Previously known to most as multiple personality disorder.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) — previously known as multiple personality disorder — includes trouble with memory, emotion, perception, sense of self, and behavior, and can potentially disrupt every area of mental functioning.
Here, we've included their anonymous experiences as well as input from Dr. Roberto Lewis-Fernández, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Together, this should give you a better picture of what life is really like with dissociative identity disorder.
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DID is an often misunderstood disorder that causes people to behave and feel as if they have more than one "identity."
"For people with DID, aspects of cognitive function that are normally unified/integrated, like personality, identity, and memory, are fragmented and can become their own separate identities," Lewis-Fernández tells BuzzFeed Health.
People with DID will feel like they're alternating between those multiple identities (each with their own personality traits and memories), which causes them to feel like a coherent, consistent sense of self is missing, he explains. They may feel like there are multiple voices trying to take control in their head, and when a separate identity is present and in control — aka "out" — the person functions with that identity's memories and personality traits.
DID was known as multiple personality disorder until 1994, when it was changed to represent a better understanding of the condition — which is that DID is more of a fragmentation of one's identity, than the development of several random, separate identities. It's under a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that also includes depersonalization disorder and dissociative identity disorder.
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People of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds can have DID, but the biggest risk factor for developing the disorder is experiencing physical or sexual trauma during childhood.
The general understanding of DID, is that it typically starts in childhood, as people's cognitive functions, sense of identity, and personality are naturally forming, Lewis-Fernández says. The fragmentation symptoms of DID supposedly function as a coping mechanism for serious traumatic experiences that the person was subjected to, like being physically beaten, verbally abused, or sexually assaulted.
"I wish people knew that DID is caused by child abuse and childhood trauma. People always assume we're dangerous and potential murderers, but don't realize that we are all, on the inside, traumatized children. We, as a child, couldn't properly process or handle the horrific things that were happening to us. So we developed different 'parts' to be able to contain those memories of abuse or the strong emotions experienced in reaction to the trauma."
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People with DID often refer to their other identities as personality states, alters, parts, etc. and sometimes use the pronouns we, us, and our.
"I have gone by a name for 15 years that is more of a group identity. Because they are all me, and I am all of my selves (my alters)."
"We do not care for the term alter. So I say 'parts' because they are indeed a part of me. When referring to myself as 'we,' or when I reference 'them,' it sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, that's not my problem. That's something they need to sort out. People always fear what they don't understand."
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Different identities can have different genders, sexualities, skills, voices, personality traits, and even their own handwriting.
"Some of my alters have abilities that others don't. Some can sing, play guitar, or draw, and the others can't. Some have the same likes and dislikes; some have wildly different ones. They all have a full range of emotions. Lots of people like to say I'm just moody or 'bipolar,' but every alter is a full person with their own emotions and reactions to things. They all have different handwriting, and some have different voices or ways of speaking. No, they are not just my different moods. DID is different from bipolar disorder. "
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Those differences can be incredibly confusing, making people with DID feel detached from themselves — not knowing who they truly are.
"I experience pretty disturbing symptoms when I switch to an alter that's like a version of my 'younger self.' I usually only experience the younger self when I am processing traumatic events in therapy, but it really scares me and makes me feel out of control. When I'm in a younger-self state, I have trouble getting my words out and I'll talk like a child, even though I am still myself and have my adult thoughts. Whatever I'm processing at the time has triggered a need for my younger self to speak and work through things; it's hard to experience."
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DID can be incredibly misunderstood, and therefore, very isolating — sometimes that makes symptoms worse.
There's a lot that's unknown or not yet understood about DID, in part because it's not the main area of study for most psychiatrists, Lewis-Fernández says. Still, there is a small but dedicated group of researchers who are involved in studying it, and through them, new information is coming out all the time.
"I wish for a better general understanding of the disorder, both medically and generally. I've had DID all my life, but only discovered what was wrong with me five years ago. It's hard to open up about having DID because we tend to get a lot more disbelief, accusations, and shaming, than when people with more 'socially acceptable' disorders talk about their experiences. There should be more awareness on this topic and the medical community needs to wake up and understand that there are thousands of us out there who need help."
Most people don't realize they have DID until later in life, and it can be pretty scary figuring out what's going on.
It's hard to diagnose DID because it involves hidden internal symptoms, Lewis-Fernández says. The person has to be able to explain their memory loss and how they understand themselves, which can be hard in general for children, but especially hard when some identities don't know the others exist.
"Having a condition that you're unaware of, and having nobody believe you or try to help you, is pretty damaging. It can be messy, stressful, and terrifying if you're not aware that you live with DID. I went to countless doctors trying to figure out what the hell was happening to me. I would 'wake up' in random places and states (yes, geographically different states hundreds of miles away). I fully expected a doctor to one day tell me I had some inoperable brain tumor and had a certain amount of time left to live. Instead, I was diagnosed with DID."
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And that's because a lot of times, they are misdiagnosed and treated for the wrong mental illnesses.
"Because DID is not as researched as other psychiatric disorders, it's not the first mental illness on a doctor's mind when a patient comes in for diagnosis," Lewis-Fernández says. "In many cases, not only are the symptoms subtle, but there's usually amnesia involved so people don't always remember their symptoms."
Also, a lot of the symptoms can be attributed to other mental illnesses, such as stress, anxiety, depression, he says. And as for hearing internal voices, he explains that those can be attributed to schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder. It's a hard diagnosis to make, and that's why so many people with DID will have up to seven or eight misdiagnoses before getting the accurate one, he says.
"I've been through a lot of diagnoses; schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar I, and more. Some professionals don't even agree that this condition exists. This has made my recovery even longer and more meandering."
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And one identity does not have to be inherently violent, like movies portray.
"Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: It's defintiely not like the movies. People with DID are not inherently more violent than anyone else. We aren't just going to snap and kill you! There are more possibilities than 'the nice one' and 'the evil one'. As a person diagnosed with DID, I am a victim. I'm not a perpetrator, a murderer, or a potential criminal."
The violent identities you see in the media are very rare, Lewis-Fernández says, but they're used because they make for dramatic story plots. More often than not, people with DID experience very subtle shifts in personality. They may not even be aware that it's happened, he explains.
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Memory gaps can happen when switching between certain identities, so not all identities are aware that the others exist.
"According to the DSM, in order to be diagnosed with DID, the patient has to experience the element of amnesia," Lewis-Fernández says. "At least one identity must not be aware of the other identities, or that identity experiences memory loss when they aren't the identity that's 'out,' or in control."
"I spent years waking up in places I didn't remember. I'd get on the bus home and end up halfway across the city. Most people in my life just think I have a poor memory and do not know I actually disassociate throughout the day. I begged and pleaded with doctors to tell me why I couldn't remember what seemed like half my life."
"I was transitioning uncontrollably in my youth, so I barely have any memories of that time. It's incredibly uncomfortable to see a family photo of your body having a wonderful time in some situation (theme park, first day of school, etc.) that you have absolutely no recollection of ever happening. My mother particularly struggles with why I don't want to look at family photos with her, I don't know how to explain it in a way she'll understand."
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When some identities take control, people feel like they're watching their body from afar, as if they're having an out-of-body experience.
"The closest thing I can relate it to is an out-of-body experience. I don't feel anything, I don't react correctly. It's like I'm watching a version of myself. Watching a video where someone is acting, and they're playing a part of me. It's not me. It's just my body on autopilot."
"We often explain to people that it's like you're driving a car, and then without any warning your seat swivels to the back and someone else's shifts to the front, controlling the car — the car being your body in this analogy. Sometimes it feels like you're in the back seat; sometimes it feels like you're tossed all the way in the trunk."
There's not always one identity in charge, sometimes there are multiple identities fighting for dominance all at once.
"Sometimes, several will be present, either fighting for dominance, or discussing how to handle the situation at hand. You may hear three contradictory sentences come out of my/our mouth, one after the other, because three of my alters had three different opinions. It's annoying, embarrassing, and very hard to control."
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Sometimes, identities are pretty good about working together to tackle the problems presented in everyday life.
"One really bubbly alter actually takes control for most of the week since I can't really handle working full time. She even takes care of public speaking stuff because she loves it so much. My more ~aggressive alter~ is actually the most patient and would never hurt anyone. He developed due to some horrific things that happened to us over a few years, and actually only pops out to snap at people and put a foot down when they violate my boundaries or those of a loved one. The other two are ~the chill ones~ who can handle stressful situations with no issues. And then there's the one that cries over anything and everything, who isn't quite good at much. But we love her anyway.
They're actually all very interesting and lovely, and 99% of the time no one can tell who is out. It can be hectic when full swaps happen, and we all have slightly different hobbies, so sometimes it's hard to keep up with everything. But all in all it's not too bad."
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But other times, they're the opposite and really don't get along, which can make things incredibly difficult.
"Most of my separate identities are aware of each other's existence. I have a totally different set of friends and a separate social life for each of them. One of my identities is a conservative and one is a liberal, so their views often clash, forcing me to often face an internal struggle over my actions. I lost my virginity as one, and the other one can't come to grips with it and always prays for my forgiveness. My illness has led me to make permanent decisions I can't take back or fix. The struggle is real."
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There are certain triggers that cause people with DID to switch identities.
"DID is trauma related, so like with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I have to be prepared to handle triggers. Small things can cause a 'switch' in alters — a man catcalling me, my boyfriend hugging me when I wasn't prepared, giving a speech in class, having a difficult customer at work, etc."
But it's hard because even if you know what your triggers are, it doesn't mean you can avoid them.
"The worst part about living with DID is that I know exactly what triggers me, but in trying to live a normal life, I can't avoid them. For instance, I have to go into work every day wondering if today is the day I get fired. If someone uses the wrong phrase to greet me, or they touch me in the wrong way, or they look, sound, or smell even remotely like one of my abusers, then I can dissociate and switch to my 4-year-old alter for hours, wandering into the streets, shoplifting from stores, etc. I failed out of school and lost my last job because of this, and now I work in fast food, where I see and speak to hundreds of people a day. So we'll see how long that lasts."
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There are times where a change in identities is so subtle that the people around them won't realize there was a switch.
"DID is meant to be a hidden disorder — and it is for a majority of diagnosed individuals — that's developed to help protect you from the source of the trauma you experienced. It's not always obvious when a switch occurs. Some alters won't announce a switch unless they're comfortable around the person they're with. A lot of the time, part of an alter's ~job~ is to pass as the host, answering to their name, attempting to be as much like them as they can to avoid detection."
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Living with DID can cause other mental conditions like depression or anxiety to develop.
Many patients with DID may develop conditions associated with trauma, as well as trauma-based conditions, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and borderline personality disorder (BPD), Lewis-Fernández says.
"I suffered from alcoholism, self-harm, eating disorders, and drug abuse as ways to cope with the confusion and stress brought on by DID. I even spent a month in residential treatment for dissociation, eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and opiate addiction. I still have severe depression and anxiety, which affects my everyday life."
There's no specific medication for DID, but there are some that treat the mental health symptoms associated with it.
"There is no medication strictly for DID and the switching between alters. However, medications like antidepressants, antipsychotics, and tranquilizers, are useful when it comes to treating the anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc. that we can experience."
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The primary treatment for DID is long-term psychotherapy, which can get really expensive.
"I've been in therapy for eight years; working on dialectical behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. I've also been opiate free for almost five years. It's hard work and ridiculously expensive, but it's all worth it!"
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And the main goal of therapy isn't always to fuse all the identities into one, but to work towards a cooperative co-consciousness.
"Therapy for DID is a long haul and the main goal isn't always the 'integration or fusion of all alters into one person.' A lot of the time, people opt for working toward a place where all their alters can function harmoniously together — a place where all the alters aren't constantly fighting for control."
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People with DID feel pressure to lead a life that makes all their identities happy and fulfilled, not just one.
"Every day is an adventure. It's a disorder that makes you feel isolated and confused. Different alters like different things and they want different things. They have different talents and passions. We have to work to find a happy medium, something that makes the entire system happy, instead of just focusing on one person's hopes and dreams in life."
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Living with the stigma of DID can sometimes be worse than living with the symptoms.
"I am not dangerous. In fact, instead of us hurting others, people with DID are much more commonly abused and taken advantage of because we have DID. Being diagnosed with such a stigmatized and demonized disorder made me wish I had never gone to see a psychiatrist in the first place. I learned over time how to manage it and how to understand and recognize switches. I'm still scared to tell people that I have DID, but I'm learning how to help myself live with it and survive with it."
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In fact, some people with DID are thankful for the disorder, because it helped get them through brutally traumatizing times.
"My DID was an automatic response to trauma. It saved me. It doesn't make me dangerous. My parts are useful, and I don't want to get rid of them — just work with them. Trying to understand me, as well as the complex nature of DID, is impossible, and I don't expect you to. But believing me, and accepting that what's going on is real, is key."
Having DID is NOT the same as changing the way you act around certain people or in specific situations.
"A big pet peeve is when people think DID is the same as when people knowingly and willingly change how they behave in different social situations. It's not the same. As a child, trauma interrupts our development and we're unable to form a cohesive and whole self. We're not voluntarily acting a little different in certain situations because it's in our own interest."
DID, like any other serious illness, does not define you.
"It's terrifying, it's stressful, and some people with DID call it a burden. But it's a part of our lives, and despite all the fear and anxiety we have, you don't have to walk on eggshells around us. You don't have to treat us like we're special and deserve a certain treatment. We can get in control of our lives and we can become better people because of our disorder. Who we are is not determined by these episodes. Our disorders are only one part of us."
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And last but not least, it is possible to live a happy, successful life with DID.
"I've had the same awesome job for three years, an incredible group of helpful friends who love and understand me, and an amazing, supportive partner who has learned to love my alters. I'm able to notice my triggers and deal with the effects of a switch, and all of my alter states are on the same page of completing my goals and getting through the day safely."
Note: Submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.
To learn more about DID, check out the resources at the National Alliance on Mental Illness here.
And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.
Follow along at BuzzFeed.com/MentalHealthWeek from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, 2017.
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