By: Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC
It is readily apparent early on in treatment that my clients with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are some of the most resilient, intelligent, and creative people on the planet. No matter how many people I treat, I am always left in awe of the strength and resilience of the human body and spirit. Of course, Bri’s case is no different.
Dissociative Identity Disorder is all about surviving, functioning, and navigating life. In order to survive what one would otherwise not survive, the nervous system adapts. This works very well to help a person who experiences major trauma to make it through the worst of times. It’s like the brain splits off into different memory banks, which then develop separate personalities, emotions, characteristics, thoughts, and experiences of the world. This splitting is very helpful in surviving, but the problem comes later when the immediate danger has passed and the nervous system continues to function as it did at the time of trauma. The person with DID is often faced with losing time, doing and saying things they don’t remember, having difficulty completing tasks, and finding they have problems trying to make and maintain healthy relationships. That is why therapy is so important. Therapy helps to facilitate the healing process, which is essentially updating all parts of the dissociated system to the present, creating co-consciousness and cooperation among parts, and helping the person to function as a healthy adult.
Healing the dissociated personality structure starts with acknowledgment. Client and therapist have to get to know the parts of the person’s fragmented personality. One thing all parts have in common is they all have a purpose and are all acting in ways they believe are in the best interest of survival. Even parts who have had the job of keeping the person quiet by saying awful things inside learned to do so in order to prevent abuse or to at least prevent it from getting worse. As we get to know parts, we approach them with curiosity and appreciation, which can, at first, be a challenge, especially when approaching parts that have had to do unpleasant jobs in order to help the person to survive. Some parts may hold one moment in time and others may have years of memories. Each person’s system is unique in the way it has adapted to the circumstances the person had to endure. All parts deserve to heal and all parts are good. Sometimes they wear ugly costumes, but underneath, all have played a part in the person’s survival. Although this can take time, it is vital to the healing of all parts that both the person and the treating therapist treat them with kindness and compassion.
Creating awareness is another very important part of the healing process, as we cannot heal what we do not acknowledge. It is important to note that sometimes parts know each other and sometimes they don’t. Some parts are aware of the presence of other parts while others believe they are the only ones to occupy the person’s body. Some parts may choose to come forward early in therapy and some may wait until later. In order to make the internal and external environments safe and comfortable for each part, client and therapist work together to set up a healing environment, both inside the mind and in the therapy room. This is especially important when we are working through conflicts between parts. It is very common for different parts to have differences of opinions when it comes to all kinds of decisions, from big decisions like house buying or relationship decisions, down to what to have for dinner. When the person and therapist can create a safe environment both inside and outside of the mind, these discussions between parts go much more smoothly. Parts may continue to disagree, but if everyone has the chance to be heard and updated about why a specific decision is being made, conflicts can be diffused and decisions can be made based on what is best for the person in the present circumstances, rather than making decisions based on information that is stuck in the past.
Having safety in the present is also necessary when parts begin to share the memories they are holding. Parts often carry memories that are very heavy and difficult to bear alone. The sharing allows a person and their parts to begin to move from being burdened by trauma to feel supported in the present. As mentioned earlier in this blog, having parts is very much like having separate memory banks. Some experiences are so overwhelming and traumatic that the brain had to create a separateness inside because looking at all of them would have been too much. When a person starts to revisit some of the traumatic memories, it is important to maintain dual awareness, meaning looking at the past, while acknowledging having gotten out and being present in the therapy room. It is the acknowledgment of what happened and having compassion for the part that has held it that begins the process of trauma healing. As trauma is the basis of what creates DID in the first place, it is healing the trauma that will help a nervous system to come into healthy functioning in the world.
As Bri and I continue to work together, and as I work with other clients, I am reminded daily of the flexibility of the nervous system in surviving and also healing. Just as the nervous system adapted to survive and navigate the world after trauma, it can shift into health. It is my experience and belief that everyone’s nervous system is wired at the core to strive for health and that it is the healthy human connection that begins to facilitate the natural healing process. Click here to learn more about DID and Bri’s journey.