“Dissociative Identity Disorder. Or, well you know, Multiple Personality Disorder in layman’s terms.”
The words just rolled off my second psychology professor’s tongue. My heart silently dropped to my ankles in my chair, as my pulse spontaneously sped up and my face flushed. He continued lecturing on Axis II diagnostic categories in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It was the middle of Summer in 2008 — a total of 7 years after I had been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder at the psychiatry clinic where I walked in reporting a feeling of dread that I might actually have multiple personalities. I answered all the standardized questions they have to ask everyone. And then I told them about episodes where my friends had done things like slam their hand down on a table and shout my name at me before going on, still visibly angry at me, to explain to me that over the course of hours I didn’t even know had passed, I had been interrupting them and tearing them to shreds with my words. I told them that this was frightening, because these were my friends, and I would never talk to them that way — but even more so because hours had passed and I wasn’t even aware that I was missing that much time.
I went home from my class that day and typed out the words “Dissociative Identity Disorder” in a Google search. Every result came up with my search terms and the words “multiple personality disorder” somewhere in the text preview of the page. I remembered doing this from the library in downtown Edmonton a couple of days after I was given my diagnosis. Every result that came up was hyper-academic and technical jargon I couldn’t understand — not one mention of its former name, which is still used as a layman’s term today. I remember feeling helpless without that psychiatrist, and taking the yellow and pink pills without resistance, because I feared that if I didn’t cooperate, I wouldn’t get any help.
I decided not to disclose to anyone at the time, what just happened in that classroom, except for my partner at the time. It was a mere matter of weeks before I had another dissociative episode. He spent the following morning being passive aggressive until I asked what was wrong. He told me I had become belligerent with him the previous night, some time between when I was laughing about how fucking drunk I was getting, and when I got up that morning. He told me I tried to fight him, and became even more abusive, so he just said “fuck it, then” and left me in my own sick. Waking up like that was upsetting enough, but to be bashed for something I didn’t even remember, which was also radically out of character for me? I tried to defend myself — to remind him what I had told him about my mental health. He didn’t care. He called me names and continued to get even more upset with me until I was literally in tears. I eventually ended our relationship. We had been together for a total of two years, and had been living together for nearly a year prior to this event.
Early in 2009, I finally enrolled in an abnormal psychology class. I was both terrified of what I would find out about my own condition, and compelled by the same prospect. As my third psychology prof, who actually works as a psychologist outside his job at the college, glossed over the dreaded Axis II cluster of disorders, he stopped on Dissociative Identity Disorder. He read us a case study of a woman, who during psychotherapy, had recalled previously repressed memories of being confined in the pantry by her mother, who was also force-feeding her and abusing her every way possible. I told myself that what I went through doesn’t compare. That maybe I’m not going to turn out as bad as what he was about to tell us about her. And what he told us after that, was that this woman had successfully enrolled in two separate colleges at the same time, under two different assumed identities, and was pursuing two separate degrees with a mere two hours of sleep every night. She had multiple wardrobes for her multiple personalities, and had no idea why she was so tired all the time — she didn’t even know she was enrolled in and attending another college until her psychotherapist helped her piece her day-to-day life together. My mind flashed back to the point-of-view series called Untold Stories of the ER, where doctors tell their own first-hand account of some of the most unbelievable stories. My mind went there, because there was a story of a woman with multiple personalities, who had been self-harming under one while holding the other hostage.
And then he showed us a documentary on Kenneth Bianchi, the Hillside Strangler, who attempted to use Dissociative Identity Disorder as a legal defence when arrested. I was mad within the first five minutes, because I could tell so immediately that he was faking, based on my direct experiences with the disorder. I took notes of every thing that he did that told me he was faking. Every note I took down was affirmed by the end of the video, as the criminal investigation probed into his past and revealed his sloppy work of piecing together a fragmented identity. At the end of the class, I waited to talk to my instructor about DID. I couldn’t tell if he had me figured out as soon as my question left my mouth, but if he did, he didn’t care when he said “Frankly, I’ve never met anyone with Dissociative Identity Disorder who is functional.” His words cut through me, my heart sped up in a panic that he was judging me, and tears rushed to my face as I flushed. I told him, in tears, who I really am, after the final marks came out. He said I’m doing really well, considering my condition. He told me that every psychologist does pro bono work, so that no one who needs help is deprived of it.
I started seeing a psychiatrist who had a special clinical interest in psychotherapy, late in 2009. He was the first professional to take my no-drugs boundary seriously. He was the first person to validate me (instead of instantly rejecting everything I had to say) when I spoke of traumatic memories and relationships. Especially my earliest memories. I tried (unsuccessfully) to put my life into the hands of someone who would make me disappear, as I started to uproot all of this pain and trauma for the first time. I told him that the most sadistic thing a person has ever done to me, was when that man handed me my life back, because it wasn’t even worth taking. He asked me point-blank if I had a death wish we needed to talk about. I started on the path to recovery that day.
It was Spring of 2010 when I finally gave myself permission to come out as genderqueer and trans. I shaved my head and asked to be referred to by a new name for the first time. I started being honest with everyone for the first time about how I really experience my body. My psychiatrist retired shortly thereafter. Then I ended my very brief relationship with my girlfriend when I realized how much she is like my mother — passive aggressive, emotionally unavailable, and egocentric to the point of a fault. I started trying to reach out to apologize to people who I could have been a better person towards if I had the insight into myself I now have. Then I started to experience something I didn’t anticipate would keep happening after I integrated my multiple identities: I would shut down emotionally until I was pushed to my absolute threshold. And this continues to happen to this day. I was finally referred to a new psychiatrist during the Summer of 2011, while multiple simultaneous conflicts with chosen family, long-term friends, and even my romantic partner at the time, all began to erupt at the same time for reasons I couldn’t understand.
In some cases, these conflicts erupted for reasons that were withheld from me until it was far too late for me to be a part of the solution to the problem. In many other cases, they erupted because the people I thought I could trust simply grew tired of waiting for me to “snap” back to my old self — I described to them as honestly as I could, what exactly they meant by this, whether they realized it or not, as I made up my mind to cut them out of my life if they failed to comprehend the gravity of what they had just said. That they wanted me to “snap” back into my old latently suicidal self: a fragmented identity incapable of self-respect or self-love. A spineless, self-abasing masochist constantly seeking out ways to self-annihilate through destructive and abusive relationships. Eventually all of the people on the other sides of these conflicts ganged up together, just like my two older siblings would when we were all still children, and they collectively pushed me until I denounced every one of them the way I had disowned my entire biological family.
Despite integrating, I still have triggers that shut my emotions down. We all have triggers like this, because there are situations in which emotionality and panic can put your life in imminent danger. They are called emergencies for this reason, and when the emergency is over, we feel our emotions begin to flood back. Often we feel overwhelming grief for what we’ve just been through. I suppose that’s why, most often, when my emotions finally return to me, it’s through overwhelming grief. But unlike the emergency situation, my emotions don’t just come back to me when I’ve made it through whatever just happened. I can go months at a time without being able to feel anything once I’ve been seriously triggered. I won’t even know I’ve been that seriously triggered for at least a couple of days, at which time all I can feel is an intellectual frustration that I should be angry or sad or elated and just feel nothing. I’ve gone years — decades, even — unable to feel. This is referred to as being emotionally dissociated, as compared to when I can feel, which is referred to as being emotionally present (I created categories on my blog to mark my writing appropriately).
When I am emotionally dissociated, I struggle to empathize with other people, in large part because I can’t even feel my own emotions. I navigate through interactions and thought processes requiring me to empathize, by relying on past experiences that felt the way other people’s descriptions sound. But due to the nature of my disability, and the nature of my past, I have significantly less stock material to rely on, than most people in my circumstances would. As I’ve said already, I have gone years, and even decades in some respects, unable to feel the emotional gravity of what’s happened to me (another side of this, of course, is that my body remembers even what I can’t). And how does one retrace hir steps across the entire continent without a compass of sorts to guide hir on the journey? I make frequent errors in judgment without knowing it, and I get lost. And that is what characterizes my contributions to all my relationships, while I am emotionally dissociated (most especially when I am unaware that I can’t feel).
I also can’t register the emotional gravity of manipulative, exploitative, sub-criminal, and borderline abusive behaviours (such as microaggression) against me when I am disconnected from my emotional complex. The things that are repeatedly said and done over a long enough timeline, by those who act on malicious intent where ever the opportunity presents itself, just don’t hit me with the force they hit other people with. This is both good, in that I am not shaken to my core with terror; and bad, in that I have no conception whatsoever of the danger I am very rapidly becoming immersed in. I simply walk straight into life-threatening interactions with people who prey on other peoples’ vulnerabilities, and it isn’t until I am being harassed, emotionally blackmailed, stalked, sexually assaulted, raped, sodomized against my will, battered, or even threatened with being trafficked as a sex slave, that I fully comprehend for the first time just how much danger I am actually in. I have to split my psyche into pieces just to make it through alive (the very nature of DID), and run at my first opportunity (if I even feel I can). But none of these processes are voluntary — they are as instinctual as involuntary emotionally dissociation.
I have spent a long time running. I have spent most of my life shutting down, splitting into four people, and living without a grip on either my emotions or my history. But I’ll tell you something. I’m certainly not “crazy” in spite of all this.