The new name of Multiple Personality Disorder. Probably the most misrepresented and least understood of all mental disorders, there is currently debate within psychiatric circles as to whether this is even a real disease.

Dissociative Identity Disorder occurs when a person appears to have several distinct, independant personalities, each with its own behaviors and emotions. These personalities may or may not be aware of each others existance.


Although the nature and treatment of DID are highly contentious, it is generally agreed that the disorder is an aftereffect of severe, constant childhood trauma and sexual assault before the age of 9, which has been repressed through dissociation. Dissociation is the process of severing connections between ones thoughts. By dissociating away horrible memories connected to, say, a cheese grater, an abuse victim may be able to live a (more) normal life, and even make trips into a kitchen without recalling painful trauma. Too much dissociation can create gaps in memory, and too many gaps in memory can cause a human's personality to change. If the traumas of everyday life are too great for a child to bear, the child may dissociate completely for a while, as a survival mechanism.

Later on in life, when faced with stress or anguish, an adult that frequently dissociated as a child may dissociate again as a reflex, resulting in a different mental state. If the dissociation occurs often enough, the new mental state may develop a personality of its own. This is usually where the critics start to say "Bullshit".

Aside from the obvious, symptoms of DID include:

  1. depression
  2. mood swings
  3. suicide attempts
  4. sleep disorders
  5. panic attacks
  6. phobias
  7. alcohol and drug abuse
  8. eating disorders

DID is cured through various therapies and medications. The idea of the therapy is to get the patient to remember and face their past abuse, as a way of reclaiming the abandoned parts of their psyche. This may include hypnotherapy. The meds are to keep the patient from committing suicide during the process.

Therapists tend to believe that DID is woefully underdiagnosed, and that cases can account for as much as 1% of the general population. Psychiatrists tend to believe that DID is woefully overdiagnosed, and that there are maybe a few real cases in existance, but definitely not more than a hundred or two. They believe that therapists unintentionally project symptoms onto a patient, and sometimes even implant false memories during hypnotherapy. There is even the view of certain fundamentalists, who hold that DID is actually demonic possession. And don't even get me started on the mind control cults.

I suppose the message is this: if you have dissociative identity disorder, trust no one, not even yourself.

Thanks to for a remarkably balanced overview of opinions, for the pro-therapy view, and for the critical view.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of dissociative identity disorder is that it can be construed as a defense mechanism: that is, the mind is creating new people with different pasts in order to escape the horror of the past of the real person.

The reason why dissociative identity disorder is a better name than multiple personality disorder is that there is, in fact, a dominant, central personality. This person is a person, one person, whose mind has created an intricate means of escape from some insufferably traumatic past.

Among the alternative, dissociative identities of people suffering from this disorder are frequently children, i.e., people without much semblance of a past. Also frequent are extremely sensual alternative identities, which tend to act out the sexual urges of an individual who is frequently quite timid and reclusive, and often socially inept or unwilling. It is also not uncommon for there to be a "mischievious" identity, who does things that the dominant personality would never do, in order to get the dominant personality in trouble. When the dominant personality takes over again from the dissociation, he/she may find himself in bed next to someone he does not recall ever seeing before, or in some situation in which he must face the consequences of an action of which he would not have been capable.

There was an incident recorded in which an alternative personality was not diabetic, whereas the dominant personality was. This is possible, with this disorder: the brain is functioning in profoundly different ways for each personality.

The therapeutic treatment of this disorder is an attempt to combine and integrate these multiple personalities into the central personality, to make them aware of each other and in doing so to make of them a single functioning individual. This is done by making the dominant personality aware of things which have been done or said or drawn by a dissociative personality, and trying to make the dominant personality recall the closed-off memories accrued while acting as the alternatives. The individual experiences an amnesia specific to the times he is functioning as his "alters", and it is the overcoming of this amnesia that marks the first and most important stage in the "curing" of the disorder.

The paradox of this treatment, and the paradox of the diagnosis of the condition itself as a disorder, is that it is said to occur as a sort of defense mechanism against unbearable memories, against an unbearable past. The mind is creating these barriers--amnesia, "alternative personalities", escapes into mischief and sensuousness--in order to make the individual functional on some level, functional on an intimate level or a social level, and functional on a level that does not dread its own memory, and does not exist in a state that is perpetually haunted by things past. Dissociative identity disorder is in a sense a means of escape, a reversing of the irreversible, an attack on seemingly incontrovertible memory--and to cure it is to remove this safety barrier, so that this patient is returned to a world in which he or she can function, but at the cost of having to face the reality of the past.

Does the phenomenon warrant treatment? I'd presume that "dissociative identity" only becomes a "disorder" at that point at which the day-to-day functionality of the individual becomes impaired.

But then, I am far from an expert, and yield to more informed perspectives.
Dissociative identity disorder is considered by some to be a better term for "multiple personality disorder." It does avoid some of the negative stereotypes associated with the prior label, but....

All right. I admit it. I hate this term. It makes me incoherent with the hating. Blah! Misinformation! False premises! Bibble! Myths and stereotypes! Wibble wibble!!

Let's explore why.

The Oligarchy of Psychiatry

The United States is the only country which relies on the term "dissociative identity disorder" and all of its attendant connotations. Dr. Ralph Allison, a forensic psychiatrist who specializes in multiple issues, has witnessed the shift in terminology over the years. He writes that in the committees to revise the DSM for its fourth edition DSM-IV), the psychiatrists who specialized in teaching and research rather than working with patients:

"decided that the patients had the major mental problem of believing that they had more than one personality. The goal of therapy should not be integrating the various personalities, but getting the patients over their false belief (delusion) that they had other personalities at all.... I heard one of these teachers say in public, 'Everybody is born with only one personality. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a Multiple Personality Disorder.'"
As ac_hyper remarks,
"This amuses me greatly. There is absolutely no scientific basis for such a claim, first of all. Second of all, most people are not "born" with a recognizable personality (or personalities!) in the first place! Babies differ in temperament, but formation of identity involves many, many neural connections that occur AFTER birth. Whether a single self or several are developed depends on many factors."
The term "dissociative identity disorder" was adopted only in the United States, with the hope that everyone else could be persuaded to change their terminology to follow suit. The rest of the world uses the ICD: International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. The DSM-IV was put together with the idea that it might be chosen to serve as the ICD's section on "mental disorders."

However, it was not, and the other great swathes of humanity on our planet (as well, for that matter, as much of the United States) continue to mostly use "MPD," with just a note in the ICD under "multiple personality disorder" mentioning that "dissociative identity disorder" is a synonym.

The problem that I see occurring in the often contradictory body of information on multiple issues is that many therapists are basing their ideas on just one multiple system, or a handful, that they've seen over the years, and assuming that any similarities they find are true for all multiples, and trying to teach this as gospel to their colleagues.

It's difficult for many people to understand the experience of being multiple without either being multiple themselves or knowing someone who is. I think it's especially important to be (or know people who are) very self-aware. Like anybody else, each multiple system and each person within that system are very individual.

Often the various ideas out there about MPD/DID are based on one therapist knowing a few people who are in therapy because they are dealing with a major crisis, trauma, or seeking greater self-awareness, still sifting through their own possible explanations and ideas about who they are.

This has led to myths like:

  • Everyone in a multiple system is actually an aspect of one "real" person.

    The lengths to which the medical community will go to avoid referring to us as "people" alternately amuse me and piss me off. For example, Damgaard wrote:

    "In the same physical body an adult ego state who smokes, wears glasses, is right-handed, good at math, allergic to sulfur, with a normal IQ can exist alongside a child ego state who has never smoked, has 20/20 vision, is left-handed, paints, has no medication allergies, and scores in the 130s on the same IQ test."
    This is perfectly true. But to me, those sound like people, not "ego states." What, you might as well ask, is the difference?

    Psychologist Eric Berne, who came up with the idea that everyone has an inner adult, parent, and child "ego state," defined an ego state as "a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior." By way of illustrating the difference between that and what Damgaard is describing, therapists Bennett Braun and Richard Kluft developed the following definition of "alter personality" as part of a series of workshops on MPD with the American Psychiatric Association:

    "An entity with a firm, persistent, and sense of self and a characteristic and consistent pattern of behavior and feelings in response to given stimuli. It must have a range of functions, a range of emotional responses, and a significant life history (of its own existence)...."

    I suspect that people confuse the idea of an inner child, for example, with the idea of a multiple system that includes children. Maybe that's the source of a lot of these confusing myths. The difference for me is that, as a person in a multiple system, I have my own inner child (and I know this because I've done some inner child work), as do the kids in my system (kids can have inner children too -- my "outside kid" clearly does). The kids in my system are "inner children" in a totally different sense, and they're certainly not "mine."

    To put it another way, I can have an inner child, but I can't be an inner child (or adult, or parent). As one kid in here put it,

    "...It's just a different way of saying that, like, someone's doing something that isn't their own decision that they learned from outside - like it's a piece of litter that stuck on them - like if they had some real good reason they had thought about for wanting to do something, that would be them, but that other stuff is like programming and it is called an ego state just 'cause. It is nothing to do with a person or even a 'personality' or anything autonomous."

  • There is one "core" or "real" person in any given system.

    This is different from the above myths in that here, the supposed "real" person is not made up of everyone else, but is one specific "part" of the system. Often whoever is most frequently out -- or at least out for therapy -- is considered by their therapist to be that person. Other therapists look for the youngest person in the system, theorizing that they must have been frozen at the moment of abuse and everyone else split off from them. Everyone who espouses this theory seems to have a different idea of what makes someone the "core."

    In my experience this is the most common of the various ways people tell us, "You're not real! You're nothing but a pack of cards!" For example, despite the definition of "alter personality" given above by the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Colin Ross (the head of a growing number of institutes for resolving trauma and trauma-related disorders, as well as a prominent author and lecturer on multiplicity) has said that:

    "What is MPD? MPD is a little girl imagining that the abuse is happening to someone else.... MPD is not a fantastic curiosity in which there is more than one person in the same body. There is only one person, an abuse victim who has imagined that there are other people inside her in order to survive."
    And Dr. Frank Putnam, author of many books about how to fix us, has similarly written,
    "The core feature of MPD is the existence of alter personalities who exchange control over an individual's behavior. It is important to state from the outset that whatever an alter personality is, it is not a separate person...."
    On the other hand, a Canadian multiple friend pointed out to me upon reading these quotes that she had heard that
    "...Colin Ross ended up in the US after they yanked his funding up here for ethical and reporting issues. If you can get booted out of the Canadian system it seems to me you have a problem."

    So. This myth is actually two ideas. The idea that there is a "core" or "original" person in a system is a myth because (or when) it is applied to all multiples. Some people do subscribe to what is known as "the clinical model" or the "therapy model" - that is, that they themselves are multiple because of abuse - and sometimes that includes having one person who was there first. Others have different experiences; one kid I know insists that "only apples have cores!" and her friend lettuce suggests that people "tell the therapist that you ate the core. Seeds and all." In this case, what makes this a myth is the tendency to take a few people's experiences and try to force them on everyone.

    The idea that there is only one "real" person is, however, hogwash.

  • Every system has an Inner Self-Helper (ISH):

    The aforementioned Dr. Allison, who is one of the largest sources of literature about multiples, came up with this term. He believes that every system has one person who knows everything that has happened in the lives of everyone in the system and exactly what needs to be done for any of them in the way of healing. This has caused intense frustration for therapists who can't find their client's ISH.

    As an example of the kind of power this idea has among therapists, psychologist Jacqueline A. Damgaard has added (admittedly, in a speech given in 1987):

    "There is no capacity for hate. The ISH feels only love or good will.... The ISH knows that the condition of multiplicity exists, and understands the patient’s entire past history, which is available for easy recall.... The ISH has no conception of gender, referring to the self equally as male or female. Other than love and good will, the ISH lacks emotions, seeming to be pure intellect.... Often the ISH believes in reincarnation and often speaks of being next to God and consequently difficult to summon directly."
    Taken separately, most of these are very commonly found traits; taken as a group, it is highly difficult to find any one person who encompasses them all, much less one in every system.

    As a friend of mine said upon learning of the whole ISH theory,

    "Everybody has to be the inner self-helper. Otherwise it doesn't work."

  • Every system has certain kinds of people.

    What's interesting is that, of course, this list is different depending on who's reciting it.

    Dr. Allison, for example, even has a funny little story to go along with his list, which he relates in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Multiple Personality But Were Afraid to Ask:

    "The prime or original personality creates a 'persecutor' alter-personality for the purpose of first handling anger, then for the feelings related to sexual abuse. Then a 'rescuer' alter-personality must be created, followed by an organizer of the inner forces, an entity I have christened the 'Inner Self Helper.'"

    To these labels, Ms. Damgaard has added "the intellectual ego state... the infant, child, adolescent ego state... (and) the gatekeeper." An earlier writeup in this node added the concepts of sexual and mischievous identities. lists "A depressed, exhausted host. A strong, angry protector. A scared, hurt child. A helper. (and) An internal persecutor who blames one or more of the alters for the abuse they have endured." (The validity of their information may be gauged by the fact that they cite the imaginary site "" for over half of their data, and then list it as a reference at the end.) And "The Significant Other's Guide to Dissociative Identity Disorder" (an often funny and smart, but sometimes misguided site) gives "Suicidal, protector, the kids, helper (ISH), (and) self mutilator," as "types of alters."

    This whole concept is actually a combination of the myth of the ISH and the myth that everyone in a system is an "aspect" of one "real" person. It's a very natural reaction to meeting a multiple system: it's easy at first to have a hard time recognizing different people as individuals, and to see them as "Jane being angry" or "John acting childish."

    The next step in distinguishing between people essentially, as my high school physics teacher used to say, separates the mice from the cheese. People can either begin to see what makes each of those people individuals - their mannerisms, what they enjoy, what they want out of life - or they can decide to stick with seeing everyone in that body as somehow being the same person they've always known, no matter what they have to throw out to believe that.

    Unfortunately, therapists are often taught to do the latter in order to promote integration (about which more later). If everyone in a system is an individual person, it's much harder to convince them to give that up and integrate than if they are all "parts" or "alters" or "aspects" of someone else.

  • All multiples experienced only the most extreme, violent abuse.

    This is a variant on the idea that multiplicity is necessarily connected to and/or caused by abuse. The distinction is that some people in what they call the "professional" community say that many multiples were abused; some people say most multiples were abused; some say that all multiples were abused; and some say that all multiples were abused in very extreme ways (sometimes specifically saying that all multiples were ritually abused).

    The extension of this -- or the purpose of saying it -- tends to be that multiplicity (or whatever disorder they care to label it as) is very rare, and that it only occurs as a coping mechanism in a very few cases. It is, essentially, used as a tool for disbelieving in most multiples - to which I remark only that I am not the Easter Bunny.

  • Integration is the "cure" for multiplicity/multiple personality disorder/dissociative identity disorder.

    Interestingly, Daamgard's statement about the possibility of bespectacled right-handed adult smokers and artistic children with perfect vision sharing a body is followed by a statement that this is what integration looks like. At least it's interesting to me, because that's my everyday experience of being multiple, and of hearing others talk about their experiences with being multiple. This is a good illustration of the wildly divergent ideas of what integration involves.

    In my experience, people use the word "integration" to mean many different things. Some therapists push the idea of integration meaning that all but the "real" person will disappear, or that all the different people in a system will unify into one.

    Some people talk blithely about having integrated and then go on discussing the different people who are still around in their system, explaining that there are just fewer of them now, or that they no longer come out.

    Some people use the term simply to mean that they are now co-conscious -- that is, that they are able to communicate freely and be aware of each others' outside lives. This is often the goal for systems who for one reason or another are very separated from one another, don't cooperate well, and lose a lot of time.

    Members of Astraea, a multiple system devoting a great deal of energy to exploring multiplicity "from a political, social, and philosophical perspective," write that:

    "In practical life, according to the bits we've heard from therapists willing to talk about it, integration is a complex process of re-education and re-training designed to change the multiple's thinking processes and conditioned reflexes. The objective, of course, is to learn how to respond to daily life with a single, consistent perspective, instead of each person having his or her own unique response."
    Even this description can mean different things, from teaching everyone in a system to pass better as "singleton" or "single-minded" to trying to eliminate all but one person's sense of self.

    Funnily enough, Colin Ross has written (in a 2002 article for Criminal Defense Weekly) that:

    "DID is treatable to stable integration with psychotherapy. If there really were separate people living inside one body, the condition would be untreatable. It is the fact that the DID is a subjective illusion that makes it a treatable disorder."
    ....Another strong example of the wildly different ways that people use this word. Apparently in Ross' world, the "cure" proves that the "disease" does not exist.

    Depending on what a given system wants, and what it means to them, integration can be a good goal or a fate worse than death. Many empowered multiples insist, in fact, that "Integration = Death." (With apologies to both the queer and African-American communities. One piece featured in Many Voices, a newsletter by and for multiples, jokingly said that if you are talking about integration and you've totally forgotten that the word has any connection with segregation, you might be a multiple.)

    Debunking the Stereotypes

    I have separated out the stereotypes which are most particular to the medical community. Below are a few more which I think are less connected to the therapeutic context. There is a lot of misinformation and confusion in literature about multiples in everyday media, though, as well as in the therapeutic community, and anyone can buy into any of these myths - or hopefully none at all.

    A moment of full disclosure: I am writing this because I am multiple, and because I have spent three years in the multiple community, learning what it's like for others to be multiple, hearing their experiences with doctors, family members, and friends who are convinced that they are delusional or possessed based on some of the misinformation challenged below. I am writing this because I know so many wonderful, fascinating, well-rounded people within multiple systems, so many systems with artists and teachers and parents and children and Pagans and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and Christians and conservative feminists and radical anarchists and cooks and hockey players and potters, systems with just one person who speaks Italian or a small minority who speak French, a few Deaf members; our own system includes a Christian leatherdyke who teaches Reiki, a flaming bisexual would-be-cook, and a politically radical housecleaner and writer.

    And with all these differences and depths of experience, most of what is published on multiplicity is a few fat biographies, some largely exploitative crime novels, and a thin layer of wild theories by therapists who like to think they are studying us in the wild. Hopefully, I will be able to share some of what I've learned from three years of shared experiences, books, and websites on the subject with you.

    I am also writing this because I am from the United States, as are most of the people who have talked to me about this issue. I have friends in the United Kingdom who are multiple, who in fact recently presented two workshops on multiplicity and related topics at BiCon, and who commented that "The only thing lots of people said was that they never heard of it being a disorder or having stereotypes so the myth busting stuff was giving them those ideas which they thought was weird. Like they kept saying it didn't need to be so defensive. In the UK people are like, 'Sybil? Isn't that a bad sitcom?'"

    Hopefully, many people reading this will find themselves totally unfamiliar with all the myths described here, or aware that some of them are true for some people and not for others.

    So: a few more....

  • Everyone in a multiple system is actually a fragment of one "real" person.

    The difference between this and the above-mentioned “aspect” theory is that saying we are all “aspects” usually means that we are all different “versions” of one person -- like “No! They really are all just me! This is just, like, me when I’m feeling prudish! Or political! Or childish!” It still suggests an entire identity, and a different one than usual. Saying that everyone is a “fragment” usually implies that everyone is a tiny piece of a person - like “This is Angry Jane, and this is Sad Jane, and this is Scared Jane....” It suggests that that feeling, or whatever, is all that that “Jane” can experience and that there is nothing else to them.

    One prevailing theory about multiples is that we are fragile, beautiful creatures who have been brutally smashed apart through reprehensible abuse and must carefully be put back together into the whole person we were supposed to be.

    This is what's known as "playing God."

    So many of the myths about multiples are essentially Metaphors Gone Mad(tm). There's a big difference between feeling shattered, or feeling as if you have all been violently broken apart and are hollow shreds of personhood, and actually being incomplete fragments of some nonexistent person. Unfortunately, many people perceive the metaphor as truth and try to jam themselves or others into it.

  • Multiples are all creative and gifted.

    Like the myth that all Asians are good at math, this is annoyingly flattering without actually being true.

    It's annoying mainly because it's hard to argue with. Who doesn't want to think that they're special and gifted? The fact of the matter is that people in multiple systems are just as likely to be creative or somehow "gifted" as anyone else. However, some of us might seem more creative (et cetera) to outsiders because they are viewing the collective output of more than one person.

    It's something like taking an elementary school classroom and exclaiming in surprise at how much more they know collectively than one child chosen at random from the next third-grade class. (And even then, you may end up with an especially knowledgeable single kid, or a class that just isn't interested in a given topic.)

  • All multiples were abused as children.

    Well, many multiples were abused as children. In fact, many people were abused as children.

    Doctor Jim Hopper, a research associate at the Boston University School of Medicine, conducted a comprehensive review of studies on child abuse up to 1996 and concluded that "approximately one in six boys is sexually abused before age 16." (These statistics seem to be based on studies from England, Australia, Canada, and the United States, although they may just be from the United States.) The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (in the United States) found the same statistic in their research, and also says that "approximately one in three girls is sexually abused before age eighteen." And those numbers are just for sexual abuse - that's not even counting the children who are physically, verbally, emotionally, or otherwise abused without a sexual component.

    The NCANDS also quotes the 1993 American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth as saying that:

    "With the exception of homicide, children and youths suffer more victimization than do adults in virtually every category, including physical abuse, sibling assault, bullying, sexual abuse, and rape."

    With such high numbers, I think that it's hard to single out one group and say that most or all of them were abused. I do know several multiple systems who weren't abused, and don't have any signs of repressed memories of abuse; I also know multiples who were abused, and remember it, and also remember being multiple before any abuse occurred. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the same response the gay community has come up with: why does it matter why we're here? The fact is that we are.

  • Multiplicity is extremely rare.

    Well, I don't know. They say the same thing about transsexuals, and most of the people I know are either multiple or trans or both.

    Of course, I may be biased.

    I do see a strong parallel there, though. People used to think that only the tiniest fraction of humanity was transsexual, before they even had the word "transgendered." As the trans community gains visibility, more people learn these words for their genderqueer experiences, learn that there are things (like hormones, cross-dressing, and sexual reassignment surgery) that they can do to change the way they present their gender, and slowly begin coming out of the woodwork. And the numbers rise.

    I see the same thing happening with the multiple community. As more people talk about their experiences of being multiple, more people have the opportunity to recognize themselves and wonder if -- or realize that -- they are multiple. And in both cases, some people look at these communities and say "All these new people are just delusional! They've been convinced they're freaks by all those other freaks out there! This is an outrage!" Eventually, they go away, and the numbers continue to rise.

With all these myths, isn't anything about it true?

"...When I think of what has been written so far about multiplicity, I sense a terrible gap. There are the chillingly cold-blooded studies of pathology, and the warmer, more kindly therapeutic texts (many of which are maddening, hilarious, or both to actual multiples). There are also accounts of actual cases written by professionals, which strike me as a combination of boasts and rip-offs. And then there is the writing already done by multiples: the autobiographies that focus on the horrors, and others that focus on the healing. And there are emotional outpourings too, written by multiples for each other. Each serves its own purpose, but what's missing is the dailiness, the odd but telling textures of multiplicity."
- Jane Phillips, The Magic Daughter

Hopefully, I can fill in a little of this gap here.

Like the experiences of being Latino or transgendered, much of what's left over after the stereotypes are dismantled is highly individual. There are actually many similarities between the experiences of multiples and transgendered people, not least the fact that many a person in a multiple system can say that they are literally a woman trapped in a man's body (or vice versa). I know this from personal experience, as my gender identity has been heavily informed by the fact that I share my awareness with people of lots of different genders. But as I study American Sign Language, I start to see more and more similarities between my own experiences and the experiences I hear from people in the Deaf community. And as I discuss multiplicity and life with a friend of mine who's intersexed and multiple, we start to find similarities between some common experiences of both those communities as well.

I think that what we all have in common is the experience of being what I call medicalized minorities: groups whose experiences and very existence are labeled disorders or disabilities and who the medical community helpfully would like to wipe out. In books like Oliver Sacks' "Seeing Voices," for example, about the Deaf community, and in writings from the Deaf community itself, many Deaf people talk about how doctors proudly say they could wipe out Deafness eventually, and how many babies with partial hearing are given painful and expensive cochlear implants on the off chance that it might improve their hearing later, even though it destroys their ability to hear without it. I get a strong sense, from Deaf literature, that being Deaf is good, is a fine experience, that many Deaf people are happy with their lives and that the only problems with being Deaf are those that the hearing world creates for them. I hear similar things from most of the multiples I know: a focus on pride, on self-exploration, and on building community together.

What it's like for us; or, How it began

I first learned about what it was like to be multiple through someone in whom I was interested, a genderqueer boy who was just coming out on a mailing list I ran. He lived not too far away, and I offered him a place to crash so he could go to a local queer youth conference. Upon his acceptance, I began to read everything I could of his website and online journal.

Much of that dealt with the experience of being multiple. I suppose the main things I learned were: in a general sense, that everyone in his system was a real person; and in a specific sense, who they were and how they worked (or didn't work) together. I read Amber's calm teenage normalcy, Lily's wild young abandon (and fondness for stolen butterfly gifs), Jo's bold radical activism, Chris' brave anger and humor. And many others; overlapping circles of inner abusers and controlling figures. Politics.

I never found it very hard to tell who was out, although some people blurred together to my outsider's eye. I studied everything they had to say online and found mannerisms, speech patterns, beliefs, and interests that were specific to different people. Then I watched for those. This is, I think, what I would advise anyone to do who wants to get to know the people in a given system: just pay them a great deal of attention, be willing to ask respectful questions, and be willing to guess wrong sometimes.

They suggested, when we became an "item," that I join a mailing list for multiples. At first I was embarrassed and apologetic about being there, but soon I found that we all had a lot in common. Too much in common. I began to make little lists like this:

(from the fall of 2000)

  • I wonder about the memory thing, how I will have no idea I told someone something or had a certain conversation and either vaguely remember it when pressed later, or not at all.
  • I wonder deeply about the buzzy-head feeling & the time I had that feeling and could not stop reacting to things with apparent anger though I was not angry and had no idea I sounded mad & today I was feeling very angry as well in that separate from me way and then it left and abruptly it seemed as though I had been on muni forever - like both of our memories of the time at once?
  • I wonder about the adjoining sense of small child temper tantrum (at the prospect of not seeing Morgan in facilitator training) and about my many tantrums as a little kid and about the other day when I let a little kid co-consciousness come out to play with Connor
  • I wonder about my extreme sense of dissociation between high school and college and my struggle to remember who I was in high school and what it was like and what I did and smooth the break between them
  • I wonder about the talking to myself at length and how I used to hear snippets/words before falling asleep
  • I wonder about the feeling of laughter that wells up even before a joke made mentally is done
  • Is the sometime sense of totally being present and outgoing in a room produced by someone inside me?
  • Sometimes I pay attention to who I am and run my mental fingers over the bumps between me's. And I wonder about my inner world and my writing style which feels like channeling something... and the houses.... I know I will feel like a copycat/delusional but I think reading about this stuff and knowing multiples just gave me words to use that made these things clear.

    These were largely compiled of things I knew, but didn't want to admit to myself. I would suddenly realize that something with "kaleidoscope" in it would be a good system name for us, and then remember that that was ridiculous because I wasn't multiple.


    Finally, too much evidence piled up for me to ignore. I subscribed a second email account to the list and introduced myself, anonymously, as someone who thought they might be multiple. I laid out all the things that made me question it. Everyone said, "It sure sounds like it!"

    What does it look like to others?

    One of my closest friends once commented,

    "You know, one of the great things about you being multiple is that I can be really boring. I can show you the same things like 10 times and I've got a good chance that it'll be new and exciting.

    This is certainly true in our case, and it works in reverse too. Despite a high level of shared awareness and shared memory, and a lot of commitment to not telling the same story to the same person more than once, our roommate has several times had to say, "Yes, you've shown me that before. About ten times." (Apparently the sign for helicopter is just far too fascinating for us to hold in.)

    Daniel, in another multiple system, was telling us the other night that of their two roommates, the one who doesn't know they're multiple handles it so much better than the one who does. Apparently the roommate-who-knows gets freaked out if she realizes she's talking to someone different. Their other one, though, comes out with statements like,

    "Are you okay? You've gotten all quiet and focused again. You know, I know it's not about me, but sometimes you seem really different. The way you react to things changes, or you sound different, or you get very quiet... sometimes you even have kind of an accent, maybe it's a European accent. And I know it's not about me, I just wanted to make sure it meant you were okay."
    I think she knows more than she realizes -- or more than they realize she does.

    Multiples often go unnoticed because few people know what multiplicity looks like and many are barely even aware of its existence. Many systems also put a great deal of energy into seeming "normal," often because their own experiences and the messages they get from their culture (whatever culture(s) that might be) tell them it is not safe to be different.

    For example, our roommate, when pressed, said that all he really notices about us being multiple is that sometimes we get more swishy, and sometimes we forget things he's told us and it's really frustrating. We teased him about how he doesn't notice the kids being out because he is a kid himself, and he staunchly insisted that he's at least 12 now and that he does notice, because we get excited about silly things.

    "As far as I know, I'm not multiple."

    A lot of people start out with statements like that. For me, it runs along the scary line of "I can't tell you what your experience is - but I feel like I know, because I had that same experience - but I can't tell you what your experience is!" It's like when I was in high school and I used to think I couldn't be bi, because bisexuality was something else - it's just that I can't decide who's cuter, the hot girl over there or the dancer boy I like.

    It's the kind of thing that makes for good jokes on Will and Grace. "He's not a convict! He's just a white-collar guy who embezzled a little money and has to spend some time in prison so he can think about what he did." "Oh really? Does he happen to have a brother who isn't gay, but likes to sleep with men?"

    To help those who might be questioning a little themselves at this point, I'd like to show you something that someone wrote after reading this. It has some more excellent examples of things we experience as "multiple stuff."

    I do have a few quirks that I'm sure certain multiples can relate to. First there's the clothing issue; I change my outfits often when I'm home, and the styles can vary in an extreme sense. I often put something on in the morning, only to feel by the afternoon that it's totally WRONG somehow. I also tend to dress in "themes": sometimes I really feel like a teenager so I'll put on my baggy jeans and Rainbow Brite T-shirt and sparkly eye shadow. Sometimes I feel like a very serious adult, so I just wear jeans and a plain sweater. Other times I feel very hippie/crunchy, so I do the whole flowered-skirt-with-Docs thing. Lately I've been into vinyl and fishnets, which is both a new development and a revisitation of my freshman year in high school (when I really wanted to embrace my inner goth aesthetic, but was prevented from doing so my my overly conservative parents).

    Then there's the feeling I get sometimes, especially at work, that I'm running some sort of program. It's like I can converse with co-workers about one thing while simultaneously having a very long thought process about something totally unrelated. It's like mental multitasking, and could possibly be related to ADHD. Words come out of my mouth sometimes with unconscious fluidity -- inside I'll feel insecure, but outwardly I'm knowledgeable and casual. And sometimes the opposite is true: I'll have something perfectly clear in my head, but when I try to express it, I hesitate and stammer and get annoyed at myself for not saying what I meant to say.

    I also seem to have a very strong inner child. Again, this could be the ADHD talking. I will be sitting at my computer at home and suddenly get the urge to go jump all around the room. Like, literally I'll start jumping up and down. And all the while I'm feeling this incredible joy, like just being alive is the coolest thing in the world. I still skip down the street sometimes without caring if anyone thinks I'm weird. In my actual childhood, things were sometimes dark, but the "kidness" I've held on to is an extremely positive force within me. Positive, but sometimes a bit stubborn. I have many internal conversations that go something like this:

    Kidness: "This is BORING. I wanna play on the Internet! I wanna get up and run around the building!"

    Grownup: "We can't do that now, we're at work, we need to focus."

    Kidness: "But I don't want to sit still! And this stuff doesn't make any SENSE!"

    Grownup: "Stop bothering me, I need to get back on track."

    Kidness: (sulks) "Fine, but I'm NOT going to make it any easier for you to do your work!"

    Of course I don't literally hear voices or anything, but I do have a sense of conflicting desires.

    The odd but telling textures

    Q: How many "alters" does it take to change a light bulb?

    A: One to change the bulb, one to change it back, three to argue over whether they want it light or dark, one to throw the light bulb against the wall to hear it crash, one to clean up the mess, four to go shopping for new bulbs and come home with stocking, licorice, Disney movies, popcorn and masking tape, one who insists it "IS" the light bulb and doesn't understand why everyone always wants it to change and can't it just be itself....
    - BoyyM's page

    These days, I often hear people unconsciously say things that seem (to me) to reek of multiplicity.

    A friend of mine, who as far as I know isn't multiple, told us,

    "I saw a baby the other day and I had a little conversation with myself. I was all, 'I want a baby!' 'Don't worry, we'll have a baby someday!' 'But I want that one!'"
    This was one of the big signs that we were multiple: all the long internal conversations. When I was younger, I remember reading all these books about people who were telepathic, or possessed, or under mind control or whatnot. And there was always some part like,
    "Why don't I just kill myself? Jerry thought. Wait! That was not his thought! Where had that come from?"
    And we were all, always, totally baffled by this. How did all these people know the thoughts weren't theirs? How could they tell they hadn't thought that? It's in their freaking head!

    Or so the argument went.

    Books, books, damned books. They told us other people could distinguish their own thoughts, and then they confused the situation by showing people having arguments with themselves. Terry Pratchett has an excellent portrayal of someone who begins by having arguments with herself and finally turns out to be totally multiple, across several books - Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum in particular. He likes to describe her as "Agnes, who is really in two minds about everything."

    Some time before I read that, in the process of figuring it all out, I wrote this:

    For me it feels rather like there's this me that I've always thought of as me - whoever "me" is, let's not get into that.

    And the more I think about multiplicity and learn about people's experiences with it, the more I feel sort of breaks or bumps in the "me" that I thought was so singular. (Which I'd always thought covered quite a bit of ground, too.)

    And as I think about them, I can recognize different areas they cover. Like, I watch my own behavior and notice when something that I say - which always seems perfectly normal to me - sounds like a total asshole thing to say when it comes out.

    And not just like I stick my foot in my mouth, but more like when there's a certain amount of time that this behavior continues. I'll say something, and notice that I'm being an asshole, and notice a disconnection between who I was thinking of as "me" and who's making a decision to say something really inappropriate that they think is funny. (Which I often also think is funny - but I wouldn't say it because it's mean or whatever.)

    For us, there are two major aspects to being multiple: the inner conversations and relationships, and the outer lives lived and negotiations made about who gets to do what when. Recently, the question arose of whether to take a creative writing class, and it struck me how many different ways I can describe the internal communication around it.

    We went downstairs for break during our sign language class, and passed a flyer for a creative writing class. My immediate thought was "oh no!" because I knew it would be another thing to add to our schedule. And all these other people went "oo!" and stopped to read it. And it turned out that it was once a week, right after our sign class, and that the author had even written a play called "The Incest Project." (Well, we didn't know it was a play - it just listed "The Incest Project" among her works and we thought, "That might be promising.")

    And I was like, "Okay, we can discuss it. Talk amongst yourselves, I'm going to go move the car." And I thought we should probably draw out a schedule of what our days look like now and what they would look like if we took that class (an idea which I later realized actually came from the kids). But back in class when we were drawing the schedule chart, I started to feel all this stress and anxiety around the possibility of taking the class. (actually, it took me a minute to even figure that much out about where it was coming from.) And I was all, "Okay, what's going on? We're doing the chart like you wanted. If it's too much, we just won't take the class. It'll be fine either way. Chill."

    And I think whatever kid was around (I think I'll blame Abigail) realized at the same time that it was weird that she was freaking out about that. And she was all, yeah, why am I freaking out about this? And she thought about it and said "I think that I would be really sad if we didn't take the class, too. I think it's cause I really really want to take that class." Which I thought was pretty smart and self-aware. And I realized that we've been wanting to take a creative writing class for literally years, and are always kind of jealous of our friends who get to take them all the time and major in that subject now, and we really need a class like that to give us deadlines or we just don't write, and stuff. And we did end up taking it, which is good.

    And like, that's the language I would normally use to think about it and describe all that. But I could also describe it like... I decided to draw up a chart of what it would be like with and without the extra class, and I started feeling really stressed out. It seemed like a lot of anxiety, which is pretty unusual for me right now -- or maybe it's just that I notice it when it happens instead of considering it a constant background noise -- and I finally stopped to figure out where it was coming from.

    I thought it seemed like it was coming from some kids in here.... let's see, how do I describe what that feels like to me? I think it's like... when I stop to really experience an emotion I'm having, instead of just tuning it out, I can get a sense of who it comes from. If it's my own, it feels much more vivid to me when I connect with it like that, and I can usually figure out why I'm feeling it. If it's some kid's (and they're most often the ones whose emotions flood through into the rest of us, possibly because they're much more free with, or less able to control, what they're feeling) I usually get a sense of "kidness" attached to it. It's a more intense sadness or anger or joy sometimes, or it's connected to things that a kid is (or would be) upset about and I'm not. It's another question of boundaries, too; it took us all some time to learn what our own feelings felt like and to connect with them enough to think "Wait, am I really angry or sad about that? Or is that someone else's feeling?"

    So I felt this anxiety, and I wondered what the cause was. And I thought, when did I start feeling this? And it was about when I was drawing up this schedule. So I figured out that there was a kid who was stressing out about taking this new class. And I thought, "Why?!" Because it didn't make sense, or really, because I didn't want it to make sense that people would still be stressed out about it because damnit I thought I had magically gotten all the decision-making under control with The Drawing of a Chart. Because I'm a Virgo.

    And I sort of listened in the kids' direction... which is vague-sounding enough, right? It's like.... If I'm going to tell my roommate that the electric bill is late or that I bought him a present or that Johnny Cash died, I can think about him, get a feel for how I know him in my head, and get a sense of what his reaction is going to be. If he's there in person, I can get a more accurate sense of how he's feeling by reading his body language and just taking a moment for some kind of empathy and understanding of him. This is a very long description of something that many people do with each other all day long; I'm describing it in such detail cause it's basically what I do to figure out what other people in here are feeling or telling me. I just sort of "tune in."

    (Which was a total mindfuck when I first started exploring the possibility that I was multiple. It made it very easy to think that whatever I heard or felt must be some product of my deranged writer's mind. I'm just too imaginative, right? But I learned to suspend my judgment of myself on that count at least, and wait and see for things to become clearer to me before I started deciding it all was or wasn't real.)

    So I listened and got the sense that whichever kid was around wasn't sure why they were upset either. And I suppose that it's basically like tuning in a radio; bothering to listen to others is like turning the dial, on good old non-digital radios that is: the reception gets better and I can slowly hear things more clearly.

    Not that I'm hearing things.

    Not that there's anything wrong with hearing things.

    And I could hear her thoughts in response to me as she tested her feelings and thought about taking the class and how that felt and thought about not taking the class and how that felt, and came to the conclusion that the anxiety was because our assumption had been that taking it would be stressful, but she thought that not taking it would be really sad too.

    All this in maybe thirty seconds of class time.

    Boundaries: Where the Rules End and I Begin

    I think that the tricky thing for many of us in here has been learning our own boundaries, learning how to understand what belongs to each of us and what belongs to someone else in here. I think that that is a problem for a lot of people; it's hard to figure out whether or not you're multiple if you don't yet know where you end and others begin. Until that happens, many multiples find themselves in foggy chaos. We struggle to figure out who each of us is and who else is in here with us, what they are doing and what they want from life, and of course, whether that's going to interfere with our own plans. Often this is confounded by self-doubt and fears.

    This is probably even more true for multiples who have been abused in some way. When our boundaries in any relationship are systematically destroyed, whether by accident or on purpose, especially when we are just developing a sense of our own boundaries in the world, how can we have a sense of ourselves as people? And how much less of others sharing our mental or physical space? They say that codependency is a disease caused by trauma. And, of course, one often-cited description of codependency is "not knowing where I end and where you begin." Think about how much harder it is to find that boundary between people when there's no clear physical boundary to begin with, or when there are natural reasons to know most of what they're thinking and feeling.

    This is one reason that it makes me very sad to see people who have only had exposure to the traditional clinical model of multiplicity, who talk about people as "alters" or "pieces." I know from experience that people in a multiple system - especially one with a traumatic history - often don't even see themselves as whole, worthwhile people, much less treat other people in their system that way. A lot of therapy out there works with that perception to dehumanize them even further, determined to have everyone give up their lives and their selves before they've had any chance to live. It terrifies us.

    A lot of systems find a clash between what the fronters (the person or people who are most often out in the world) want, and the desires and needs of others in there with them. In our case, the person who was fronting most when we came to terms with being multiple held on very tightly to that position, wanting to control what other people saw us doing and saying. Ze (and this is being written partly by zir) had a total codependent freak-out about it, and tried to know everything about everyone and obsess about what they were all doing and fix and control it all... much to everyone else's displeasure. We have a theory that this is often the case: that the people who end up being the fronters in multiple systems often place themselves in that role because they need to oversee and control everything to feel safe. (There are twelve-step meetings for that, you know!)

    Negotiating the day-to-day world

    Now, fortunately, after a lot of negotiation and experimentation (and, all right, many of those meetings) we've gotten to a place where there isn't necessarily any one "fronter," where it's more that we all have our chunks of time to do what we want and other time where we all try to do what is necessary. In fact, we realized the other day that even if Dani is (sometimes, egotistically) considered the fronter in everyday life, Precisegirl is definitely the "fronter" on everything2, both as the person who does the most work here and the one who keeps an eye on how we're all presenting ourselves. (What a blow to my ego! One minute, I'm the boss of everyone, the next I rank lower than Duck, who's rarely out, because she's funnier!)

    Many people in that role find themselves the subject of great resentment from other people in their system who they have been semi-consciously trying to keep in check: kids who never get to play, people of all ages who never get to talk to their friends, people with different ideas about relationships or different sexual orientations who have long been thwarted. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get to a place where people can let go of each other and figure out how to share the collective life safely.

    It can also be terrifying for people to be out, because (as some of our kids in here say) "What if people see you?" We want to be known as individuals, but we don't want people to notice us there; it's a difficult contradiction to deal with. Partly our reticence has to do with not being able to control what people think of us -- but wanting to -- more codependence. Partly it's the fear that if they realize they're talking to someone different than they perhaps think they are, they (like Daniel's roommate) will be afraid of us, and not want to talk to us anymore.

    The effort of negotiation can also affect outside communication. As someone I know who is just beginning to deal with her multiplicity has observed, in the tangle of accomodating others and being co-conscious and all talking at once, we both end up saying things that are just the average of what two or three people inside wanted to say -- so they end up being what nobody wanted to say.

    On the other hand, sometimes the multiplicity works for us. I often find that we are multitasking with amazing efficiency because one person is writing email and thinking about our plans for tonight while another is doing research online and transcribing stuff for work. And while many of us have ended up staying late at work or "forgetting" something important because other people were out, there have also been many times that one of us would have forgotten something, or couldn't find something, or wasn't sure what the plans were for the day, only to be saved by someone else yelling out (inside!) "I left your book under the desk," or "Check the cookies before they burn!" or "Hey dumbass! You have to meet Sarah in fifteen minutes!"

    Besides, we're much better at making decisions now that we know about each other. There was a time... and by a time, I mean about twenty-two years... when small decisions took forever to make. We would stand in the ice-cream store for half an hour trying to decide between mint chocolate chip and pralines 'n' cream, or spend forever trying to choose which book to take home as a prize for the bookcount. Once we realized why this was, we could actually negotiate over what flavor to get, or reassure each other that a bad decision wasn't the end of the world. We came up with some ground rules. If everyone wants mint chocolate chip except Cat, she can have her cone of New York blueberry cheesecake because that must mean she rarely gets her way. If Rose wants to wear her long black skirt to school and Mouse wants to wear the kittycat shirt, they either wear both, or decide which of them has the greater need, or decide that one will be worn now and one later that day. It still takes a while sometimes, but not half as long as it did when we were groping around in the dark for some kind of reason for all these different impulses.

    If you're reading all this and wondering whether it's possible that you might be multiple, well... certainly it is. It can be a good thing; and while it can be very scary to first question it (like questioning anything about one's identity), if you are multiple, you may find that you're all a lot happier knowing about it. For us, it has opened the door to a self-awareness and enjoyment of our lives that we could never have had in the previous years of switchy confusion and guesswork.

    There are a lot of good websites and books out there where people talk about being multiple; some of them are listed at the end of this writeup. And of course, you can always /msg us.

    Bitter_engineer has suggested here that "I suppose the message is this: if you have dissociative identity disorder, trust no one, not even yourself." I think that actually, it's incredibly important to trust yourself, and yourselves, and each other. You may not be able to trust anyone yet, and you may have people in your system or in your life who are harmful to you (or vice versa). But unless we learn to trust and work together with those who are trustworthy and work around those who aren't, our lives really do end up being disordered.


    (Ones that I am) Pro:

  • Dr. Peter Hopper's statistics on child abuse, including specific information on Canada, Australia, the United States and England, and a section called "Statistics Are Human Creations - Tools to Avoid Being Confused & Misled":
  • Definition and Forms of Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse, whence the statistics on sexual abuse in girls and women undr the age of 18:
  • Astraea's Web: Multiple Personality Resources and Controversy:
  • Many Voices Newsletter:
  • BiCon UK:
  • Dr. Silverstein's paper on the changing disorders in the DSM:
  • Various studies and statistics on suicidality among queer youth:
  • The Significant Other's Guide to Dissociative Identity Disorder:
  • - home of our own Myriad, and host to a list of multiple blogs, a FAQ, and a project where people in different systems talk about their worlds:

    (Ones that I am) Con:

  • Ralph Allison's presentation entitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Multiple Personality But Were Afraid to Ask:
  • Dr. Claude Steiner's exploration of ego states, including Berne's definitions:
  • Jacqueline A. Damgaard's 1987 article on the Inner Self Helper: review_archives/05/issue05_24.html
  • Ministering to Individuals with DID (the source of the quotes on "alter personalities"):
  • BoyyM's MPD/DID Information (and Humor) Pages (sadly relegated to "con" because we disagree with
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