What it's like to have a dissociative identity disorder, according to someone who has one
Behaviours, perceived ages, memories and attitudes together form our unique and individual sense of self. However, this familiar aspect of existence is not shared by all. For those with the psychological Dissociative Identity Disorder, accommodating multiple identities can be torturous.
Previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder, the mental illness DID is defined as alternating between various identities.
Melanie Goodwin, who has experienced the illness, told the science magazine Mosaic the reality of what it is like to live with alternate identities.
Until the age of 40, Ms Goodwin had no memory of life prior to reaching the age of 16. A family tragedy then activated a serious psychological change.
Ms Goodwin became aware of the other identities existing simultaneously within her. She felt that each identity belonged to her but that they were “her” at differing ages. These identities ranged from age three, to 16-years-old and further into Ms Goodwin’s adult years.
Ms Goodwin remembered being abused as a child, firstly at age three and the last occurrence at age 16.
She usually refers to herself as ‘we’ to encapsulate her identities and attends consulting sessions at the Pottergate Centre for Dissociation and trauma in Norwich.
“Development should be seamless… But because we didn’t grow up naturally, we would update ourselves… Finally, there were nine different adult parts, each managing a stage of our abuse-free adult life,” Ms Goodwin told Mosaic.
She says the disorder can be “hell.”
“If you’re in a totally impossible situation, you dissociate to stay alive. Trauma can freeze you in time.”
“And because the trauma is ongoing over years, there are lots of little freezings happening all over the place,” Ms Goodwin added.
Remy Aquarone, an analytical psychotherapist has worked with hundreds of people who have the psychological disorder. With 30 years of experience, Mr Aquarone told Mosaic that patients frequently have a history of childhood abuse, often beginning before the age of five.
As the abuse continues, different parts of the person’s identity splinter and dissociate as a protective psychological mechanism.
‘It’s using your unconscious cognition to adapt your way of thinking and behaviour in order to be more safe,’ Mr Aquarone added.
Mr Aquarone said that a critical factor is the absence of a healthy attachment to an adult in the child’s life which helps build a sense of self-continuity over time.
Lacking the unified sense of self attachment aids, the dissociated identities can often clash and create confusion in how the person’s personality appears.
Ms Goodwin’s three-year-old part quickly becomes scared and hides from things that remind her of previous traumas. She also has an anorexic identity and one that attempted suicide twice.
She explained that the different identities have created difficulties in her marriage and that her husband used to say “he never knew what he was coming home to.”
“He thinks it’s mad he didn’t pick up on this… But he loved me.”
When Ms Goodwin learned to listen to the different identities she said she was able to learn “to share the one life between us.”
Ms Goodwin describes managing the presence of multiple people existing inside her mind by dividing time and activities between them. The adults would have the day at work, cycling because the 16-year-old was unable to drive, while the younger identities would be able to play with teddies in the evenings.
'We are not one, but we all agree to live harmoniously together, which works well most of the time” added Ms Goodwin.