- Having a “split personality” is called Dissociative Identity Disorder.
- Split personalities are known as “alters,” while the body is the “host” or “system.”
- DID has been wrongly portrayed in film, TV, and books as linked with evil.
- In most cases, people with DID are the victims of abuse, not the abusers.
- They want you to know they are not “monsters” but are human just like you.
Have you ever been reading a page of a book, but you zone out and don’t recall anything you’ve just read? Are you ever driving a familiar route, only to realise you haven’t really been focusing on the road the entire time? This is sort of what it’s like to have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), according to several people Business Insider interviewed who live with the disorder as well as a psychologist who specialises in treating it. The only difference is it happens all the time, and in these moments someone else takes over.
Non-violent and seemingly normal anecdotes like these from people who have multiple personalities — or “alters” — are a far cry away from the character(s) represented in “Split,” the new film starring James McAvoy as a man with 24 individual personalities.
In the climax of the film, Kevin (McAvoy) morphs into “the Beast,” one of his personalities. The Beast has superhuman speed, strength, and agility, apparently unique to its manifestation, and also kills and devours people, suggesting the human body can adjust itself biologically to fit a dangerous and psychopathic alter.
While the film is entertaining, it is not a realistic portrayal of DID, and may do harm to people who live with the real disorder. One common misconception about DID is that whoever has it is not “themselves” 100% of the time. In fact, concepts such as “me,” “myself,” or “I” can be quite tricky things to define.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-IV, DID is formally recognised as a psychiatric diagnosis, and the patient must show at least two individual identities or personalities, which routinely take control of the individual’s behaviour. Along with this there is also memory loss that goes beyond normal forgetfulness, and each alter can display a broad range of traits such as phobias or mood disturbances.
All of the individuals that Business Insider spoke with who self-identified as having DID said they had suffered abuse at some point in their lives. Since our sampling was by no means exhaustive, we also interviewed Dr Robert T. Muller, a professor of clinical psychology at York University in Toronto, who has over 20 years experience working with people with DID, to get a better idea of how the two may be linked.
“It’s virtually unheard of that you have a client with multiple personality disorder who has not had significant attachment based trauma,” or psychological trauma such as abuse from an early care giver like a parent, Muller told me.
Several studies have found a relationship between childhood trauma and dissociation, such as the work by Dr Bethany Brand who recognised there was controversy around the disorder and looked into independent files and police records. She found that people with DID had all routinely had severe childhood traumas, and since then the research has been consistent.
“Split” does address the topic of child abuse somewhat, explaining that Kevin’s personalities began manifesting to help him cope with an abusive mother who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, as a horror film, it fails to accurately represent DID.
Here are the stories of four people with multiple alters who told me what it’s really like to live with many voices — sometimes competing and conflicting ones — within their own heads. It’s important to remember that these are personal stories, however, and everyone who deals with a distinct mental illness — just like anyone who deals with a distinct physical one — has a unique experience.
There are four people in Jennifer’s system — the name people with DID sometimes call their collective selves — and three of them are much younger. Jennifer is 39 years old but Emily* is 3, Caroline* is 7, and Eloise* is 16. She wanted her name and location to remain anonymous as she was only recently diagnosed.
Jennifer believes she started dissociating at around age 3 to try and escape the volatile temper and abuse of her mentally unstable mother. For this, she sees her alters as her saviors.
“My father never stood up for me so I felt defenseless and alone,” she recalls. “Without Eloise, I wouldn’t have survived being in that house. Without my alters, I wouldn’t have survived — period.”
For Jennifer, her alters kept her safe when nobody else could. She says that Eloise was the personality that finally started fighting back, for example. Apparently she is the headstrong, fierce and very protective tomboy of them all, who enjoys martial arts, hunting and all things military. This couldn’t be further from Jennifer, who is a liberal who loves animals and is considering taking up a career in dog massage. Eloise, Jennifer says, thinks this is ridiculous.
Caroline is the most burdened of all the alter, probably because she was present for the majority of the abuse. She doesn’t trust anyone, even Jennifer herself, which they say they are working on in therapy.
For all their differences, Jennifer and her alters have found a happy medium by listening to each other and learning how they can help each other.
“I have learned to face Eloise, to listen to her and to treat her as an equal, and it seems to have made our relationship much more manageable,” Jennifer said. “If there is any friction we talk it out calmly rather shouting at each other like we used to do.
“The system only works if we all respect each other and are all given ‘air time’ to voice our thoughts and feelings. I’ve never argued with Emily or Caroline; with them being so young they tend to look to me as parent-like figure so they are easy to advise and guide.”
Rich, a 38-year-old farmer from California, was diagnosed with DID at age 14. He currently has three alters, but he told me there used to be a lot more. Eventually, he said, those other alters became integrated into his personality. Now it’s just him (Rich), Bobbie (who is female), and Fred (a newer addition). For him, his dissociation was a journey which began with him phasing out from reality, to seeing things in third person, to finally splitting into other separate personalities.
“I couldn’t feel anything that was happening to me, and sometimes I would have an out of body experience and even leave the room,” he explained. “Later in life, my dissociative episodes were stronger, for lack of a better word. I would get amnesia and depending on the situation I would behave differently and even use different names. I guess it made things feel like they weren’t happening to me.”
Rich told me he was also mistreated when he was young. He was left with a babysitter for much of his childhood as his parents worked, and was sexually and emotionally abused, and he feels he probably hasn’t recovered all of the memories from that time yet due to dissociating.
“It feels like I am watching a movie when I try to recall things I did when I lived in that town,” he said.
Rich is married and says that his wife and Bobbie get on very well, and even sometimes go shopping together. He thinks Bobbie is likely to stick around now, rather than disappear like many of his other alters, because he is now “comfortable and happy.”
“I never took an exact count but I could count more than 10 and felt there was more,” Rich said. “That includes alters that were just containers for memories and fragments that performed a singular purpose. I have struggled with food. I feel guilty about eating. I had one solely to make sure I would eat. I — it — would sneak food during the night. I had obsessive hand washer. That trait passed to me when it integrated.”
Drew is in his 40s and lives and works full time as a graphic designer in a major metropolitan area in the US Midwest. There are about seven alters in his system of which he is the only male. He’s also in a female body, but he doesn’t consider himself trans — more that he has gender dysphoria. Drew was diagnosed with DID at age 20.
Drew’s alters include Sophie* who is the host aged 41, Claire who is 23, Eden who is 17, Rain who is 12, and a couple of younger alters who are about 4 and 8, but that’s an estimate.
“I don’t like to put an exact number on us, especially the kids, because there are rumours that there are others hidden away,” Drew said. “When you think you know everyone but then run into someone you didn’t know, it really throws everyone for a loop.”
Drew says they are all very different people, and all appeared at different times. Many of them have memories of abuse growing up, and hold different memories about what happened to them.
“Some memories of abuse are even ‘split’ in a way that one recalls only intense feelings like shame and fear, where someone else recalls mainly physical pain,” Drew said. “Working together to share those memories with each other and integrate the experiences into a complete narrative is what we consider an eventual goal. Nobody has any desire to try and become one person, if that were even possible, which we don’t believe it is.”
Drew believes his alters may have appeared as a way of dealing with emotional and physical abuse, as well as neglect and psychological harm, meaning there was no safe space to crawl away to. Splitting off and dissociating can be a defence mechanism, like playing possum or focusing your mind, only it has been taken to the extreme, according to Muller.
Over the years, Drew and the others have worked hard at being co-conscious, which he describes as “a state in which one person is “out” but the others are also aware of what is happening.” So while one may not recall going to the shops as a first-person memory, they would be aware of what happened as a sense of “we went to the shops.”
They also have their own areas where each prefers to take the lead. For example, Claire is very well organised, and so handles most of the day-to-day things at work. Sophie and Rain are the “artists” and are both very creative. Drew is the practical and logical one, and, he admits, slightly controlling.
“We have pretty clearly defined areas of expertise, which helps us work cooperatively most of the time,” he said. “There is occasionally a lot of shouting, or at least loudly voiced opinions.”
Jess is studying to be an interpreter for the deaf. She’s 34, from Ohio and works part time as a server assistant in a restaurant.
Jess was diagnosed with DID at age 25, and sees her dissociation slightly differently to the others, in that she doesn’t believe any person really just has one identity. She told me babies take a long time to figure out their spatial surroundings, and even what and who they are, and so we develop identities as we grow, “through experiences and discovering the relation of ourselves to our environment.”
As for her system, she says there are three hosts: Post Traumatic Jess, Dissociative Jess** (who uses two asterisks to signify the alters within her) and Normal Jess, as well as 15 alters contained within three groups. That 18 people all together.
There’s Jey, Morrighan, EvaMarie, Morgana and Erzsebet in the adult group, Suzy, June and Bel in the teen group, then Emerald, Sapphire, Eloise and Connie who are children. There are also three “non-human” alters that Jess says helped her with surviving trauma. They are Kiki, a cat that distracts from reality as a human, Zoey, a sprite-a fairy like creature, and Justice, her guardian angel. Jess discusses them and her feelings and thoughts in her blog.
She doesn’t exactly know when each identity was created, but she knows she was very young, because that’s when the sexual assault by her brother started.
“I feel that each time I was in a situation that was unbearable, then I’d leave and someone else would be there,” Jess said. “I believe at first they were like a blank shell, and the more they came out, the more they grew and learned just like any child does.”
Connecting everyone internally is the most difficult skill to master according to Jess, especially as all her alters differ in age, the memories they have, and their emotional reactions to situations. Some even have very distinct facial expressions, voices, and unique body language behaviour.
A challenge with DID, she says, is when something triggers the dissociation and she is suddenly not “present” any more and loses time.
“You end up places you don’t know how you got there, your plans you were supposed to do, go undone. Sometimes things come up missing or are misplaced,” Jess said. “There are a lot of challenges but it’s really unique to each individual.
“The hardest part about life is just living it, I say. It’s a lot of work to get everyone inside here on the same page.”
The challenges of being more than one person
Dissociation can come with a host of challenges, but one of the most difficult may be memory loss. Jennifer, for example, told me about how her partner used to get frustrated because she would forget conversations they’d had three or more times before.
“I find that I do things without realising that I’ve done — nothing sinister — mundane things like I would somehow find I have something in my hand that I know for a fact was in a different room, on a different floor in the house, but have no recollection of fetching it,” she said. “I can forget whole movies, I can forget a book within days of reading it. I can even forget entire days of trips that I’ve taken with my partner.”
Rich recalls similar events. Sometimes he meets people and later doesn’t remember when he sees them again, which can be confusing for others, and can sometimes be misconstrued as rudeness.
Drew says Sophie refers to the lost time as “time warps” in her diary when she was younger and before she was diagnosed with DID. It’s like driving along and missing the turning because you’re on autopilot, but it happens at seemingly random times.
“I might suddenly realise I’m having a conversation with a person I don’t know or that I’m in a part of town I don’t recognise holding a shopping bag of things I don’t remember buying,” Drew said.
Jess says normal days can end up being like a game of Cluedo (Clue), trying to figure out “who did it.”
“I have a dark sense of humour that keeps me going,” she said. “It’s different for everyone, but I’m sure we all spend our days just trying to keep a schedule going between us all.”
Another challenge is something as simple as looking in the mirror and defining a sense of self.
“Looking in the mirror and not recognising myself is also a little disconcerting but I have grown to accept it now,” Jennifer said. “Or I should say that the others have grown used to not recognising themselves, as the reflection in the mirror is of the physical host, me, Jennifer*.”
What they want you to know
One major issue with “Split,” as with other films about DID, is the fact that they portray one or many alters as evil. You just have to Google the term “multiple personality film” to see the ominous, brooding titles and covers accompanying the topic.
In reality, this is almost always untrue, according to Muller. The vast majority of people with DID do not have alter-egos that allow them to indulge in evil desires.
Drew has friends with DID, and said that the media portrayal has perhaps even contributed to individuals fearing their own alters, but it all comes down to a lack of understanding and willingness to listen.
“Everyone I’ve known with DID has alters who were considered “evil” or “bad” by the rest of the system, only to come to understand that these individuals are actually very badly hurt children who have been tasked with carrying the bulk of the sadness, rage, and pain associated with abuse,” he said. “People are just afraid of anything they don’t understand and it’s easy to turn people into monsters for being different.”
Muller told me the idea of alters being dramatic or flamboyant in TV and film could originate from the fact there is often a juvenile part, who is childish to their approach to the world, and then a “persecutor” who is very aggressive.
“[It’s] a part that actually wants to torture themselves in a way, but to the person when they’re in the persecutor role, they feel powerful and their cruelty feels powerful to themselves,” Muller said.
This doesn’t mean the alter wants to wreak havoc on anyone else, as usually it’s a means of punishing themselves. As with some other victims of abuse, people with DID also may have very low self esteem and self-worth, according to Muller.
As for whether there is an “evil one,” Muller says it’s interesting because in some ways, DID is almost literary.
“Something like Jekyll and Hyde, something that is the embodiment of a metaphor: our different parts and how we have different sides to ourselves, and how we don’t show people our ugly sides, and we present a certain way to the world,” Muller said.
‘The human mind is remarkable’
It can be frightening for people in relationships with those who have DID to see their aggressive sides, but that’s because it’s disorienting to see your loved one as someone completely different, rather than being scared of what they would do to you. Jennifer said it’s never crossed her mind to harm anyone else, because she knows how it feels to be scared of an abuser.
“We are not dangerous in any way — we are more likely to hurt ourselves and be hurt by other people than we are to hurt anyone,” she said. “We have endured so much suffering that to inflict pain on anyone else is the last thing we would ever wish for.”
Suffering is such an integral part of DID because it is so closely intertwined with PTSD. Certain triggers can make someone dissociate, such as loud noises, raised voices, or the sight of flannel shirts, in the case of Matt who has DDNOS, a form of dissociating, and keeps a blog about his experiences. Now that Matt is an adult, his mind is allowing him more and more access to his past and the abuse he went through as a child, thanks to therapy and finally exploring why he had so many feelings of depression within himself.
“It’s a defence mechanism and it’s a very good thing, because our brains are so amazing,” he said. “The trauma happened when I was a kid, but I didn’t start dealing with it until 30, 35 years later.
“All those memories were in a shoe box in the bottom corner of the closet of my mind… Then once you begin to pick through the rubble and start to recall memories, your brain says, ‘ok, now you’re able to deal with this memory so I’m going to give you bits and pieces of this gigantic puzzle.'”
DID is an incredible survival tool rather than something to fear. Unfortunately, as a way of dealing with trauma that kept them safe as children, people with DID have carried it on past that stage. However, everyone I spoke to with DID was very aware of their disorder and their shortcomings, and had a take home message along the same lines: we are human, just a little different.
“We just want them to know that we’re not a monster, just because we have a DID diagnosis,” said Jess. “We may be a system of many people, but we are people just like you… DID experiences are personal, and are as different as the amount of different people in the world.”
Ultimately, Rich would just like people to be a little more patient.
“In short, ‘I have a Dissociative Disorder. Please forgive my forgetfulness,'” he said.
*Some names changed for anonymity at the interviewee’s request.