If I could choose two personalities for myself, I’d go with Elon Musk and your friendly neighborhood SpiderMan but unfortunately, that’s not at all how Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) works.
Individuals who experience multiple personalities as a result of DID don’t have control over the kind of personalities they have to contend with. However, researchers have also noticed that some DID patients can use their different personalities as a mental shield against the traumatic memories of their past.
DID stands as one of the most controversial psychological disorders, with some researchers even arguing that DID is a hoax without any scientific basis. However, a Harvard study busted this idea, along with other speculations on the legitimacy of DID as a mental illness. Although there is still a lot of debate about DID, researchers mostly don’t doubt its validity as a mental illness.
Apart from the cases documented scientifically (which are surprisingly scarce), numerous cases have been reported in different parts of the world, suggesting that the occurrence of multiple identities may be more common than once believed, and may be associated with mental health conditions. Which begs the question: what exactly is this condition?
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What is dissociative identity disorder?
When a person develops two or more identities of his own that often results in disconnected behavior involving memory gaps, he or she is said to be suffering from DID, which is also referred to as split personality or multiple-personality disorder (MPD). Unfortunately, 70% of patients who suffer from DID are prone to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. According to a relatively small study from the US, DID affects about 1.5% of the world population — which still makes it a relatively rare condition, but is much more common than some of the other syndromes reported in psychiatric literature.
Generally, each identity of a DID patient has a name, habits, liking, dislikings, age, and thought process. It is also possible that two identities of the same person may hate each other. The shift from one identity to another is called switching, and some DID patients can undergo switching multiple times in a single day. These changes may be associated with memory loss and confusion. PTSD is also not uncommon in patients.
A DID patient has at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states but can have multiple ones. These various personalities control the person’s behavior at different times and can be associated with memory loss, depression, or delusions.
Why do people have dissociative identity disorder?
Sometimes, a person is unable to process any more mental stress so their brain may see dissociation as the only way of coping with all the trauma that they are experiencing. As a result of this, they create different personalities (as a psychological response), in order to dissociate the original identity from the traumatic experience. The occurrence of these multiple personalities eventually leads to DID.
People who go through painful life-threatening experiences, physical violence, emotional breakdown, or sexual abuse during their childhood (according to a shocking report, about 90% of DID patients have been victims of sexual abuse when they were kids), and those who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are more likely to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Common symptoms of DID include episodes of disorientation and memory loss, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, emotional detachment, substance abuse, etc. It has been observed that increased levels of stress and substance abuse can make the condition of DID patients worse.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure per se for DID, but its symptoms can be limited to some extent using different treatments (such as psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and adjunctive therapy) but in most cases, the patient has no option but to learn to adapt and live with the multiple personalities that he or she experiences. The effectiveness of DID treatment also depends on a patient’s mindset, family environment, early diagnosis, and awareness. Therapy is also important for this type of treatment, and with the right treatment and therapy, many people with DID can learn to cope and live normal lives.
If a patient receives treatment soon after the traumatic experience that’s causing him to show DID symptoms, then the probability of him being able to control the disorder increases. Ironically, there is no particular test to diagnose DID and often its symptoms are either confused with other mental disorders or remain unnoticed until the patient becomes an adult.
The behavior of parents, friends, and other people around a DID patient also affects the dissociative behavior. A good emotional support system can make the patient live happily and comfortably even with different identities, whereas a stressful environment can escalate the condition and even provoke a patient to cause self-harm.
Some famous DID cases
Dissociative identity disorder is a rare but very unique psychological condition, and this is why many cases of DID in the past have grabbed a lot of media attention. Recently, in an interview with Economic Times, American actress AnnaLynne McCord also revealed that she has been diagnosed with DID. Here are some of the most high-profile cases of DID:
- In his book Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, American footballer Herschel Walker admits to having an alter ego named “Warrior” whom he believes is the reason behind his great sportsmanship abilities. He also talks about his other personality “Hero”, according to Walker, Hero has helped him manage his public image. The footballer won 1982’s Heisman Trophy but he claims that due to DID, he has no memory of winning the trophy.
- A DID patient Kim Noble is believed to have over 100 personalities. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, according to Kim, it wasn’t her but mostly Patricia (her most dominant personality), who talked to Oprah during the show. In an interview with The Guardian, her alter identity Patricia also revealed that Kim goes through three to four switches every day.
- Psychiatrist Richard Baer claims that he has helped his patient Karen Overhill in overcoming the episodes from her 17 different identities. In his book, Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman With 17 Personalities, Dr. Baer reveals that Karen had come to her as a patient of depression but during her treatment, he came across her different identities that resulted as a mental response to being herself abused by both her dad and grandfather during her childhood. The treatment process that involved hypnosis and various other psychological techniques ran for more than 20 years.
The bottom line
Ultimately, there is much we still don’t know about this condition. It appears to be more common than you’d expect and is often linked to trauma or other mental conditions. For some patients, DID can also be a defense mechanism through which their brain protects them from the overwhelming traumas and horrors that they had to face as a kid.
Hopefully, as more research is coming, we can better understand and enable people suffering from it to live a normal, healthy life. At least two such trials are currently underway, and several others have been recently finished.