‘Mental health for all’ is a topic that I have a lot to say about, both as an individual who’s passionate about every person being aware of their own mental health, and also as someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who resides in a body with a number of other identities/alters.
DID used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder and occurs after extreme trauma experienced in early childhood, which results in a person’s identity never integrating in to one. Instead people with DID develop ‘alters’, each with their own name, age, gender, likes, dislikes, experiences and memories. Together these alters make a ‘system’, compromised of individuals who all live in the body you see before you – this is why I refer to ‘Us, ‘Our’ and ‘We’ when talking about Our experiences.
As an individual I have to try and be aware of the needs of other members of my system; trying my best to make decisions for myself that will not cause harm or distress to other alters. As the ‘main alter’ I am most adept at dealing with daily life so am generally ‘in charge’ of Our body. DID has its roots in early childhood so for me it’s something that has always been there, and I thought everyone else was having the same experience. I believed that everyone had lots of other people in their head, went through life floating outside of their body and lost big chunks of time, but just didn’t talk about it.
I felt guilty when I struggled with these things and felt like everyone else was clearly so much better at coping. I didn't want to draw attention to my ‘failings’.
At times I did wonder if my experiences were different to other people’s, but I just didn’t have the right words to articulate what was going on. The lack of accurate language meant years of misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment pathways.
I was first seen by a mental health team in early 2012, a month after my 16th birthday. However despite regular contact with various mental health teams it still took seven years until someone realised and acknowledged what I was experiencing. They saw that the symptoms didn’t match the words I was using. They took time to find out what was happening and finally gave me some words that fit my experiences. This not only meant that I gained insight but also meant that I could explain what was happening better. We will forever be grateful to those members of the crisis team that took the time to listen and hear. That validation and acceptance is important for anyone struggling with their mental health.
After this, I began to acknowledge the other members of my system and learn that any actions I make as an individual will impact the entire system. This awareness means I now know I need to make preparations for any eventuality each and every time I leave the house.
Years ago, I went to the pharmacy by myself to collect a prescription. When I arrived, I ended up switching to a young alter who was scared and didn’t know where she was. She ended up sitting in the pharmacy upset, as people walked past. Although she was a 4 year old in distress, because she was in the body of a 22 year old nobody stopped to see if she was okay or help her. In the end, thank goodness, my mum and sister found her and brought Us home. I have no doubts that if the body had appeared 4 at that time at least one person would have come over and tried to help that scared little girl crying all alone.
In the past I just felt embarrassed when things like this happened, so tried to ignore them and carry on as normal, but this only worked until the next time!
I am having to accept that this is part of my life so it’s become a matter of being more prepared for these situations, putting things in place so that when they do happen We are able to stay safer and get help.
A couple of ways We keep ourselves safer when out and about are by having a medical ID bracelet with emergency contact numbers and the name, date of birth and address that would access medical records or get Us back home. I also make sure my bag contains a grounding pack, which is a pouch my sister made that I’ve filled with things that have a strong connection to and help Us feel anchored to the present.
Having many different alters with different needs and personalities can definitely make daily things like money management harder. Young alters who had access to my debit card have bought themselves things at times so it's important to make sure they always have toys they like when they are fronting so they don’t end up buying more teddy bears!
Having alters with strong amnesic barriers between them also causes big memory gaps when someone else has been fronting. This can lead to difficulties. For example, at times I have been quizzed by professionals about discussions I know nothing about but are in my notes. Often this leads to frustration from services as I cannot remember or completely disagree with statements other alters have made.
At these times I have been treated like I am purposely not complying or I feel like some sort of zoo animal-alien-weirdo, being told how ‘fascinating’ or ‘interesting’ I am and ‘do I (sic) really not remember?!’
These attitudes leave me feeling more isolated and very uncomfortable.
These occasions are really difficult but in the past year, the improvement in my own understanding of DID has led to an increase in my confidence, so when these instances do happen I am able to articulate why those kinds of reactions are unhelpful and explain what would be helpful in future.
Over the past year I am becoming more aware of some of the brilliant things my alters do and how we all help one another in day to day life. I am learning not to be so scared and do the things We need to do, even if it looks weird to other people. If it helps to carry round a cuddly toy, then that’s what We’ll do. I’m also starting to be able to recognise some of the more subtle indicators of looming crisis and reach out for help before things get really bad.
Now that I have a greater knowledge and understanding of our multiplicity, I can ask for help, articulate what We need and explain why. This is a huge deal and will allow Us to move forward.
Although life with DID can be scary at times and often completely exhausting, I am learning to be grateful to my alters and be aware of what they need. I’m learning more about how I can look after their mental health alongside my own, and by doing this I am gaining hope for Our future.
For all the progress we've made, lots of experiences have been left out of the 'mental health conversation'. Too often, mental health stigma continues to leave people feeling isolated and ashamed. That's why we're calling on everyone to open up to mental health this World Mental Health Day, and listen to people's experiences.