Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as the psychological community now calls it, is a mental illness preceded by physical, sexual or emotional trauma at some point during an individual’s life. To protect the individual from continued suffering, an alternative personality is born within her. These ‘alters’ as they are called, can have different names, different characters and different lives from the individual. Multiple alters can exist within one individual, though it is rare.
When alters assume control, the individual disappears. Nothing that an alter experiences is remembered by the person afterwards. When the individual reappears, she has no recollection of the time her alter took over. She describes her ‘disappearance’ as having blackouts or being unconscious.
The ‘coming out’ of an alter is called switching. Switching is often prompted by the environment of the individual. The process can take hours or days, or it can finish in a matter of seconds. Some alters may be hostile and reluctant to appear in front of a psychiatrist. “Tell Me Your Dreams” by Sidney Sheldon, is a thriller novel based on MPD. It describes how the wild alter, Toni Prescott, of the main character, Ashley Patterson, gives a tough time to the psychiatrist and appears reluctant every time she is asked to come out. Even during hypnosis, Ashley seems to be absent but Toni is adamant on keeping herself discreet because therapy will eventually ‘kill her’.
Chris Costner Sizemore was the first woman diagnosed with MPD. To protect her identity, her psychiatrists used pseudonym Eve White. The study of Eve White was carried out over 14 months, with over 100 hours of therapy and a series of interviews. At the time of the study in 1950s, Eve White was a 25-year old married woman who recently started to experience “‘severe and blinding headaches’ and unexplained blackouts – periods of time when she couldn’t remember what she had done.” The early therapy sessions did not reveal much to the psychiatrist and although she had one blackout during the experience, Eve seemed to remember what happened during the period when she was hypnotized.
The arrival of a certain letter marked the turning of events. The second part of this letter had been written in a different handwriting. On her next visit, Eve White admitted to having started the letter but did not remember finishing it. Just then she held her head as if in pain and slowly began to grow lively and mischievous and then introduced herself as Eve Black.
Eve Black had been with Eve White since childhood, and although White had no knowledge of Black, Black was well aware of White’s actions and experiences. Eight months into the therapy a third personality emerged, Jane, who was aware of both White and Black. This new alter was more confident than Eve White, but not as difficult as Black. She was the best of all three. The challenge faced by the psychiatrist was to figure out which personality will survive at the end.
MPD is a very rare disorder. Before this case, it was considered a myth. Today it is diagnosed eight times more frequently in women than men. It is a coping strategy for individuals who want to escape the harsh realities of the world and obtain a mental state where they can avoid their troubles.
The alters that exist within an individual, have different roles and personalities. The host is usually depressive and exhausted. The other personalities take on many forms that are uniquely constructed based on the individual and the trauma. Some of those personalities can take a role of an angry protector, a self-helper, a hurt child and an internal prosecutor who blames one of the other alters for the trauma suffered by the individual.
This phenomenon was originally thought to be only present in women but now men account for some of the recorded cases. One reason for this disparity can be due to the different temperaments in both men and women; traumas are usually endured more easily by men than women. However, the symptoms are the same in both cases and they can include some of the following:
- Impulsivity and Loss of Control – the individual experiences helplessness
- Depression and Mood Swings
- Hearing Voices and Having Hallucinations
- Substance Abuse
- Depersonalization – the individual feels disconnected with her surroundings or alienated from her cognitive abilities
- Blinding Headaches
- Amnesia – when the alters take over, the individuals have no memory of what has happened during those periods
- Changes in Physical Appearances – each alter appears to acquire a different posture, set of gestures, hair-style, dressing and talking. They sometimes have the ability to speak in foreign languages or with an accent.
These symptoms can overlap with other mental conditions and disorders. Therefore, it is important that people not jump to conclusions about MPD, and keep in mind the four myths that cause misconceptions:
- MPD is the same as Schizophrenia – schizophrenic people do not have alters but are generally confused about the order of events. They have a tendency to abstract reality and are considered to be delusional.
- MPD patients are faking it – Eve White was also suspected of having acted out her other two alters. However, the prolonged period of the study supported the validity and presence of the disorder.
- MPD is always the result of childhood trauma – contrary to popular belief; MPD may not necessarily be a result of childhood trauma. It is merely an unconscious coping mechanism that may stem from any harsh stressor that the individual encounters.
- MPD is a lost cause – the disorder cannot be entirely cured but can be reasonably managed. A person with it can live almost normal life.
In spite of all the research and experiments carried out on MPD, it is nonetheless a highly controversial topic. Many psychiatrists still deny the existence of such a disorder. Those who believe in it try to harmonize and unify the personalities to produce a better individual, rather than kill the others to help the best one survive.
Author: Dr. Tali Shenfield is a clinical psychologist practicing in Toronto, Canada. She specializes in psychological assessment and treatment of children and adolescents. You can follow Dr. Shenfield on Twitter at @DrShenfield