I have read books and journal articles about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and filtered them through my own experience over and over and over during the past year and a half or so. The explanation below of the survival adaptation known as DID is mine. Other people with DID may have different experiences, different interpretations, and better, more accurate knowledge. Experts may also quibble. Here is my attempt:
In addition to food, water, and shelter, a young person requires nurturing (love). Young children have a need for attachment to their primary caregivers.
Abuse–sexual, physical, and/or emotional–and neglect are the opposite of nurturing. If a caregiver abuses or neglects a young person, the young, developing brain cannot accept that caregivers could inflict such pain or allow such pain to be inflicted, and so the abuse/neglect remains unprocessed by the young person’s brain.
The unprocessed abuse/neglect must be contained in a separate space in the young person’s brain apart from the range of ordinary experience so that the child does not go insane or complete suicide because the abuse/neglect is dangerously inconsistent with both the young person’s innate imperative to bond to the caregiver and the innate imperative to survive.
The brain will switch from its normal operations to this trauma-created part of the brain during additional trauma and/or from triggers that cause the brain to think there is additional or ongoing trauma. If one of these trauma-created trauma parts in the young person’s brain becomes overwhelmed because there is so much trauma (every person’s capacity is probably different because everyone’s experience is unique) or because there is new or different trauma (or, perhaps, for other reasons as yet unknown), the brain may continue to create new trauma partitions in the brain.
These trauma parts of the brain don’t contain only memories. They are not static scrapbooks or containers or multimedia devices. They are parts of the self that experienced trauma(s) that are too dangerous to be integrated into the experience of the whole personality. They are separate selves, in essence. Part of the person and not integrated fully into the person’s established personality.
Since these new parts were created to hold the unprocessed trauma and since they are separated from the non-trauma part(s) of the brain, and possibly from each other, each trauma part is essentially trapped in that part’s own “trauma time.” That is, each trauma part thinks its own trauma(s) is(are) always going on because these trauma parts of the brain are un-integrated into total sense of self.
That is why a trigger years after a trauma has ended–a smell, the timbre of someone’s voice, the sound of a leaf blowing across the driveway–can cause the brain to switch to the trauma part(s) that was(were) triggered. The triggered part(s) then becomes active, which–because the part(s) thinks the trauma is still happening–typically results in a response of fight, flight, freeze, flag, or collapse.
This change in the configuration of the person’s personalities that are aware or active is often called a DID “switch”; some configurations may include a dominant or triggered part that takes over (up front) the personality temporarily; co-consciousness (ability for “up front” personality parts to interact with other “up front” personality parts even if they don’t know each other or know that DID exists); co-presence (awareness by a part or parts in the consciousness but an inability to influence/exert direct control with the up front part(s)).
Since the different personality parts of the brain are not connected in DID (due to the necessity of keeping traumas separate in order to survive), they may not know one another. That means that when the brain switches from part(s) to part(s), the parts may not initially know the switch is happening. They are aware only of being up front. The potential lack of awareness of switching among parts (including trauma parts and the non-trauma personality, if there is one) may result in amnesia or foggy memory because the parts of the personality are not connected in DID. Think of puzzle pieces that depict parts of the person but do not fit together. This separation and potentially resulting amnesia both protect the abuse/neglect survivor from having to face the threat of memories and/or the reality of the circumstances that permitted the abuse/neglect.
The switching among parts in the early years, and even decades after the abuse, can be seamless, meaning undetectable to the survivor and those in the survivor’s life. This is the case because the brain wants to keep protecting the survivor from traumatic memories and because the trauma parts think their traumas are still active and ongoing; they are disconnected from the reality of the present circumstances because they are sequestered in the brain. Therefore, they are still in crisis mode (the PTSD associated with DID).
Years and decades after the abuse, many survivors with DID still may not understand the extent of their switching, even as those around them become aware of “mood swings” or changes in voices; memory lapses; radical changes in skills and abilities, vision, and other senses; acting older or younger, any or all of which may occur and are indicative of switching.
In my case, I started suffering vertigo and frequent dizziness and nausea in my late teens that persisted for decades until my parts started to learn that these were symptoms of protective switching.
Once I started to learn I had DID (via the diagnosis and treatment by multiple therapists), some of my switches would be hostile; that is, a part would wrest up-front control from whoever was up front. One therapist said this was scary to watch. I might go limp to the point she had to check for breathing. The struggle was on the inside. Much of the early therapy work was learning who my parts were and what their function was as part of my fragmented personality.
I still don’t know who I am much of the time among my parts. There are clues: some use gestures, have habits, special vocabulary, feel small in my body, etc. Others (therapists and family and others among my parts) help me recognize these traits. Cooperation, when it occurs, has been a slow process. It’s common for certain parts to be repulsed early in their awareness of parts who were abused and neglected. Some parts worked hard to protect the up-front part(s) from the reality of the abuse/neglect.
I don’t recognize anyone in my system who is quintessentially “me.” I have a birth name, and no one inside my brain identifies as that person. Not as the birth me and not as a host for the other parts. (This is not universally true for other people diagnosed with DID, and many of the symptoms I describe are my experience only and are not meant to be universalized.)
I have nine parts that I am aware of, and they can operate in many different configurations (1 part up front, 2 parts up front, 3 parts up front, and some in the background but influencing, etc.). I don’t identify with my reflection in the mirror. I have changed my facial appearance through non-surgical means in an attempt to establish a recognizable and non-threatening physical identity because I look a lot like other people to whom I am related. It is confusing to me because I look at them frequently and look at myself in a mirror rarely, so my reflection simply reminds me of other people. This makes sense since I lack a cohesive sense of self.
I have recently changed from using we/us pronouns to I/me because the goal is to have one part communicating outwardly at a time and representing only that part. Just as one person in a classroom or crowd cannot authentically speak for everyone in their crowd, each part is trying to speak individually. It is a work in progress, as are all of my coping skills.
I have no goal to integrate my fragmented parts into one part. Each part helped me survive–to literally not die–and, therefore, has a right to continue. I would like to work together so that we make effective decisions, especially age-appropriate ones since the ages of parts vary.
This is just an introduction to the background and beginnings of the DID diagnosis. The work is very, very, very slow. Years and years to go. The PTSD treatment is deeply woven into this process. Whether you believe DID exists or not (the professional community is split, pun intended, even though DID is listed in the DSM-5 as a recognized condition), DID is the result of trauma and can be an approach to healing PTSD.
Not all of my parts agree on most things. We do share some core values, which is a major relief, especially as the beliefs regard non-violent resolution to conflict. Even parts that have yelled or physically hurt other parts or external people (I used to fist fight and verbally argue with peers in public school) believe they engage in these behaviors to protect themselves in their ongoing trauma time.
It is a primary goal to use mindfulness and mindful self-compassion to return to the present (the now) often because it is safe. Trauma time is not safe. Trauma time is not happening any longer. The more skills parts can be taught, the more they can learn about the concept of time, the better each part’s chances of overcoming real traumas that are no longer occurring.
I did my best here. Questions? Comments?