A Closer Look at Dissociative Identity Disorder

Mental health and counseling concept, psychologist listening to depressed female patient and writing down notes

By: Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) also known as multiple personalities or, as I like to call it, multiplicity, may seem like a far-fetched, fantasy-like concept, made up for the purpose of entertaining the masses with stories, movies, and television shows. However, the truth is that DID is a very real condition that many people have had to develop in order to survive, function, and navigate the world. It is more common than most think, affecting up to one percent of the population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. That is 1 in 100 people.

To understand why DID develops in the first place, it is important to first understand some basics about the brain and its functions. In addition to helping a person perform the basic functions of life (breathing, heart beating, digestion, etc.) the brain has built-in mechanisms to help a person to survive. The brain also has other very important functions including helping us to learn and connect with others, as we are a species that has survived and thrived primarily because of our ability to band together. Therefore, social engagement, learning, and being able to respond to threats in the environment are high on the brain’s priority list.

In order to perform the above jobs, the brain takes in information from the environment and makes adjustments necessary to navigate the specific situation in which a person has to live. If a person is properly nurtured, supported and cared for, the brain is able to take in information, sort through it, and file it away for future reference (known as the process of learning). However, when a person experiences something overwhelming, the parts of the brain that normally process information shut down so the survival parts of the brain can come online and help the person to fight back, run away, hide, or freeze. For a person with good social support, the information processing parts of the brain can come back online when the environment is safe again and go through the sorting and filing process it does with all other information. New learning happens and the person is able to continue on with life. However, when overwhelming experiences happen frequently and are intense or horrific, the brain does not have the chance to sort through this information at a later time. Instead, the brain sometimes compensates by splitting into different personalities, alters, or parts so that the person can survive what would otherwise not be survivable.

Dissociative identity disorder results in a splitting of the personality into more than one personality within one person. Most people with DID have experienced neglect, sexual/emotional/verbal abuse, medical trauma, torture, or ritualistic abuse. In my experience in treating people with DID, it is not uncommon for someone with DID to have experienced all of the above. Splits in the personality start happening very young, when a person cannot fight back or run away from a perpetrator and when he or she is not receiving the emotional support and nurturing all mammals require to integrate information. Splits can continue into adulthood and, often, treatment is necessary in order to help a person and their parts to achieve adaptive functioning as an adult.

This is the case with Bri, a highly intelligent, talented and remarkable person who has survived and thrived because of her brain’s incredible ability to adapt by splitting into at least 67 personalities. Bri and her parts are brave in sharing their story with the world, with the hope that they can help others by shedding light on the fact that unimaginable things do in fact happen in this world and that there is help and hope for anyone who has survived. Bri and her parts have given me permission to share their progress in therapy to demonstrate that the hope for healing is real.

Treatment of DID first begins with normalization of the splitting of the brain into different parts and understanding that it was a function that helped a person to survive. When working with different parts of a person, there will be different opinions, feelings, and thoughts about treatment. It is vital that all parts of the system have a voice that can be heard. Developing trust with parts is an integral part of the healing process, which starts from the first contact between therapist and client. In Bri’s healing process, it will be necessary for me to communicate with parts, as they are ready, about how they are feeling and make adjustments as necessary to make sure all parts can feel welcomed and important.

It is important to note that the goal of our treatment is not to make Bri’s parts go away. First, we will work towards knowing parts and orienting them to the present; helping them to know how old the body is now and that Bri did get away from her perpetrators. One of the most common difficulties people with DID have is “losing time” which are essentially blank spaces in memory. They often do not remember periods of time when other parts take over. It can be difficult to complete a task and can be very frustrating for a person. This can get in the way of all aspects of life, from making a meal to having a job. Present time orientation and helping parts to have specific roles can help to alleviate this issue. Another common challenge is internal conflict between parts. We address this by helping parts know each other and by mediating any conflict to find a peaceful resolution.

In the end, we want parts to perform functions that are age appropriate (as not all parts are adult) and for the whole system of parts to work cohesively, with an adult part helping to steer the ship and navigate the system. I am so excited to be with Bri and her parts on their journey and thank you, reader, for wanting to be more informed. Click here to learn more about DID and Bri’s journey.