Well, the answer is not an easy one, and it’s somewhat painful for me to write about. DID is caused by chronic childhood trauma, usually starting at an early age. My first therapist, the only one to ever interview my parents, speculated that my abuse probably started in infancy. This is based on bizarre stories my mom told her about health problems I had as a baby. I agree with her, because once I saw a home movie in which I was about 2 years old. I was spacey and disconnected from the adults in the video. I preferred exploring the garden instead of interacting with others. This can also be seen in children on the autism spectrum, but I don’t have ASD. That home movie gave me clues that my dissociation started at a very early age.
It’s been difficult for me to decide how many details of my story to share. I think about the reader and what they can tolerate. I don’t want to trigger people. But telling my story, as terrifying as it is, can be freeing. So I’ve decided to stop worrying about others and think about myself for once. If you have unresolved childhood trauma, this might not be a good blog for you because there will be quite a few triggers. However, I will also share what helped me improve my functioning, mood, and quality of life.
So how does someone’s mind shatter? Well there are more and more studies showing how chronic child abuse can do this. It’s more likely if your abusers are also your caregivers. This sets up an impossible conflict for the child: they are terrified and hurt by the same people they rely on for food, shelter, and support. Also, perhaps due to genetics and other factors, some people are more predisposed to dissociation.
It’s also important to note that Dissociative Identity Disorder used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, but its name was changed to reflect a better understanding of the condition. DID is a compartmentalization of the mind. Consider it like I keep different memories and emotions in different boxes. When I was faced with a painful, terrifying, or life threatening situation as a child, my mind sort of hit a circuit breaker. Children can only encode and integrate so much. Some trauma can overwhelm a child’s ability to understand and accept what is happening. My mind survived by storing horrible memories apart from my consciousness. In order to survive, my mind split into different parts. This is why it’s now called dissociative identity disorder and not multiple personality disorder. My personality split into many different pieces, it did not create extra personalities. Some parts hold physical pain, some emotional pain, most hold terrifying memories, and all of them were created by trauma of some kind. Some parts help me function in the world. I wouldn’t have been able to go to school, have friends, and otherwise function if I didn’t have parts of my mind to hold the reality of my life and keep me unaware so that I could be a kid. Over time I have come to appreciate and thank those parts of me, even though they often give me trouble now that I’m an adult.
My childhood was extremely dark. I didn’t have any safe adults. I had teachers and coaches, but no one knew what I was going through. Eventually at age 15, we started to be unable to function. (I’ll probably go back and forth between singular and plural pronouns as I write. It usually means more than one of us is agreeing or identifies with what I have to say). I give us credit that we were able to survive and fly under the radar for 15 years. But eventually we became too depressed and anxious. A 14 year old part of me started cutting daily. I was severely depressed and suicidal all the time, but I didn’t know why. When I was on the school bus in the morning, I’d look out the window into the woods and see myself hanging from a tree. I didn’t know why I was having intrusive thoughts. Sometimes I’d randomly get partial or full paralysis, which was scary and embarrassing for a teen. I would experience sudden seizures that would last for about 5 minutes and puzzled doctors and therapists. As I mentioned before, my severe symptoms made me leave high school and attend day treatment. Occasionally I was placed in residentials and psych wards.
Every therapist and social worker I met was convinced I had trauma, but I said that I didn’t remember any. I wasn’t lying to them, I didn’t recall the horror until I moved out of my parents’ house at 18. One of my therapists tried to use EMDR to access my trauma memories when I was 15 because she was convinced I wasn’t telling her everything. I ended up having a severe seizure after that session. (EMDR must be modified by a trained therapist for dissociative disorders). My mind protected me when I lived with my parents. I was threatened with death if I told my therapists anything, so the parts kept it a secret until I was an adult. That’s when I was flooded with nightmares and partial flashbacks that seemed too horrible to be true. It’s 20 years later, and I am still sorting through all the memories.
Accepting and realizing that these stories are my reality has been very difficult. But the stories my parts tell me never changed, right down to the details. Because of the nature of DID, I would often remember flashbacks and then forget them again. I was constantly thinking they were new memories while getting re-traumatized every time. It’s only since I’ve been working with my current therapist that I’ve been able to remember my past more permanently. The two books Coping With Trauma Related Dissociation: Skills Training for Patients and Therapists and Treating Trauma Related Dissociation: A Practical, Integretative Approach by Kathy Steele, Onno van der Hart, and Suzette Boon have helped a great deal too. I’m grateful that my therapist and doctor are reading it, because it’s basically the best book out there right now for a very misunderstood condition that often gets overlooked. DID requires specific treatment approaches and will not improve with typical trauma focused CBT or other popular therapeutic interventions for trauma like desensitization and exposure therapy.
There’s a lot more to explain about DID and trauma, but that’s a quick overview. My hope is that people will learn something and teach others what they’ve learned. I want to stop the stigma around this disorder. No one deserves to be made fun of or have their mental illness used against them. We often feel isolated and misunderstood. This journey through trauma to a better life has taught me so much, and one important thing I hold onto is to be kind to everyone. I think the key to kindness is compassion and understanding. As I write more posts, I hope I can explain to others the daily experience of having many parts of your mind. And I hope I can also help others who have been through chronic trauma, whether they have a dissociative disorder or not. I will be sharing a lot of techniques and strategies that helped me function better. A lot of these ideas can help anyone with a trauma history, regardless of diagnosis.