different type of relationship between each possible pair of parts who are out, as well as the loss and grief of forming connections with parts who go away or are supressed or overruled by other system members. Friendships between multiples can be wonderful but also fragile.

Multiplicity can be life saving. It can help people to contain, protect, and adapt. It can also be a difference that leaves people at greater risk of abuse, exploitation, and isolation. Here lies a tension that many of us peer workers with parts are struggling to engage. We need to hear that multiplicity can be healthy and useful, that there’s hope and that the illness model isn’t the only story that can be told. But it’s the vulnerability of multiplicity that drives us, the knowledge that people are struggling and suffering and being harmed that makes us want to speak out and create resources and healthy communities. The less stigma people encounter, the easier the path to healthy multiplicity is. (this path doesn’t exclude the possibility of integration or fusion) We’re often sold an idea of multiplicity that is about being broken, profoundly alienated from self, where the multiplicity is conflated with the trauma history in a way that makes it difficult to think creatively and respond with enthusiasm to the task of understanding, accepting, and making a wonderful life with yourselves. We don’t have to pretend that multiplicity is any easier than it is, nor do we have to choose only one way to understand it. Like anything in life, and like any kind of difference, there’s deep complexity and ambiguity in our experiences. We need the freedom to be able to engage those honestly, and we need opportunities to be able to combine our collective wisdom and help to reduce some of these vulnerabilities for people.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Using Anchors to manage Triggers – Multiplicity

I’ve been writing about triggers lately. This post is specifically about how triggers can affect parts for people with multiplicity, it builds on the information I’ve already shared in

  1. Managing Triggers – an overview of how triggers work and many different approaches to managing them
  2. Mental Health needs better PR – the risks and benefits of the different ways we think about triggers and why we want to manage them
  3. Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – exploring how anchors work and can be used to help with triggers around trauma, anxiety, and other distress

Sometimes parts get stuck, inside or outside, and this can cause problems. Sometimes a part may stop coming out when their trigger to do so disappears, and this can be a terrible loss. Perhaps a child part only came out around a favourite aunt who has passed away. Perhaps a quiet, studious part only came out at uni, and now that you’ve finished the course that part has gone missing. I have one who only comes out at night, down the beach. Wounded and different they have retreated from all the rest of our lives and it is moonlight and solitude that calls their name. When I was originally diagnosed and my shrink was hoping to make contact with some of these parts, we told them with despair that a counselling office was not their world and I had no idea how to get them here, or even if that was a good idea. The shrink was likewise baffled about how to engage with parts who only came out at school, or during storms, or in candlelight.

Two things lay beneath this dilemma – a fundamental question of the purpose and direction of therapy – was it about us making ourselves function and presentable in the shrink’s world, or about the shrink being able to follow us into our own… or some kind of collaboration and bridging of this Gap? Was it about illness or a Grand Adventure? The other was simply the lack of awareness on both our and the shrink’s part that triggers can be changed and wielded deliberately.

Sometimes it helps to change the triggers that call parts out. I have one in particular who responds to threat and manages violence. Parts with roles like this can become restless and destructive when things start to improve in your life, because they are inadvertently being written out of the life. As this role is needed less and less, they come out infrequently, sometimes inappropriately, and the rest of the system responds with frustration instead of gratitude. Heroes of the old regime, these parts find there’s no room for them in the new world order. Changing the trigger that calls them out can be a powerful place to start changing or expanding their role to have more life in it.

This can be a simple matter of forming a new association with being out. Every time they are out, to have a new chosen trigger present – someone calling their name, a piece of music, a bracelet, bare feet on grass, pink nail polish. It needs to be something they want and have chosen, something that resonates with them. A trigger that doesn’t evoke a response of some kind, an emotion, a feeling in the body, a memory, a sense of connection – is no trigger at all. In order to work as a trigger, it must evoke something, it must connect with something that is unique to this part and in some way represents them. Over time this trigger becomes more connected to the experience of being out. Once this link has been made, it can start to become strong enough to be used as an anchor, something that can be used to call them out and invite them to be present.

For my system there’s a sense of distance inside, sometimes some parts are close to the surface and easy to call out, while others are far out in the deeps and beyond any call. Some parts always respond to their triggers, others are unpredictable. Each system is unique, and the process is often more organic than mechanical.

Sometimes parts have a difficult time staying present when they want and need to. It might be that other parts are being triggered out, or that they habitually go away inside under certain types of stress. Sometimes some parts just seem to have a tenuous grasp on the moment, in the body, in the world. They are more like smoke on the wind than a plant in the earth. Anchors can help parts to stay present in times when switching would be dangerous, traumatic, or inappropriate such as driving, sex, or delivering a presentation at work. Clothes are an anchor my system often uses to help to keep a part present. If this part has her boots on, or that part her pearls, it’s much easier for them to stay present. Music is another powerful one, and it can have a lingering effect. An hour of listening to P!nk at high volume before leaving the house can be the anchor a part needs to stay present through the morning. Or the right music on the radio in the car can stop a child part switching out when we’re driving.

We were in some training a while ago and struggling badly. The facilitation was extremely poor, and most days at least one student became distressed by bullying behaviour. I spent a lot of time following people into toilets to offer comfort, and biting my lip during lectures. The group dynamics were being encouraged in such a poor direction that distressed students were maligned as ‘low functioning’ and probably unsuitable for study, rather than offered support. Each day that went by I became more enraged. The part who handles threats was constantly triggered, but their expertise is physical threat – violence, sexual assault and the like. This was an incredibly inappropriate environment for them because none of their skills were useful here. They could not physically respond, even by screaming, to the increasing sense of being trapped and forced to watch as people were hurt. In fact all their responses; their obvious pain, their supressed anger, their capacity for action, played against us in this setting. We lacked credibility when we responded this way, tongue tied, vehement, and desperate to escape.

It took a lot of thought but we finally were able to come up with a better approach. A different part who could handle this kind of ‘threat’ that was psychological and subtle rather than physical and overt. Someone who wasn’t afraid and therefore wasn’t sitting at a desk with their adrenaline thrumming. Someone who could speak up without anger in their voice, and who therefore couldn’t be told off for being rude. Someone who could laugh and break tension while speaking our truths. Once we figured this out, we changed which clothes and makeup we wore to the classes, changed where we sat and how we engaged. It was still a deeply unpleasant experience, like being a participant in a social experiment about power. We still had some troubles with the furious part being triggered out. But we had a better approach and were able to finish the course without being reprimanded for any behaviour, without self harming to cope, and without becoming compliant and submissive to the bully. Anchors can be powerful.

Sometimes they can be also be used against us in ways that hurt us. Multiplicity sometimes makes us more vulnerable.

Awesome quote – Grand adventure (or, my philosophy of multiplicity in a nutshell)

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth giving it’s own post to. A few years ago, I was seeing a therapist I was not getting along with at all. My life was chaotic, lonely, and very painful. I was scared and confused about my diagnosis of DID. I felt trapped between a therapeutic approach that felt deeply wrong for me (such as getting rid of parts deemed by the therapist to be either too damaged, or too hostile to be integrated) and all the books I’d read that said without therapy I would never recover. Caught in this dilemma, I called Lifeline.

By sheer luck, I spoke with a guy who clearly knew a lot about DID. He listened very attentively as I explained my situation and how distressing I was finding it. He drew out of me my inarticulate intuition that this therapy was not the right place for me. Then he framed what I was feeling in a neat summary that has stayed with me ever since.

Just because you’re split, doesn’t mean everyone else is whole. You can choose to engage this as an illness, or you can go on a grand adventure of self discovery.

That’s it – my philosophy of multiplicity in a nutshell. I don’t mean that people who find a medical model approach to their multiplicity can’t also be on grand adventures of self discovery! But that for me, at that time, these were different options. I couldn’t have both, not with this therapist. So I took a risk that all the books were wrong. I started to wonder how, if we only ever studied those who were formally diagnosed with DID and stayed in therapy, we could possibly know that people never recovered from, or lived with DID successfully without therapy? I set up this idea of The Grand Adventure as my guiding star, my compass that let me know when I was on the right path or not. When a choice would take me further away from it, I didn’t take it. I kept to the paths that moved me closer to treating my life, and my multiplicity, as a grand adventure. Adventure can be painful, even agonising, but it is also awe inspiring, beautiful, profound, and challenging. It takes you places you couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s a very long way from my original plans to be the perfect patient in therapy and ‘heal’ as quickly as possible to get on with my life. And it’s served me well. I’m not waiting for therapy to finish, or integration, or fusion, or to feel like I’ve got over my childhood, to begin living. My life is a grand adventure. Some of it hurts terribly. Some of it is breathtaking. All of it is worthwhile.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Dark bodypainting self portraits

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It’s been a rough few days. Yesterday, I barely spoke all day. I remember when I was living in a caravan park, this used to happen. Days in a row would go by in which I was silent, except for my journal, except for the weeping. There’s a relief in it, sometimes. I hide from the world, lock the doors, keep the curtains drawn. My paints sang to me and the day turned into a collage of sleeping, body painting, and photographing myself. When all else makes no sense, make art. I have my souvenirs from the underworld. Yes, it’s strange, but it’s cheaper than hospital. I’m still cleaning paint off the bathroom floor. It’s better than cleaning up blood. These are a small sample of the photos I took.

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So many questions. Why the psychosis? How is it linked to art? Why does creativity, not just any art, but the dark kind, help? How much of this do I need? Can I pre-empt the fraying? How do I fit this into my life plans – a job, sharing a house, becoming a mother, when it’s strange, anti-social, dark? I want to get my camera fixed, the good one, and buy a tripod. I’m supposed to be going back to college soon. I can’t fit it all in. My inks are singing to me. Is this how I heal? Ink not blood, and Wrist poems, and Making art. I don’t know. This is not about pain. There’s something else down the bottom of this well, this rabbit hole. Something I don’t understand. The voice of the night wind perhaps. Something – some one – needing a voice and a place at the table, even if the cup is chipped and the soup is watered down. A sense of freedom from the world, a place where my identity is solely that of ‘artist’.

About Transgender

For those of us who are a bit new to the idea and language around what it is to be trans, it can be a bit confusing or intimidating. Some of us are just baffled, some of us are trying to engage but worried about getting it wrong and being offensive. Some of us are loud and offensive about being baffled.

Some cultures cope just fine with the idea that some people have a strong sense of gender that is different to their body. On the whole, Western culture has not. We divide our world by gender starting at or before birth, and people who find their bodies place them on the wrong side of that divide are highly vulnerable to ridicule, disgust, and violence. This divide also causes strife for gay people, partly because the idea behind it is that all boys and all girls have more in common with their own gender than with each other, and that safety and discretion are obtained by separating them for private acts such as toileting, changing clothes, sports, and medical care. When we think that our young girls are made safe from feeling exposed by segregation from boys, having a gay girl (or a girl who is thought to be gay) in the class can trigger a powerful sense of threat, and with that fear often comes rejection or even violence. The same goes for when a young trans girl (ie a girl with a male body) uses the girl’s facilities – or the boy’s facilities. These minority gender and sexual identities are often highly vulnerable and don’t have a safe place in a world divided by gender and assuming that everyone is straight.

So what is trans? A quick guide to the language – someone who is trans has a sense of gender identity that is different to their body. Those of us who have a gender identity that is the same as our body are not called ‘normal’, but rather cis-gendered. This is because it is normal for some people in every community to be trans. Some people with a female body have a strong sense of being male. This is different to feeling like you are female but masculine (or male but feminine) – I have tomboy girls in my system and their sense of themselves is completely different to the guy parts. Being trans doesn’t mean you’re gay. There’s a difference between gender identity and gender expression, and also with our connection to the traits we’ve bound up in our ideas about what is feminine and masculine. They are all connected, certainly, but also distinct. Some trans people are gay, or bi, some are straight. (I touch on this is my post What bisexuality is and 9 things it isn’t) Some trans people take hormones or have surgeries to help themselves look and feel more like their real gender. Some trans people don’t have the money or social support to come out. The rates of suicide and violence against trans people are far higher than average.

In some ways and areas the trans community has been able to get legal supports more quickly than the gay community, in areas of recognition such as legal documents and relationships. In other areas the trans community is still far more vulnerable and at risk, particularly when it comes to social acceptance. Part of the struggle for this is that many gay people are willing to openly identify as gay, and want their lives and love and families to be visible. Many trans people do not identify as trans, they identify as male or female, and what they desire is to be accepted and to ‘pass’ for being their real gender. For many people, being trans is a source of shame, and being identified as trans is humiliating. This means that there are not many trans people willing to become activists to help to raise awareness and further the cause of social justice. So the community is very vulnerable. This is changing more and more, as is the traditional either/or binary of identifying as male/female. Some people identify as both, or as neither, or feel different on different days. There’s nothing wrong with any of this!

Trans issues and needs are highly relevant in my own work with people who have parts, because it’s quite common for different parts to have a different gender identity. This can be tough for people, sometimes trans supports aren’t multiple friendly and want people to choose to be either male or female all the time. Sometimes multiple supports aren’t trans friendly and treat being multiple as if that means it’s never healthy to access trans supports or to want to identify as trans. The reality of course, is more complex. Sometimes multiple systems want to transition because their primary part or parts who run the day to day life are trans. Sometimes one part is trans and wants to know about temporary devices and supports (such as prosthetics, makeup, or breast binding) to be able to be out as their gender and go to a movie or out to dinner. Many multiples who are gender diverse have great difficulty with things like using public, gender specific toilets, or engaging with gendered communities and activities such as sports. Sometimes supporting a trans part can be as simple as buying a pair of guys or girls shoes for them to wear, or having a partner willing to use the correct gender pronoun when they’re out. Sometimes trans parts in a girl body will find it easier that they can wear male clothing in the western culture and this is pretty normal for girls today, sometimes being seen as a tomboy rather than a guy just makes them feel painfully invisible. Sometimes trans parts in a guy body find that the rest of their system feels so threatened by being seen as female that it’s very hard to get any gestures of being female accepted.

I have male parts in my own system and we’re still struggling to figure out how to engage this positively. One of mine is a black humoured cross dresser who wears more makeup than most of the girls in my system and finds it deeply amusing that he can go to work in drag without anyone being the wiser. Another is a gentle and shy gay guy who is so lonely and quiet that I know almost nothing about him. I come from a background where women were run down and the feminine was treated with disgust and disdain. Being female was equated with being weak. The only women who were treated with respect were highly masculine. I remember the courage it took to tell people that I wanted children, that I felt highly maternal. It took a lot of processing to embrace being female, to find strength and beauty in it. It took possibly even more to reconcile myself to some aspects of the feminine, and to my attraction to women. So it’s been highly threatening to process that some parts of us feel male. And even more confusing to us, that they are not necessarily particularly masculine guys at that. We’re working on it, gently. In our culture, gender can bring out a deep sense of threat and fear even in those of us who consider ourselves to be very accepting.

So, let’s work to make more room in our lives for diversity in gender. Let’s embrace the trans people in our communities, in our own systems, in our schools and workplaces. Let’s stop trying to force people to ‘choose a side’ when their real, authentic state at the moment is confused, ambivalent, both, or neither. Some trans people find that after years of only identifying as their real gender, through all the hell of outing themselves and transitioning, they are finally safe to acknowledge that they like some activities, or qualities, or have some skills or interests that are traditionally seen as being of the other gender, and that’s okay. So do most cis-gendered people. 🙂 Let’s be honest about fear and threat and work to make everyone feel safer, and be safer. Let’s make it possible for trans people who want more than anything to pass, to not have their trans identity subsume all the rest of who they are, and to not have to live in fear of being outed. Let’s support the trans activists and people who live openly and answer questions and humanise, and remind us of the painful, awful statistics that show we have such a long way to go for social acceptance of trans people.

If you’d like to read some more about trans issues or find some support, here are a few links I’ve come across recently that I liked. If you’d like to add any other links or thoughts, particularly if you’re trans and feel I’ve misrepresented you in some way, please comment or email me. 🙂 As I’ve said, this isn’t my ‘home turf’, I’m somewhat new to the topic and might step on toes or repeat myths without being aware of it. Wherever you stand, I hope this article has given you some food for thought.

Readers’ Top 10 Transgender Stories of 2013 | Courtney O’Donnell.

All About Trans | Encouraging better understanding of trans people in the UK.

From bullied child to transgender woman: my coming of age | Paris Lees | Society | The Guardian.

35 Trans Women I Had #Herocrushes On In 2013 | Autostraddle.