Archive for March 26th, 2008

Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtOne of the biggest misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is that the person has two or more “people” sharing a body. This is not correct. Instead, the person has compartmentalized her memories and emotions to such a degree that they feel foreign or as if they are “not me.” Every separate part is a part of the whole person.

When a very young child (under age six) experiences trauma, she has no way to fight back. Her body is too little to have a chance of fighting off her abusers. Her only option is to flee into her own head. While the abuse is happening, she distances herself from the abuse in her head. This is called dissociation. She tells herself that the abuse is happening to “someone else.” A very young child has the ability to compartmentalize that experience by “splitting off” that experience from her conscious memory. This skill enables her to behave as if the trauma had not just occurred immediately afterward.

Immediately after the abuse happens, the child does not process or even think about what just occurred. Instead, she separates that experience from her conscious mind. The part of herself that she has “rejected” becomes its own little capsule from that experience. Some of the capsules are small, holding only one emotion or experience. Those capsules are called personality fragments. Other capsules are larger and manifest as alter personalities. All of these are called alter parts. Personality fragments are one-dimensional while alter personalities are three-dimensional.

The purpose of an alter personality is to protect the inner child. By splitting off the painful experiences and emotions, the inner child is able to continue to function as if the abuse had not occurred. This enables the child to perpetuate the illusion of innocence after innocence is taken. The part of the child that interacts with the world (which is called the host personality) is generally an innocent part that is shielded from the abuse. The child “blacks out” when the abuse is occurring because alter personalities take over to experience the abuse. The child winds up with holes in her memory because she is “not there” when the abuse is happening.

A multiple system like this (having alter parts) is a highly functional way of surviving ongoing and severe trauma. Instead of being “freaky,” DID is ingenious. If prisoners of war had the ability to do this while being tortured, I am confident that they would do it, too. It is only when the abuse ends that DID becomes dysfunctional.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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