By Kat Horvath-Joukes, G12
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses mature topics of trauma, abuse, mental illness, and mentions of self-harm. If you are affected/triggered by these topics, please put your mental health first and click away from this article!
Before we start getting into the realities of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), it’s important to first talk about what it is not. Many people may think that DID is a very rare mental disorder and thus believe that they will never come across someone who personally experiences it. However, DID affects more people than have red hair, and as many people as who suffer from Bulimia. There has been a great negative stigma built around the label ‘DID’ or as it used to be known, multiple-personality disorder. A good example of this can be seen in the movie ‘Split’ and it’s sequel ‘Glass’, where famous actor James McCavoy plays Kevin Wendell and his different personalities. For cinematic effect and to create a good story with building suspense they have depicted him and in extension the sufferers of DID as villains — ultimately creating a narrative where those who have been abused become the abusers, in order to complete some sort of revenge fantasy, and rebalancing the scales of good and evil (the world punished me so I shall punish the world). Although this kind of pattern of behaviour can be seen in many serial killers, such as Donald Gaskins, Charles Manson, Aileen Warnos and many others, it is noted that this is very different in individuals who experience DID. In order to explore this effectively, let’s jump into the psychology of how DID comes to be, just like most other mental disorders: it’s not something you’re born with.
According to the Theory of Structural Dissociation (the current leading theory in explaining DID): “Dissociative Identity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental dissociative disorder stemming from repeated childhood trauma. When this occurs before the personality fully integrates in normal development (Ages 7-9), amnesic barriers are created to protect the child from the memory and awareness of the trauma/abuse they experience. This prevents the identity from collating normally into a singular personality, resulting in multiple personalities developing with amnesia between them known as ‘Alters’, who help manage life and the memories (and resulting impact) of trauma/abuse.”
In layman’s terms: when a child under the age of 7-9 is repeatedly abused or traumatised, if they are able to dissociate to a high level, and they have a disorganised attachment to their primary caregiver: their brain creates these layers, or rather barriers, of amnesia in order to protect the child from their own memories of abuse and the consequences of them. At that age, the brain hasn’t developed enough to have an ‘integrated personality’ (or, the accumulation of the different aspects of your personality into one). A simple way of thinking about this is babies: they have an aspect of their personality that is responsible for crying because they’re hungry, or needing to go to the toilet or having a bond with the primary caregiver. A baby’s brain is too underdeveloped to put these things together and understand cause and effect, however as they grow older and understand the world more through experience they learn how these are connected, and as such these aspects of their personality become integrated.
It is important to note that DID can only be developed during childhood. However, because the brain learns that these amnesic barriers, or memory blocks, are an effective way to deal and cope with new traumas – it will continue to create these barriers as life continues onward. To go back to the point above: because sufferers are so used to being abused, they are far more likely to simply fall back into that role rather than the role of abuser, because that is what they are used to experiencing. So, although these amnesic barriers are in place, the brain is still a single organ and hence can occupy these different areas at any given time, however the different parts remain separated and develop as individual and separate personalities, called Alters.
Alters are a fascinating phenomena, because not only are they their own personalities, they also have a job that serves the wider system. We use the word ‘system’ to describe the accumulation of alters in a single body. Systems can be made from as little as 2 to 100 Alters, with an average of about 10 Alters in a single system. Many people will assume that one of these alters is the ‘original’ alter, or who the body was meant to be: this is a fallacy. All of the various Alters in a system are valid and created for a purpose, or specific job as well as have their own individual personality. If the entire personality is viewed as a crystal bowl, and the bowl breaks into separate fragments, which fragment is then the original bowl?
Alter is the shorthand term for ‘alternate state of consciousness’ or ‘alternate state of identity’. It is easy to assume that all the Alters in a single body resonate with the outward appearance of that body: however this is not the case. Each Alter has its own unique image of itself and how it would look if it had its own body. For example, Alters can have different skin colours, different heights or weights, some are quite young whereas others are much older, experience different forms of gender identity, alters can have different religious, spiritual beliefs and moral compasses. Some Alters even have non-human physical forms. This may sound odd or fictional, but as we continue it will become clear why this is the case. Most Alters are present from childhood, this means that they grow as the body grows and each individual Alter’s personality is as developed as yours or mine. Because of the memory blocks between each alter, they have all experienced different parts of the body’s life, therefore creating differences in preferences and things such as moral or spiritual beliefs.
Some of the different key Jobs, Functions or Roles an Alter can have are: host, protector, persecutor, injector, gatekeeper, and memory holders. A single system can have any number of Alters with the same role.
- Host: Hosts are the Alters that most frequently ‘front’ or are in control of the physical body and conscious part of the mind. They are in charge of taking care of the body and day to day life such as socialisation, work and academia.
As mentioned priorly, Alters are created to protect a child from their memories of trauma, because they do not yet have the ability to properly process and cope with such information. This is done with amnesic barriers, which means that the Host is usually unaware that they have DID for a large part of their life, as the knowledge of having DID would mean that they would become aware that they had indeed experienced trauma repeatedly and intensely from a young age from people who are meant to protect you. Even without knowing what the trauma is, that knowledge has a huge impact on how they would not only view themselves and their life, but the world as a whole. Consequently, this means that when DID sufferers do finally find out (which is usually through a different person, e.g a counsellor or therapist) crises occur — eg, an identity crisis.
Other key roles of Alters:
- Protector: As the name suggests, these are the Alters who protect the body, host, system, or specific other Alters from abuse. Meaning that not only do they hold a lot of memories of abuse, but they will also come out to front the system when experiencing abuse (emotional, verbal, physical, sexual).
- Persecutor: In opposition to the protectors, these persecutors try to harm the body, host, system or specific alters and try to sabotage internal healing. Sometimes even going so far as to assist the system’s abusers. They hold a lot of self hatred and negative cognition (thoughts/believes) towards oneself. They do this in order to try and recede the effect of outside abuse and to control the system.
- Introject: These are positive Alters usually based on positive roles models such as real life mentors or historical/fictional ones. They serve as a source of positive messages for the child to internalise. However there are also negative introjects that could be based off of the abuser of the child, who then reenact trauma and abuse and can reinforce the abuser’s lessons.
- Gatekeeper: Alters who control front switching (which alter is in charge of the body and conscious mind), access to certain areas in the brain, other (especially child) alters, and certain memories. For example, they ensure that protectors are fronting when the person is going through new traumatic experiences.
- Memory Holder: Alters who hold traumatic memories, in order to keep the other Alters from being confronted with them. Memory holding Alters can also hold exclusively positive memories such as childhood innocence and positive memories with abusers. Memory holders are often also protectors.
It is important to note that although these are ‘seperate’ jobs, a single alter can have a couple of these roles. E.g being a protector and memory holder, or a persecutor and introjector at the same time.
Why Alters appear different to one another + why nonhuman Alters exist:
Because DID develops in a child’s brain, Alters that are created will revolve around things or images and associations that children are exposed to, surrounded by, and find familiar and powerful. As children are often surrounded by stories with animals or fantastical creatures as characters, these can then become the ‘physical form’ of the Alter. For example, a child might associate a Dragon with power, strength and protection: thus one of the protector Alters of the system might have taken the shape of a Dragon in the internal mind. This would only happen if when experiencing trauma the child would think of something along the lines of: “I wish I were a dragon so I could bite their head off and fly away.” The same process happens with the creation of any Alter and their physical form’s traits. This is comparable to how psychoanalysts try to break down dreams through images and what those images mean or are associated with for the dreamer in order to reach a much deeper understanding of the subconscious.
For the final aspect of a good basic understanding of Dissociative Identity Disorder, we should discuss the process of further integration. Previously, we’ve discussed how DID is when the different aspects or parts of a child’s brain have failed to integrate due to the amnesic barriers created. However, as the system grows older and heals, there is a possibility that two or more alters integrate together into a singular and new alter, that has the combined memory of the two separate previous alters and hence a new holistic personality. If you have ever watched Steven Universe, you would have seen scenes of Gem fusion, this is similar to integration (but only to an extent considering it is fictional and about gem melding). The original separate Alters no longer exist and cannot choose to ‘un-integrate’. The new holistic personality is more than simply the sum of their parts: a new person entirely, better equipped to deal with memories and situations. For every system that experience integration, they experience it differently and thus this can be a very scary topic for DID sufferers to think of conceptually due to the unknown effects it could have on the Alters themselves and the dynamic of the wider system, not to mention the other people they known and especially those who had close and intimate relationships to a particular Alter (e.g when a host Alter integrates with one of the protector Alters). It is more common for integrations to happen within Alters who do not front much and mostly remain in the internal world: this has somewhat fewer ramifications, and sometimes can even go unnoticed for a long time. It is when Alters, such as primary protectors or the host, integrate, which are arguably the hardest to deal with due to the extent of their relationships with the outside world.
If you are interested in the subject, I encourage you to go out into the internet to look for more, but for now this is all the information I feel I can give with a degree of accuracy. I do not personally experience DID nor do I personally know anyone who does. However, I am incredibly interested in this mental disorder and have thus done hours of research in my own free time. I hope you enjoyed the read and learnt something new and/or interesting!
Cover photo: TheMighty