Imagine looking at your own hands and feeling like they don’t belong to you; not recognising your own voice when you speak; or even feeling like your observing your own body from another corner of the room.
That’s what life can feel like for someone with a dissociative condition, a rare mental illness that affects about one per cent of the population.
Those affected say it’s almost impossible to describe to others, but many mention losing their senses, developing alternative personalities or even forgetting long stretches of time.
One man even described losing an entire month of his life to the condition, and he only realised the time had passed when he was contacted by the bank, which notified him he had neglected to pay some bills.
So what exactly is a dissociative condition?
It essentially involves a dissociation or interruption from consciousness, awareness, identity or memory.
It can result from a psychological trauma, such as severe stress, wartime experience, or a psychotic episode, although 97 per cent of patients reported a history of abuse.
It’s typically caused as a result of childhood trauma in those under the age of nine.
Chris Young, author of Walk A Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon, says that his disorder started as a natural response to abnormal circumstances.
‘My first dissociative episode happened when I was sexually abused in my teens by someone very close to my family,’ he says. ‘Dissociation then was a fabulous defence mechanism that took me away from what was going on.’
It’s true that painful memories of trauma can be pushed away from consciousness through the condition, allowing the child to be able to function more ‘normally’ and separate themselves from the trauma.
There are a few different types of dissociative disorder, which include dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder and depersonalisation disorder, all of which have the potential to take over the sufferer’s life and severely disrupt their ability to function in daily life.
Memory loss is a common symptom that occurs as a result of dissociative amnesia, but it’s more serious than normal forgetfulness.
Chris says that this has become such a major part of his life that he’s lost a substantial chunk of time to the disorder.
‘My dissociative episodes can last anywhere between three days to three months, although that’s at the extreme end,’ he says. ‘We’ve worked out that I lose roughly a third of my life to it.’
Dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, leads people to display alternate personalities, known as alters, often in connection to stressful periods in their lives.
This may feel like a presence of one or more people talking and ‘living’ inside of them.
Chris says: ‘If it’s a long episode, it’s not unusual for me to believe I’m some manner of omnipotent being, like a God. At the opposite end of the scale, I’ve had a few long periods of believing I was four or five.’
Chris also deals with depersonalisation, a condition which can make you feel separate from your physical self like an out-of-body experience.
It can sometimes be associated with body image distortions and feeling that the world is unreal.
Chris says that he can spot the warning signs of depersonalisation when he starts to gaze at his left hand.
‘Cognitively, I know it’s real but emotionally, in my gut, I know it isn’t. Fairly rapidly it follows that if my hand isn’t real, then I’m not real, the world isn’t real, you’re not real – nothing is real.’
During these episodes he says there isn’t a lot that can be done other than to let it play out naturally. His wife says it can be like living with another man, but she offers support by keeping him safe and maintaining his basic needs.
‘We deal with it by putting me in a dark room with loud American cop shows with Ella passing food to me. Ella fends off any well-meaning friends who feel they could cheer me up by chatting to me.’
Blogger and dissociation sufferer Willow Summers says that the condition makes daily life scary and unpredictable, striking when she least expects it
‘It’s incredibly difficult to have the same day twice, with a perfectly mapped out routine.
At 8am I may be on my way to university ready to learn about fingerprint analysis, yet by 11am it turns out I never made it there and am at home on my bedroom floor surrounded by Play-Doh and toy dinosaurs.’
At other times Willow may get a signal that an alter is about to make an appearance: ‘I may begin to feel like my brain is floating inside of my head and become increasingly unable to concentrate, form correct sentences or identify what I’m doing.’
Recovery is possible through talking therapy, and medication may be prescribed to relive some of the symptoms, although there are currently no drugs that are licensed to treat dissociation specifically.
Chris says that it’s taken him a long time to come to terms with living with his mental illness.
‘Although dissociation curtails me, it doesn’t define me,’ he says. ‘It took me a long time to get here, and two years of great group psychotherapy.’
Mental health charity Mind explains that finding the right therapist is key for insuring the best chance of recovery, and you should try to find one who specialises in dissociation.
The Psychological Care and Treatment Centre also emphasises that when dissociative episodes occur frequently, or are profound, or when a person suffers from multiple identities, intensive treatment is necessary.
Supporting a friend with any type of mental health condition can be daunting and even difficult at times. You worry you might say something wrong, upset them or somehow make them more unwell.
You don’t need to worry and you most certainly don’t need to be an expert.
When supporting a friend or a loved one, compassion, care and an understanding approach is key. Be open-minded, be curious and don’t be afraid to ask how you can help. They may not know how you can support them, but at least they know you care and that you are willing and wanting to be there.
With dissociative identity disorder (DID) still not being prevalent or spoken about often, it can be a scary prospect to find out that someone you know and love has this condition — especially since Hollywood loves to demonize those with DID and turn them into ax-wielding violent criminals with multiple personalities. Not helpful, Hollywood!
Here are a few things you can do to support someone with DID:
1. If an alter has chosen to come forward and present as themselves, more than likely they feel comfortable with you. They may even trust you and want to get to know you. Have a chat and feel privileged they have trusted you enough — trust is not an easy thing for those with a traumatic past.
2. Be willing to listen, interact and have an open mind regarding everyone’s experiences. Each alter will have different life experiences; they may not have experienced things others have and visa versa. Understand this and respect their experiences.
3. Do not judge. For someone to develop DID, they will have been through such horrific and traumatic experiences that the last thing they need is someone judging how their incredible brain has managed to keep them alive.
4. Don’t be scared. It is much more likely for someone with DID to harm themselves than it is to ever hurt someone else, due to their often traumatic childhoods. If a young alter may appear, it may catch you off-guard; it may worry you a little, but all you have to do is accept it, ask if they want to watch a movie or play or anything else you may ask a small child. This is what they are; they are a part of the person trapped at that young age.
Just be kind. Just be supportive. Just be you.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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This article was co-authored by Noel Hunter, Psy.D. Dr. Noel Hunter is a Clinical Psychologist based in New York City. She is the director and founder of MindClear Integrative Psychotherapy. She specializes in using a trauma-informed, humanistic approach for treating and advocating for people diagnosed with mental disorders. Dr. Hunter holds a BA in Psychology from the University of South Florida, an MA in Psychology from New York University, and a doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D) from Long Island University. She has been featured in National Geographic, BBC News, CNN, TalkSpace, and Parents magazine. She is also the author of the book Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services.
There are 13 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
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Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a condition in which a person has two or more identities, each demonstrating different behaviors, moods, and emotions. While this condition used to be known as “multiple personality disorder,” it isn’t the same thing and the diagnostic criteria are different. DID isn’t rare, and it isn’t like “multiple personalities” you might’ve seen on TV or in movies. Movie and TV depictions are greatly exaggerated and real DID isn’t as sensational.  X Research source Living with someone with DID can be challenging at first, but Plurals (people with DID) can and do have loving, supportive relationships.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) can be isolating. Stigma and media portrayal of DID keeps many of us quiet about our disorder and shame is an inherent part of DID. So, when we do open up, people around us often don’t know what to do or what to say, how to interact without upsetting us. Family members who were not involved may also feel guilt and confusion as to why they didn’t see the signs of trauma in their loved one.
This is a list of 10 things you can do to help your friend or loved one with dissociative identity disorder feel less alone and more accepted.
1. Support your friend or family member with unconditional love and an open mind.
2. Watch for things that are obviously upsetting to your loved one and try to avoid doing them when possible.
3. Ask questions as needed, but back off if asked to or if it is obviously causing stress.
4. Understand to the best of your ability, and try to educate yourself if you feel you are in over your head.
5. Find a support group for significant others of people with DID or general mental illness — online works. (Btw, I personally hate that term — I don’t feel like we have an illness, but rather a very successful but relatively unique way to survive and relate to the world.)
6. Go with the flow. Relate, to the best of your ability, to whoever is with you at the time. If you are suddenly faced with a very young insider, use small words, short sentences and offer age appropriate activities. A game of Risk with a 5-year-old will just frustrate the child, even if it is in an adult body. Frustration will likely lead to a switch to someone else inside to deal with the frustration.
7. Use the terminology that the person with DID uses. If they grimace when you say a word or ask you not to use certain words, don’t use them.
8. Respect their space, both boundaries in life and in personal space. A person may back up when you come near or shrug off touch. Don’t push it; they’ll let you know when they feel comfortable or safe enough for you to move to the next level in their boundaries.
9. If a person looks confused in the middle of the conversation and can’t follow it, switch subjects or backtrack a little. There may have been a switch you didn’t catch mid-conversation (or sentence) or there may be inner or outside stimulation you are not aware of making it hard to concentrate/follow.
10. There are lots of things you probably already do right — that’s why you have been allowed into the inner circle and know about the DID at all. Be natural, respectful and honest; you will do just fine.
Follow this journey on the author’s Facebook page.
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Dissociative identity disorder is a severe type of dissociation where someone loses connection with their sense of identity, as well as their thoughts, feelings and memories. Dissociative identity disorder symptoms may include the feeling of having two or more separate identities or states of personality. This condition is likely a coping mechanism to deal with a severely traumatic experience.
A dissociative disorder can cause serious problems with your daily mental functioning, along with significant problems in school, at work and in relationships. However, there are various strategies that can help you cope with dissociative identity disorder. These tips aren’t a replacement for treatment, but they can help you effectively manage your symptoms.
1. Build Your Knowledge of Dissociative Identity Disorder
Empower yourself with information about your condition. Learn what the disorder is and what it isn’t. When researching dissociative identity disorder resources, you may learn that:
- This condition typically stems from exposure to intense trauma
- There are specific symptoms that you struggle with, but also ones that you don’t have
- Self-blame and shame are not good coping mechanisms
- Dissociative identity disorder occurs along a spectrum of severity, like many mental health disorders
Your research can help you focus on the particular resources that are most relevant to you.
2. Develop Alternative Coping Strategies for Painful Emotions
There are different ways to cope with dissociative identity disorder. Several key points about coping strategies include:
- The most effective strategies for you can depend on the specific symptoms you experience
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms can’t heal the symptoms or the underlying trauma contributing to the disorder
- Recognize positive and healthy coping strategies, rather than relying on unhealthy options such as using substances like alcohol
- Learn how to recognize your distinct identities, and be aware of how they may differ from one another
- Writing about your identities and also planning to experience each of them may be helpful can help you be more aware of and avoid them when possible
- Creating schedules and calendars with careful notes can help you become reoriented when necessary
24/7 National Hotlines
3. Learn How to Curb Impulsive Behavior
Acting on impulses can be a symptom of dissociative identity disorder. It can take time and work, but learning how to curb impulsive behavior can be helpful in all areas of your life. Planning and doing some of the tips above, such as creating schedules and calendars, can help with impulse control.
Learning to curb impulsive behavior can start with:
- Identifying the times when you are most likely to act impulsively
- Document times when you act impulsively
- Come up with healthy strategies for dealing with instances of impulsivity
- Create a routine for times when you’re more likely to behave impulsively (for example, maybe plan to contact a close friend or family member when you feel like you could act impulsively)
4. Practice Relaxation Techniques
You may benefit from practicing relaxation techniques because internal chatter can become overwhelming. Learn how to practice relaxation in a way that works for you. It can vary for everyone, and it may take some time to find the strategies that will work best for you.
When you’re overwhelmed or stressed, you can aim to:
- Recenter yourself
- Try out yoga or some form of physical activity
- Do something with your hands (e.g., knitting or crafting) to help you practice relaxation techniques
5. Create a Daily Schedule
Creating a daily schedule to structure your day is so important when you are coping with dissociative identity disorder. Developing a schedules can help you:
- Stay grounded and present
- Remove unexpected situations that create stress or lead to impulsive behaviors
- Stay focused if you are moving between different areas of consciousness or having gaps in your memory
6. Form a Support Network
When you have dissociative identity disorder, you may want to hide it from the people around you, yet that can lead to social isolation. Having a support network is essential for your mental health and quality of life.
Don’t shut everyone out when you have dissociative identity disorder. Instead of closing yourself off, you can:
- Look into online support groups and communities: One specific online community is called DPSelfHelp.com. This site features blog posts as well as a forum where people can share in an online community.
- Find a Facebook group: There is a popular Facebook support group called Living with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
- Find helpful organizations: The SIDRAN Institute is an organization that helps connect people who have experienced trauma with online and local resources.
These support groups can help you realize that you aren’t alone. You can feel less isolated by hearing stories that may be similar to your own, and you can form relationships. You can also find friends that you can confide in, and share what you’re going through.
7. Seek Professional Help
Dissociative identity disorder treatment can help you thrive physically and mentally. Dissociative identity disorder therapy may include:
- A combination of psychotherapy and medication
- Learning how to identify and refine coping strategies
- Getting to the root of where the disorder stems from in your life
- Support and information from a therapist
If you would like to learn more about drug or alcohol addiction treatment, or treatment for dissociative identity disorder and other available resources, please contact The Recovery Village. A caring representative can answer your questions and guide you in the direction of treatment.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Dissociative Disorders.” Accessed January 10, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “What Are Dissociative Disorders?.” August 2018. Accessed January 10, 2019.
February 8, 2019 , Laurel Nowak BrightQuest Treatment Centers
It can be difficult to understand how dissociative identity disorder affects daily life. However, by learning more about it, you can begin to imagine the challenges. Living with DID is not only stressful for the person at the center of it—it is also stressful for the family. Find out how you can be helpful now by showing receptive support and by helping your loved one get life-changing clinical care as soon as possible.
What is it really like living with multiple identities or alters? Tristan says, “It frustrates me when people try to tell me my alters aren’t real. Even if they’re just trying to make me feel better, I end up feeling more alone and misunderstood. My alters are me. How could they not be real?”
It’s difficult to understand for someone on the outside. But the more we know about how dissociative identity disorder affects daily life, the better we can support someone who suffers with it.
Treatment goes a long way to helping a person integrate the distinct parts of themselves, develop supportive resources, and practice coping skills that really work. But over the long term, they are going to be discovering how the benefits of treatment really weave into daily life. And having understanding family members and friends will be critical in this continuing recovery journey.
Understand How Dissociative Identity Disorder Affects Daily Life
For people like Tristan who cope with dissociative identity disorder every day, their reality of selfhood is different from what the rest of us typically experience. At different points throughout the day or the week or the month, they see, feel, understand, and interact with the world through more than one identity. In a way, their “alters” take turns living their life. The various identities usually have unique names, personalities, voices, interests, genders, even ways of dressing.
At some point in their past, an experience was too intense, overwhelming, or painful, and their mind adapted by withdrawing and compartmentalizing certain sensitive parts of itself. It dissociated. It was intended as a way to protect the whole person, but this coping mechanism basically ruptured a complete consciousness so that they understand themselves as being a system of various individuals. And the mind is not in a position to reintegrate these different identities without help.
Some people with DID are aware that they have this disorder and that the various versions of themselves take turns living different moments and stretches of their days. Other people are not aware of the wider perspective and live out their days confused and destabilized by this disintegration. One very important truth is that these alternate personalities are all critical aspects of the original individual. When a person is able to gain a clearer perspective and some helpful coping skills, their alters may work together as a cooperative system. One personality might be best at interpersonal skills, another at organizational skills, and another at leadership, for example. So, they can manage life situations by compartmentalizing certain responsibilities.
But it isn’t always the case that a person’s system of alters is awake and prepared enough to cooperate. If the individual isn’t even aware that they are living with this disorder, it can be extremely destabilizing to endure a rollercoaster of personalities and thoughts and behaviors. The unpredictable patterns and inability to cope can severely upset relationships, school and job opportunities, and basic life responsibilities. And an individual’s sense of self is far from grounded in this distressing scenario. They may be at risk of other problems and disorders, too, as they struggle through their days.
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What Can You Do to Help Someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder?
People with dissociative identity disorders likely already feel isolated and alone in their suffering. One of the first things you can do is to help them feel supported and understood. Even if you can’t quite know what they are going through, you can be patient and receptive to the range of their experiences. When this person is living through the lens of an alternate personality that is unfamiliar to you, remember that this is still your loved one, and help them to feel accepted and supported regardless.
While your ongoing support is indispensable, you will not be able to help them through recovery on your own. This is a disorder that requires knowledgeable clinical attention and proven treatment options for lasting recovery. It is very possible with comprehensive treatment for someone to learn to integrate their alternate identities and significantly mitigate their dissociative symptoms. Not only was there an initial traumatic episode that provoked their severe dissociation, but there has also been trauma and pain resulting from the distressing symptoms that followed. Only an experienced therapist can help guide this individual to a harmonious sense of self and healthy coping strategies.
The realities of dissociative identity disorder are understandably stressful for the family as well as for the person at the center of it. Early treatment is the best assurance for a successful recovery. Residential treatment, in particular, allows an individual to be immersed in healing practices and perspective. It will take time to develop therapeutic alliances, healthier coping skills, and a productive relationship with their stored trauma. All of these important layers of treatment can pave the way to reintegrating the self. A residential treatment center can inspire harmony among the selves within a single person, as well as among the individuals within their family community. And you can be an integral part of that journey.
If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.
Does anyone know some resources that can help me? Any forums or pages on how a partner or spouse can learn to adapt? I’ve suspected this for years but my husband was just recently diagnosed with it.
A little bit about him:
Tom was never sexually abused but he was emotionally neglected by his parents who didn’t speak to him because he was "strange." They did things like tear up his art work instead of featuring it on the fridge regardless of the fact that his two sisters had their art displayed on the fridge all the time. He has Asperger’s and doesn’t understand how to interpret body language and so he doesn’t understand why people think he is weird. As a child he spent every day after school up in his room with his alters, some of which have faded or split into others. He was also verbally abused. Later when he was 300 pounds he was placed on a starvation diet to get him down to 150 (he’s 6 foot tall.) His father called him gay because he enjoys cooking, cleaning, organizing and interior design.
Host: Tom, Ministry student. Christian. Wants to be a preacher. Late twenties.
Jim (split into Toby) This alter came out when Tom was living in a basement apartment with nobody to talk to. He did not have a phone, TV, or computer available for six months. This alter can show his anger physically and if in a fight with Toby then a lot of mental chaos ensues.
Toby: Protector, Atheist, Brutal nihilist. (Tom was the subject of a lot of emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse within church or those who claimed to be Christian.) By far the most active alter; comes out almost every night, especially if Tom is too tired to restrain him and the others are also sleeping. Best way to deal with Toby is for Tom to just go to bed, but Toby balks at the idea and continues swearing and spewing out non-Christian ideas and philosophies, and often uses Tom’s knowledge of the bible or experiences with Christians to throw it in Tom’s face to get him to leave Christianity. So far it hasn’t worked.
Mortimer: Came out about the same time as Jim to restrain Jim from splitting into Toby. He is primarily a peaceful mediator between Toby and Jim, as both of these alters have explosive personalities. He uses force when needed but then feels guilty for hurting his friends.
Tanok: ISH/Gatekeeper Tanok comes from another world than the other three alters called Yma. He is an elf (as in Lord of the Rings style elf, not as in Keebler elf.) This world has been inside Tom since middle school. It is a complex world with three fully thought out languages. This alter mainly comes out when Yma is being typed on the computer but sometimes shows up when Tom is too weak to restrain Toby on his own. Shares some similarities with Mortimer but the two don’t know about each other. He is a few thousand years old. He has friends from outside the system.
Vice: More of a fragment than anything else.
He also hears the people who were the abusers. It’s as if he relives everything they say. I can’t tell him it’s in the past as it’s very real even though it was almost two years ago now that he last contacted them.