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.

Where does my psychosis come from?

7 weeks ago I had my first adult experience of psychosis. I was extremely fortunate in that I knew what was going on, and was able to find enough strategies to manage it that it passed comparatively quickly. For the next several weeks I felt very vulnerable, on the edge of that place. I felt dissociated, and mildly paranoid. I had a strong feeling of being watched at all times, or of having someone behind me. At times it was stronger than that, the sense that I was standing on the lip of a hole in the fabric of the world. I was looking at reality, but just behind me was a tear into the void, dark and cold and terrifyingly inhabited. I could feel a cold wind on my shoulders.

I was still in a highly sensitive place, where certain things would speak to me in a way I wouldn’t usually experience. At a party a few nights later, a song comes on that has a guttural male voice singing and it’s like that moment in films where the background suddenly seems to zoom into the foreground without displacing it. The sound of the deep voice is reverberating in my body and making my hair stand on end. I go outside where I can’t hear it well. My hair settles back against my skin.

For the first few days I stay in the light, keep all the houselights on all day and night, and do not leave the house after dark. I do not drive, I do not work, I’m just patient. I test how things are developing gently, try turning out a light and wait to see if the hallucinations return. I find that I exist in a twilight state for a few weeks were the dark is mostly empty, but sometimes starting to fill with hallucinations. Being driven home by Rose, I’m watching the sky curiously as night falls, relieved when it’s empty, cautious when things move within it.

A few nights after the episode I’m lying in bed, talking on the phone, and the conversation is becoming increasingly stressful as Rose and I don’t see eye to eye or understand each other. I feel a sense of a charge rising in my body. It reaches mass and my sense of self suddenly dissolves, like a drop of oil onto a vast surface of water. I have no sense of my body, of gravity, of weight. I have no sense of being the right way up or even what way that is. I feel vastly infinite and utterly tiny at the same time. There is a consciousness at the center of a galaxy of stars like dust. I am falling in every direction at the same time. I close my eyes, knowing that I am still only a woman, still lying in bed, speaking on the phone, having an argument with my love. We keep talking. We find a place of connection and common ground. I feel myself come back together, like big bang in reverse, silent and without violence, all the stars gather back into my skin.

Gradually it eases, this sense of being suddenly skinless, on the edge of this world and another one. I’m so fortunate. How many people even know what psychosis is when they have their first experience of it? More than that – know what might help, know that it’s temporary, know that I can survive it? I re read a book I own called Unshrinking Psychosis by John Watkins. I recommend it for anyone seeking to better understand psychosis. Two ideas stand out to me – that there is method and meaning even in madness, and that not all psychosis is a breakdown. Some is a messy restructuring of the mind, a transformative process. Not breakdown but breakthrough. Not indicative of problems or stress or failure, but of growth, process, recovery. This resonates with me.

I also reached out to a mentor who has also experienced psychosis and we went out for coffee. The chance to talk with someone else who has been there – and come through it, sans lifelong complications, diagnosis, medications, and stigma, is such a relief. I ask one question in particular – “I felt so lonely in that experience, was it like that for you?” They tell me – “Lonely is not a strong enough word for the feeling of profound aloneness and alienation.” Yes. That’s how it was for me. They remind me – crisis is nothing more than the interruption of a pattern. For good or for bad.

There are things I understand better now. I understand the tremendous distress of people who’s sense of reality has collapsed when we try to tell them the things they perceive are not real in an attempt to comfort them. This is not reassuring. We are trapped between our psychotic perceptions (which may be terrifying, or not) and an awareness that we are going mad, which is absolutely terrifying. Knowing that the experiences are not real does not stop them happening to us. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare from which you cannot wake. Knowing it is not real does not stop the fear or the horror, in fact the sense of disconnection from everyone else, from the ‘waking world’, to push the metaphor, is terrifying. And we don’t know if we will wake up. So we cannot come to harm physically unless we act upon the psychosis – when the terror was so intense that my skin was literally rippling across my body, the effort it took to stay still and not run – blind with terror, through any obstacle and into any terrain, took everything I had. Even if ‘it’s not real’ means I can’t come to direct physical harm, I can certainly suffer psychological trauma. ‘It’s not real’ reminds me of the dissociative process of a child being sexually abused – not physically harmed, but violated and traumatised, who thinks to themselves ‘If I pretend this isn’t happening it cannot hurt me’. We know that’s not the case, that these experiences impact and change us even if we deny them. The experience of psychosis impacts, changes, and even traumatises us, even if ‘it’s not real’, because experiences that invoke terror, horror, helplessness, and isolation always have the potential to be deeply traumatising. The emphasis on it’s not real, don’t acknowledge it, the focus on getting over it and back to life, sealing off the experience as quickly and completely as possible seems like a highly dissociative process to me.

And there lies a dichotomy in my experience. It was not real, and yet it was real to me. More than that, it had a sense of profound significance and meaning that I am still gently examining. There was a sense for me of the indelibly familiar about an experience that was at the same time, utterly alien and new. Talking with my support people I drew upon many seemingly disconnected threads of my life that all had some link to this experience. I remembered my vivid imagination as a child where I could perceive things that other people did not – particularly at night. Foxes that ran up and down our hallway, soft footfalls on carpet and the brush of coarse fur against my legs, but not the musk of the real animal. The shadows that congregated in our lounge room every night, tall as adults, having meetings, talking among themselves in a murmur of voices that was the soundtrack to all my childhood nights. If disturbed, they would rush as one furious mass to wreak some unnamed horrifying punishment on any child out of bed. Some nights having crept out for a drink of milk I would be trapped in the triangle of light that spilled from the open fridge, waiting for dawn to come so the shadows (which could not move into the light) would go dormant. (waiting for the dawn to come – so many sleepless nights where only dawn soothes me to rest even now) My wild imagination made me stand out as a child, but not so much that I would have received any kind of psychotic diagnosis. I was different but not that different. I wonder sometimes if all children are naturally psychotic – and yet aware of the divide between the real and ‘not real’ that they perceive: imaginary friends, ‘pet tigers’, games. Somehow we lose this with age.

Another link; making connections with younger parts in my system (I have DID) has been a frightening and fascinating process. It has been hard for those of us who are older to permit our inner kids to have time out in our body. For some of us, it’s painful to be misunderstood as being childish. For others, it’s frightening how vulnerable inner children can be, and how lonely it can be to be a child in an adult body. A few months ago a very young part came out to play with a my little pony toy. They ‘flew’ the toy around the room. We were co-conscious for the play. What was absolutely startling was the physical response in our body. It reacted as if we were flying. Muscles tensed and relaxed, electric sensations feathered across skin, with the highs and lows of the flight the stomach flipped like we were in a car going fast into dips and rises on a road. When the adults switched back out, they were blown away to have this glimpse of a child’s world again. Children, or least, my inner children, have an intense empathic bond with toys that allows them to experience what the toy does. It’s outside of anything I have felt as an adult. No wonder children can play for so many hours. No wonder I struggled to not lose this ability myself as a child, playing games with younger and younger children as my peers lost interest in imaginative play.

A few months ago I was playing a game with friends that relies on imagination. Called Beyond Balderdash, you have to quickly invent plausible definitions of words and other cues. I find these quite challenging, not least because being a creative person, I’m expected to be very good at games like this and the pressure interferes with my thinking. For the first couple of questions I wrestled with my brain, trying to come up with original ideas and mostly drawing a blank. The struggle was fruitless, like trying to use a hammer to thread a needle. Then I felt a shift inside me, something wrestling with me and wanting me to get out of the way. I relaxed and let the process unfold. I stopped shaking my brain in frustration, trying to squeeze a creative answer out of it. Suddenly ideas came out of nowhere, easy as reading off notes someone else was handing to me. There was no struggle. My imagination just spoke. I thrashed everyone else at the game, and went to bed that night feeling thoughtful and a bit confused. It almost felt like cheating, the way Eleanor Longden describes her voices giving her the answers to an exam and wondering if that was cheating.

In my arts practice I’ve also been experimenting with something curious. When I’m doing something like painting, for me it’s a very intellectual process of calling to mind the shapes and colours I want to create and then doing my best to get my hand to make them. I’ve noticed at times that while doing this, I can ‘see’ an image on the canvas (or paper, or skin) that I’m painting on. It’s not really there and I know that, but I can still see a faint ghost image of what I’m trying to create. And it’s often different from what was in my head – maybe only in a small way, such as the placement of an eye, but it is different. So sometimes I ignore what I was trying to paint and I paint the image I see instead. Again, it feels oddly like cheating. The strange thing is, it’s surprisingly effortless, and it almost always looks better than what I had been going to do.

I think about sculpturers describing their process as being seeing what is in the stone and setting it free, rather than turning the stone into something. Rather than a quaint turn of phrase, this concept now startles me.

Nightmares that have been so deep, involving, and horrifying that my sleep became a place where I was helpless and tortured. And yet, a sense that in them in something powerful and important that I would be at great loss without. Memories of being so afraid of the dark as a child and young person that there was a sense of being on the edge of running, and that if I ever allowed fear to overwhelm me and started to run there would be no stopping and no safety ever again. An incident as a young person where I briefly hallucinated a nightmare figure when trying to confront my fear of the dark and had a panic attack. The experience of sensory dissociation and trauma so profound that I craved touch to ground me back into my body and sense of self. My desperation to experience psychosis as a highly traumatised young person who could not escape the daily pain of things like chronic bullying and alienation at school. And yet, curiously, I failed, and at the time, reality remained immutable.

Separate and yet connected experiences. Many of them, like threads all leading to a complex tapestry I now seek to understand.

I understand now the rage I felt in some people at the last Hearing Voices conference I attended. At the time I recoiled from it, wanting to walk a gentler path of diplomacy and peacemaking. But, sitting in my bedroom wracked with terror, on the edge of needing crisis support and knowing how profoundly traumatic that ‘support’ would likely be, I felt the terror and fury of someone marked for abuse and helpless to prevent it. The sense of safety of being at the edge of conversations about appropriate supports and responses to psychosis was stripped away. I was no longer a ‘voice of reason’ on the sidelines. I was now naked and vulnerable and under the microscope. The knowledge that simply being honest about my experiences could see my most basic rights taken away from me in the name of protecting me, could see me drugged and locked away, trapped and confined, subjected to solitary confinement, forced into therapy with people who use entirely different frameworks from me, horrified me. The instinct for self preservation said – silence. Secrecy. Be small, quiet, hidden, and run a long way away from the places where people like you are kept under guard, sedated, tied to the bed, given intense directives and advice by every nurse, doctor, and shrink, most of which is contradictory. So instead, I blogged.

I should be able to call a place like ACIS and tell them about my drug allergies and DID and trauma history and explain that I need a quiet place to rest for a few days and just enough sedatives to help me sleep without sending me into liver failure. The liklihood is that I would be abused and ignored as a faker, or committed, dosed on meds I cannot tolerate, and then find myself trapped in hospital in a spiral of drug induced psychosis and forced ‘treatment’. A system that is both over and under responsive to crisis, that has ‘entry and exit’ problems – it’s hard to get into the system and get help, and also hard to get out again. There’s rage in me that this is the ‘help’ available to me – high risk, and likely as traumatic as it is helpful. What I need is Soteria, a place of safety and respect, where people who are neither afraid of me or my experiences hold my hand while I rest, find my feet again, make sense of things, return to my life.

There’s not just chaos and loss here. Psychosis has been like being tipped up into my own subconscious, filled with wonder and stuffed with nightmares that breed in the dark. I refuse to live in fear of my own mind. There’s powerful things here, about life and love and art. If the alternative is the loss of those things, is the ‘flatland’ of a life that does not move me, of art that is forever the imposition of my will upon things around me, instead of a conversation with my own shadow, then I’ll risk a little madness.

When I was a child, my Mother believed fantasy and imagination were powerful and important. Creativity is essential to life. One of her friends believed they were dangerous. Her children were not permitted to watch the films we watched, or to read the books we read. Their play was shaped in ways mine was not. I wondered, after this experience, if they were right. Has being exposed to fantasy made me more vulnerable to losing my grasp on reality? Or has it left me better equipped to navigate my own inner world?

In the hearing voices group I’m involved in here in SA we often talk about our inner reality. Instead of conversations about reality and delusions, we talk about the shared reality and the inner reality. What I experience in psychosis isn’t real. But it is real. It is my reality, drawn from my mind and my life. Full of the promise of connection and art and a deeply felt life, as well as nightmares and terror. Of embracing child parts and making sense of trauma and facing my demons.

I’m back on my feet at the moment. The dark is empty, I can walk through life without music or images speaking into my heart and calling up a flood. I’m scared, and angry, and aware of a new gap between me and people who don’t experience this, and another reason I am vulnerable to stigma and ignorance. I’m also thankful, thoughtful, listening to the world with one ear cocked towards that void. I will go where my heart wills and seek the deep truths of the soul. Fray into stars and become a person again.

Poem – Voices in the Night

I wrote this yesterday, after driving home from a full, wonderful day of Tafe, excitement, and visits with friends. I often crash and become depressed at the end of days like this, this time a conversation happened inside on the drive home and a different part came out instead.

Home, through rain and night, after a day
Bright with people, the suns of their hearts, warm company
My house aches ahead on the road, cold and empty
And I feel the chill in my chest
Heart constricting, streetlamps
Pierce me with white knives
Rain falls like swords, and on the road
Black water pools like mirrors and
the night gathers close around me.I’m afraid
To be alone
don’t be
I’ll catch you falling

It hurts
it’s also beautiful
why does the light have to go?
because this is where the art lives
I love the people, their voices, my voice
I know. I love the silence, the strength in solitude. We walk both worlds.
Will I come back?
am I loved?
let go, and the fear will ease
burrow down in my heart, 
this dance is mine.

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Countering DID myths – we’re not all the same!

In my recent post Common DID myths, I spieled a stack of common misperceptions I’ve encountered that bug me as a person with DID. It got a lot of interest from people, with the odd misunderstanding or uncertainty about what I DO think about DID. To go through each point alone would be a huge post, but I can counter a bunch of them in easy to handle groups.

If you’re new to the topic of dissociative identity disorder, there’s a great, easy to read introduction here, or a shorter brochure version designed to be an easy place to start when educating other people – you can tailor it to your own experience by sharing the ways it does and doesn’t fit for you. I wrote these a few ago, back when I was starting out on my journey of being a peer worker coming out about having DID myself. Since then, I’ve learned a lot and my perspectives have changed in some ways. These days I’m far more interested in talking about multiplicity (an experience) than DID (a mental illness)… rather the way that that organisations like Intervoice talk about hearing voices instead of schizophrenia. Why? Because it takes the conversation away from the medical model. It moves us away from needing experts to tell us what is going on with ourselves. (not that collaboration with other people isn’t very helpful!) It moves us back into being the expert in our own lives, where our own opinions, experiences, and ideas matter. It stops pathologising all these experiences – did you know that a lot of people hear voices that are not distressing, cause them no harm, and that they have no other symptoms of schizophrenia?

Plenty of people with multiplicity have been diagnosed with DID or DDnos (which is the grab-basket diagnosis for people with major dissociation things going on who don’t quite fit into the diagnostic category of DID) and that’s great, and I work a lot in the mental health system where DID is what we talk about. But for me, it’s important to separate experience from diagnosis, and to remember that not everyone with that experience fits or identifies with the diagnosis! Read more about my thoughts on the relationship between multiplicity and the diagnosis of DID on Introducing DID Brochure and unplanned rant!

One the biggest issues with misunderstandings around multiplicity, as a lot of people pointed out, is the absolutes! Everyone with DID does this, or needs this, or feels this way, or recovers like this… So the first thing I do believe is this:

People with DID are not all the same

There are many spectrums within DID that vary widely from person to person, and also within the same person at different times. Some common ones I’ve come across are:

  • Degree of amnesia – some people have no idea what has happened when another part is out. Some people are aware of things while they are happening, or get updated after they have happened. This can be different at different times – I have a lot more amnesia when I’m stressed. It can also be different for different parts, some may always be aware, some may always be amnesiac within the same system. For more information see what is co-consciousness.
  • Obviousness of switching – for some people it is obvious when they switch, for others it is so subtle that only someone who knew them very well might be able to tell. My switching would be obvious if I allowed it to be a lot of the time, but years of keeping it hidden mean most people do not pick it. Some people are more sensitive to subtle switching than others.
  • Number of parts – this can range from just two, to hundreds or more.
  • Nature of switching – some multiples switch all through the day, others only very occasionally, and some people never switch, but they talk to their parts and hear them in their mind, or see them as people outside of themselves.
  • Degree of internal control over switching – some multiples can chose which part is out, others have no control over this. Sometimes some parts have more control than others, or can set up triggers to deliberately switch – eg. I will wear certain clothes and bring certain foods and smells with me to make sure my researcher stays present during exams.
  • Degree of fluidity – some multiples have very fixed systems with, say, 5 members who have been there for years and have not changed at all in age, self identity, or roles during that time. Others are more fluid, they are difficult to learn about as they are constantly changing with new parts forming and old ones going away. Neither of these is necessarily better than the other – fluidity can be chaotic, but rigidity can prevent growth.
  • Other diagnoses – people with DID may have other physical or mental illnesses which will change how they experience life.
  • Degree of impairment – some people with DID are extremely unwell and struggle to function, perhaps spending a lot of time as inpatients, while others live and work unnoticed in the community, perhaps with no one around them aware of their condition.
  • Degree of separateness between parts – some people’s parts are closer to each other in the sharing of psychological space, they can do things like share tasks in the body (one running the mouth and eyes while another chops food for dinner), merge and blend skills, feel each other’s emotions – eg. a content adult is enjoying their evening, until they start to be disturbed by a growing feeling of anxiety that seems alien to their own mood – because an inner child is distressed by the movie and their feelings are blending across, or influence each other mentally such as giving or taking away words in their mind, showing images to each other, and so on. Other people have parts who are completely separate and share no common psychological space or resources. Both within the same system is possible too.
  • Polyfragmentation – some people with DID have mini systems within their system, or have parts who have themselves split to form parts of their own.
  • Degree of diversity within the system – systems can form with parts who are extremely similar in personality and nature, or extraordinarily different. One system may have 5 parts all called Geoffrey, all somewhat shy, introverted guys who hold different memories and range in age between 35 and 50. Another system may have highly diverse parts who identify at different places across a spectrum of gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, species (some people have parts who identify as being animals, spirits, fae etc), and so on.

DID is about identity – it is therefore extremely individual in the way it presents and is experienced!

This is contrary to all the myths based on absolute assertions, such as

  • People with DID can’t work.
  • Everyone with DID has an inner self helper, an inner protector, an inner wounded child (and so on).
  • People with DID are manipulative.
  • People with DID can never control their switching.

These myths are often perpetuated by people who have had some kind of contact with the multiple community, rather than the set I come across when speaking to people who have never heard of DID. Humans do seem generally to be wired towards absolutes, and you’ll find myths based on absolutes abound in most areas of human endeavour. All lesbians are vegetarians, all Indians like cricket, all domestic cats hate water. They are true some of the time, or even lots of the time, but they do not capture everyone’s experiences.

What particularly frustrates me is that so many of these myths are embedded in our resources. Throughout many of the books about DID, and the frameworks about working with DID given to us by the ‘experts’ are absolutes. These people should know better. I’m sick to the teeth of reading books that tell me things like all people with DID have an inner self helper (a very useful type of part who knows a lot about everyone in the system). What they actually mean is all people with DID I’ve worked with have an inner self helper or, if I’m being particularly cynical; having absolutes makes me less anxious about working with people so I strongly encourage all my clients to present their DID to me in a way I’m comfortable with. That is harsh – as people we are often unaware that our absolutes don’t include someone until that someone tells us. The problem is that when a whole stack of people agree on an absolute like this, it creates a culture where people who don’t fit are not invited to share their experience. If that culture becomes rigid and deeply embedded, then people who don’t fit will be ignored and excluded even when they do.

I get angry about this because I work with too many people who are stressed and scared that they don’t seem to be fitting the frameworks they’re reading about or that their therapist is working from. Frameworks are really valuable!! They give us direction when we feel lost and hope when we feel overwhelmed. But I believe that holding any framework too tightly, or trying to force a framework into a situation or onto a person when it isn’t fitting and when it’s creating instead of alleviating stress is wrong and harmful! Some people don’t get stressed, they just exit the supports. They maintain their own sense of identity and truth, alienated from the community and unable to access the services if they ever do struggle. This is not a good thing.

Lastly, I think some of these myths about absolutes are basically Black-swan fallacies. “Every swan I’ve ever seen is white; therefore; there are no black swans”. I read a lot of these in the literature. All DID is caused by trauma. All DID is formed before the age of (pick one) 10, 8, 7, 5, 4, 2. All people with DID need extensive therapy. People with DID never spontaneously integrate. These are based on the experts not having witnessed anything else – but that does not mean that anything else isn’t possible. In fact, considering that you are not permitted to self identify as having DID (because that is self diagnosis and therefore lacks validity, a claim I’d be more comfortable with if I believed any form of diagnosis had much in the way of validity), then research is never going to include people who haven’t had contact with the mental health system, so there is actually no way to hear about things like people living with DID who don’t use therapy. In some cases, the limited way the diagnosis of DID has been constructed contributes to these fallacies – for example there’s a case study in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman (Chapter 4, The Syndrome of Chronic Trauma) about a woman who was a political prisoner, who describes a degree of internal splitting as an adult – “My second name is Rose, and I’ve always hated the name. Sometimes I was Rose speaking to Elaine, and sometimes I was Elaine speaking to Rose. I felt that the Elaine part of me was the stronger part, while Rose was the person I despised. She was the weak one… Elaine could handle it.” I’m not saying Elaine developed DID, but this experience of parts, some degree of multiplicity, gets excluded from conversations about DID, and I think we need these.

These types fallacies are being exposed in the field of psychosis as space has been made for more people to join the conversation. So much of what we think we know about hearing voices is based upon the experiences of people within our mental health systems. Many people who hear positive, helpful voices or only briefly hear voices do not tell anyone. Why? Because of absolutes such as ‘everyone who hears voices is mentally ill’. They’re not invited to the party. If they do turn up, they’re offered a label, a diagnosis, a straightjacket, and all their thoughts and ideas from here on out are delusional, unless they agree with their treating doctor, in which case they’re insightful. Through the work of mental health activists – both of the peer and expert kind, new parties have been created where people get invited to share and amazing things are being learned – like LOTS of people hear voices, many voices are not distressing, some voices only become distressing when people are counselled not to listen to them, and that different people find different approaches best.

If we keep talking about DID and multiplicity using absolutes we are excluding so much of the diverse experience and wisdom of our own members. There IS common ground – people with DID have parts – and generalisations can be useful: people with DID often get frustrated about having to explain our condition to everyone, people with DID feel scared and isolated when we don’t know anyone else with DID, people with DID want to be believed and accepted. I believe that people with DID are a highly diverse community, with many different experiences, ideas, understandings, and ways to live life most fully.

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

Common DID myths

I was asked today by email if I’ve encountered any common misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Where to start I wonder?? Here’s my reply:

  • We’re all serial killers.
  • We’re all dangerous.
  • We cannot be trusted.
  • We are liars.
  • We are attention seekers.
  • We are all messed up victims with nothing to offer anyone else and no capacity to function without extensive support.
  • We are so weird, different, and bizarre that we are basically aliens, utterly unlike other people in any regard.
  • We are psychics, in touch with the spirit world and merely misunderstanding our gift and thinking we have DID instead.
  • We are gullible vulnerable people our shrinks have implanted with the idea that we have DID. (see Is DID iatrogenic?)
  • All people with DID are the same. (See Multiplicity and relationships)
  • DID is only ever the result of the most extreme, inhuman, unimaginable child sexual trauma you can possibly think of.
  • All people with multiplicity lose lots of time. (See What is co-consciousness?)
  • People with DID can’t work.
  • Everyone with DID has an inner self helper, an inner protector, an inner wounded child (and so on).
  • All people with DID should integrate.
  • Integration means you are now ‘well’ and all your problems go away.
  • The goal of every person with DID is to become a normal person.
  • DID is basically just a complex way to try and avoid your problems.
  • DID is just a way to avoid taking responsibility.
  • DID is just an excuse to be lazy and confusing.
  • Everyone has DID.
  • People with DID are extra special people who are nicer, more intelligent, more creative, and more wonderful in every possible way than all other people.
  • People with DID are all conscientious and loving and would never hurt anyone.
  • People with DID are crazy.
  • DID is the same thing as schizophrenia.
  • DID is the same thing as PTSD.
  • DID is the same thing as BPD.
  • People with DID have ESP and other otherworldly characteristics.
  • People with DID can never recover.
  • People with DID are impossible to work with.
  • People with DID are manipulative.
  • People with DID should pick one stable part to be out all the time. (See Parts getting stuck)
  • People with DID are merely under the delusion that they have alters.
  • People with DID always have a ‘real person’ and a bunch of alters.
  • If you hear voices inside your head you have DID, if you hear voices through your ears you have schizophrenia. (See Parts vs Voices)
  • It’s not possible to have DID and psychosis.
  • If you have lots of parts you have less chance of recovery.
  • Switching is always really obvious.
  • It’s always easy for other people to tell the difference between parts.
  • If anyone you knew had DID it would be easy for you to tell.
  • Alters always know who they are. (See Multiplicity – Mapping your system)
  • Alters always have a complex back history of their identity.
  • People with DID can never control their switching.
  • People with DID always know they have it.
  • People with DID are always in control of their switching. (See Multiplicity – switching and relationships)
  • People with DID make each other worse if they spend time together.
  • People with DID only get better in therapy.
  • People with DID never have any other challenges (disability, poverty, discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender orientation etc).
  • All people with DID are white, straight, cis women. (See Another coming out)
  • DID is always formed when an abused child imagines that the abuse is happening to a different child instead.
  • People with DID never spontaneously integrate.
  • People with DID who integrate never split into parts again.
  • People with DID always have lots of parts.
  • DID is the worst thing you could ever wish on someone.
  • DID is caused by things other people do to you. (rather than your response to those things)
  • DID is all about pain. (See I am not Sarah)
  • You either have DID or you don’t, there’s no spectrum of multiplicity.
  • If you have more than one diagnosis, you are sicker and weaker and less likely to recover.
  • All people with DID are going to recover horrific memories of traumatic events they hadn’t been aware of.
  • People with DID understand each other in far deeper way than a singleton will ever understand a person with DID.
  • DID is an adaptive gift and never really causes any problems for anyone. (See Adaptation and Control)
  • People who say they are DID are just trying to get out of a crime.
  • The United States of Tara is an accurate representation of all people with DID. (See my review here)
  • People with DID have to be careful not to encourage or allow their parts to become any more separate than they already are. (See Multiplicity – Is naming parts harmful?)
  • Parts will always hate each other. (See A poem conversation between parts)
  • Most psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors know a lot about dissociation and DID (See DID Card)
  • There’s lots of good resources for people with DID
  • It’s easy to find quality, reliable information about DID
  • Most therapists are willing and capable of supporting someone with DID
  • Carer supports don’t need to be tailored to the experience of loving a person with parts.
  • People with DID are the most unwell, challenged, vulnerable, and needy members of any family or group. (See Caring for someone who’s suicidal)
  • Regular mental health services are appropriate and good supports for people with DID.
  • People with DID should all be locked up away from the regular community.

Yeah, I know I changed first to third person. I’m tired, and you get my point. I don’t think the list is complete, that’s just off the top of my head at the end of a long week. Have any to add?

Edit: Just to be very clear that I’m presenting all these ideas as myths. I don’t agree with any of them. The links in the text are to other posts I’ve written that explain why not in greater detail, and what I do believe instead. I think that maybe reading such a big chunk of myths, particularly very common ones, perhaps it’s more difficult to remember I’m presenting then as myths. I think I’ll put up a counter – post where I summarise what I do believe about DID…. Watch this space! 🙂

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

A year with Rose

On this day last year, my girlfriend Rose became part of my life. We first met online and started dating shortly after meeting in person. She’s a beautiful, generous, complex person I feel very privileged to know and love.


Photo courtesy of Marja Flick-Buijs http://www.rgbstock.com/gallery/Zela

We’ve dealt with a lot over the year. We’ve both had health troubles. We’ve found ways to support and care for each other, to navigate the challenges of having two trauma histories and find joy in each other. I found myself reflecting upon a quote today:

Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul.

Shannon Hale, Book of a Thousand Days

365 days today. I’ve glimpsed a little and what I’ve seen moves me.

Dating as a multiple is… interesting. Different parts have different relationships with Rose. Some date, some are friends, some more like colleagues, or little sisters. Each takes time and effort to cultivate, each brings something different to the relationship. Where one is tender and nurturing, another is mischievous and energetic. There’s a lot of adapting, and a lot of talking things through. It takes an extra special effort to be honest and authentic. Friendship is the foundation.

We’ve been talking about moving in together for a while now. It’s exciting but also stressful. For both of us, we risk losing our secure housing in a gamble on our relationship lasting – or at least our friendship lasting. As we’ve both been homeless, it’s a very raw area. One thing adds a sense of urgency to our plans, which is that we both want children. Considering the challenges of conception in a woman/woman relationship, health concerns, and our desire to have settled into living together long before we start trying, there’s a certain keenness.

When I met Rose, she had been trying for a baby as a single woman. She’s been pregnant and suffered losses before, a grief that is still very fresh for her. I, on the hand, as a sick single woman approaching 30, had all but given up on my own dream of children. Last year I started reading books on grieving infertility. To my surprise, I was given a clean bill of fertility earlier this year. With Rose’s deep love for children, and my sister back in the country, my own health limitations no longer seem such an impediment. I visit my delightful goddaughter Sophie almost every week and fall more deeply in love with her. We’ll keep dreaming and talking, trying to find a balance between pragmatism and optimism.

Falling in love with Rose has been amazing, maddening, glorious, exhausting, healing, and deeply satisfying. She’s the first woman I’ve fallen in love with, and she’s been a gentle and caring partner, laying to rest my anxieties that perhaps I was mistaken in thinking I was attracted to women. I’m now very settled in my identity as bisexual, or queer. I’ve ended many years of choosing to be single, which was the right choice for me at the time. Being in this relationship has given me so many opportunities to grow and learn, and unlearn, to share and celebrate life. It’s been eye opening to realise how much difference it makes to have such support, little things like watering the garden when I’m ill, big things like supporting my efforts in business. We’ve made the most beautiful memories, that I’ll always treasure. I’m grateful and I feel blessed.

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Storms at Sea

Last night was fantastic. It was rainy and stormy here, squalls of rain, then cold bursts of wind… so Rose, my sister, Zoe and I went down the beach. It was wonderful. I ran around whooping like a madman to encourage Zoe to run. The waves were high, the wind biting. We drank coco from a thermos, ate slightly sandy strawberries, and Zoe dug big holes to stuff her head into.

I felt free.

A part came out a few nights back who hasn’t been here in a long while. She bonded to Zoe, cleaned the house, and picked a fight with Rose. The fallout has been oddly settling. I feel attached to my dog for the first time in a long time. There’s affection when I look at her. Rose and I picked ourselves up and sorted things out. A cold wind blew through my heart. I love my house. There’s determination that, stay or go, I’m going to enjoy my time here, make the most of it. There’s good memories here, there’s scope for more.

Time off has been good. Less work, more rest, more chance to spend time connecting with friends – by which I mean more than just being in the room with them. Spring has walked through the windows and changed the colour of the light and the smell of the air. There’s a fierce joy in me suddenly, burning strong. The desire to devour life, drink deeply, inhale, crack the bones, run in the storms.

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