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What is Dissociative Identity Disorder/DID (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder)?

Updated on February 17, 2014

What is DID, formerly known as MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder)?

Dissociative identity disorder is a condition in which two or more "personalities" take control of a person's behavior. A number of DID cases have been documented in medical literature and have been dramatized in award-winning movies and TV shows such as "Sybil," "The Three Faces of Eve" and "United States of Tara." It's now estimated that up to 1% of the population may have DID, but it's still a controversial diagnosis. I created this page in honor of someone very close to me with DID. I hope this lens will help to enlighten and educate people about the condition.

("Allow me to introduce myselves" button from Zazzle)


My Personal Disclaimer

I'm not a therapist, a doctor, a scientist, or a researcher

Many of the lenses I've created on Squidoo are about relatively unimportant topics such as Who Invented Chocolate?, The First Hot Air Ballooon or Santa's Nice List. I don't feel a need to explain why I wrote about those topics. Basically, they're just fun. But I do think I should explain why I chose the topic of DID and what you should know about the information here.

As the subtitle says, I'm not an expert on DID. I'm just a regular person who has had a long relationship with someone with DID. I knew her years before she was diagnosed with multiple personalities (before they changed MPD to DID), and when she finally was diagnosed, it made a lot of sense to me. Before then, I just thought she was "forgetful" or "flaky" or "moody." But it was much more than that. You might be wondering how I wouldn't notice such an "extreme" disorder, but people with DID are amazing survivors. They had to be to survive the horror that usually caused their condition. So they hide it from those they don't trust to see their multiplicity, which is usually almost everyone. You might notice some odd behavior from time to time, but unless they decide to let their guard down and let you into their world, you won't know they experience the world in a way that is very different than the way we singletons experience it.

If you've ever watched a movie or TV show about someone with DID, you might think alters jump in and out all day long and there's a dramatic change when it happens. But that's not really how it usually works. (See my thoughts below on popular movies and TV.) If one percent of the population has DID, you probably know someone with this condition. You just aren't aware of it because people with DID don't want to call attention to themselves. They are not usually going to act in ways that make it obvious they have adopted this clever survival method. Plus, if you go to school or work with someone with DID, it's likely you're usually with the same person/alter. Each of the alters have their own roles to play and their own strengths, so it's unlikely that, say, a five-year-old alter is going to come out in the middle of a business meeting.

My friend with DID is one person most of the time. Her alters tend to come out when she's under stress and can't function, and then they jump in to help. That's why they came into existence - to help - and that's what they still do. They also come around when she's having flashbacks of her abuse because each of them holds different painful pieces of her memory. But in daily life, her behavior and personality is fairly consistent, and most people would never guess she has DID unless she tells them. They might notice some slight oddities every now and then (like when one of her alters speaks with an accent), but most people chalk these up to "quirks." I sure did for many years.

When I finally found out she had DID, however, it immediately rang true to me. It explained a lot of "quirks" and things that had happened over the years, from suicidal behavior to memory lapses, to that slight accent that would come and go, to a lot of other things that seemed odd. I even thought for a long time that her real name was just a nickname because one of her alters had led me to believe that. So I have never doubted her diagnosis or the existence of DID. You won't find any links or information here that suggest DID isn't real. That's my first bias.

My second bias is that I don't think people with DID are "crazy." In fact, I think they're quite clever and amazing. At least, my friend is. She has been partly integrated for over a decade, but I know and have known many of her alters and found them to be fascinating and creative (and much better artists than she is!). What's crazy is not the way she managed to stay alive, but the horrific things that happened to her when she was a child. Her abuser was absolutely crazy. She is not. I also don't think that someone who is multiple and wants to remain that way is crazy.

So that's my disclaimer - I'm no expert, I believe in DID, and I don't think people who have it are crazy.

Now that you've read the disclaimer, please feel free to continue on. I hope you find the information here useful and educational. This page is meant mainly to provide resources for friends and family of people who have been diagnosed with DID as a result of severe trauma or abuse. But if there are any multiples visiting, welcome to you all, too!

(About the image shown above. The unicorn image here was drawn for me by Aria 8, a child alter of a woman with DID. It was drawn by the "same person" (i.e., that's what the rest of the world might think) as the image at the bottom of this lens that appears just before the guestbook. Both images shown here are displayed with permission of their creators.)

DID Video on YouTube

I found this video on YouTube. I think it's absolutely brilliant. If you want to gain a glimmer of understanding into life with DID in under three minutes, this is an excellent introduction.

Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder

DID is generally caused by trauma at an early age. The disorder most often develops in children subjected to "chronic and severe abuse." According to the Merck Manual online, "about 97 to 98% of adults with dissociative identity disorder report having been abused during childhood. Abuse can be documented for 85% of the adults and 95% of the children and adolescents with dissociative identity disorder."

Of course, millions of children are abused during childhood and don't develop DID. The Merck Manual politely points out that those who develop DID are usually subject to "chronic and severe abuse." I think a more appropriate word would be "torture." In most of the literature I've read and in my own personal experience of having a very close relationship with someone with DID, "torture" is a more accurate description of the kind of unimaginable, horrific abuse suffered by children who develop DID. DID is an extremely clever method of surviving an extremely violent childhood.

Symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder

A person with DID may have the following symptoms:

- Exhibits at least two distinct personalities that that each have their own way of perceiving and relating to the world around

- Experiences episodes of amnesia or time loss beyond mere forgetfulness

They may also experience these symptoms, which may be present in people with any type of dissociative disorder (not just DID):

- Depression, anxiety or suicidal feelings

- Depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself)

- Flashbacks

- Sleep disorders

- Eating disorders

- Self-mutilation (such as cutting)

- Drug or alcohol abuse

- Panic attacks or phobias

For more information, visit these links:

Sidran Foundation - Help for PTSD and Dissociation

Mayo Clinic - Signs and Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders

How Many People Have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

It's not quite as rare as once thought

According to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, studies suggest that DID may exist in up to 1% of the population.

But the incidence of all dissociative disorders is much higher. "Diagnosable dissociation occurs in approximately two to three percent of the general population," according to the ISSTD, and "immediately following severe trauma, the incidence of dissociative phenomena is remarkably high. Approximately 73% of individuals exposed to a traumatic incident will experience dissociative states during the incident or in the hours, days and weeks following."

Books About DID for Multiples - Self-help books for those with DID and those who love them

These books are written for people with DID, but are useful reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of the disorder.

More Books for Survivors - Healing from abuse and PTSD

These books are not specifically about DID, but are very excellent sources of information and healing for sexual abuse and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Books About DID: Personal Stories

There are a variety of good books that have been written about personal experiences with DID. What I like about these types of books is that they provide a lot of hope. You can see how others have overcome their trauma and learned to thrive. My personal favorites here are "Sybil" and "When Rabbit Howls."

But while I would recommend these for friends, family and significant others of those with DID because they can be very helpful in understanding the condition, I would caution anyone with DID to be aware that these stories contain accounts of severe abuse. Therefore, they may be triggering.

Miss America by DayCHECK PRICE

Marilyn Van Derbur was crowned Miss America while in college and later went on to become one of the most successful motivational speakers in the country. She is also an incest survivor. Although she does not have DID, I am including her on this lens as an inspiration for those who have suffered from sexual abuse (as many with DID have). Marilyn repressed her memories of sexual abuse for years, and is a great inspiration to those who have survived similar experiences.

I heard her speak many years ago, and she was amazing. A version of that speech is available on her website, Miss America by and is called A Story of Hope. It shows her first public speech in which she told about her childhood incest. The speech is inspiring and should be non-triggering for most abuse and DID survivors. I highly recommend it.

A second, more recent speech called "The Journey of Recovery" is also available from the site and is equally good. It touches on many of the same issues as the first speech, but is spoken from the perspective of someone who has more years of recovery under her belt.

She has also authored a book called "Miss America by Day," which is available from the site or through Amazon. In addition to describing her personal journey of healing, the book offers a variety of self-help sections for abuse survivors and parents who want to protect their children. It's an excellent read for anyone wanting to have a better understanding of the painful process of healing from incest. The chapter titled, "Seven Things Never to Say" is especially good for friends and family who are trying to support a loved one who has survived sexual abuse. It will prevent you from sticking your foot in your mouth and saying something stupid.

Sybil Two-Disc Special EditionCHECK PRICE

Sally Field won an Emmy and Joanne Woodward won an Oscar for their portrayals of women with DID in the movies "Sybil" and "Three Faces of Eve," respectively. Although these movies feature actresses portraying DID, they are based on real cases and I would recommend them for anyone wanting to understand more about the disorder, as long as you understand that you're watching Hollywood's very simplified and condensed understanding of the disorder.

Others would disagree with me. Some people believe movies such as these present an overly-dramatic and not-altogether accurate picture of DID and aren't useful at all. I'd have to agree that these movies simplify and dramatize DID, but I think there is still a lot of value in them. I know my friend with DID watched Sybil a number of times because it gave her hope to see how Dr. Wilbur was able to help Sybil, and I think it also gives people an idea of the type of abuse that causes DID. If you watch Sybil, you'll get a pretty good idea that the "abuse" she was subjected to as a child was pretty severe. I think there's some value in that understanding.

So I like these movies, and that's my viewpoint. You can decide for yourself.

Those movies are available on DVD, but it's also worth checking the TV listings for other movies. A re-make of Sybil aired on CBS in June 2008. Tammy Blanchard played Sybil and Jessica Lange played Dr. Wilbur in this version of the movie. Shelley Long of "Cheers" fame also starred in 1990 in a made-for-TV movie based on the book "When Rabbit Howls."

As with the books, I would caution that movies about DID can be triggering for multiples.

Sybil (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Sybil (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The two-disc 30th anniversary edition of this classic movie includes interviews with the screenwriter, actresses and producer, and also includes paintings created by "Sybil," which was a pseudonym for Shirley Mason, the real woman whose story was told in the movie. The interviews with the screenwriter are particularly interesting, as he answers a lot of questions about the fictional aspects of the movie and why they were included. It's still the best movie ever produced about DID, IMHO.

United States of Tara

Showtime original TV series explores the lives of a woman with multiple personalities

[UPDATE: Showtime eventually pulled this show after three seasons. Comments below apply to the first season of "United States of Tara."]

Now there's a TV show about a woman with DID. Steven Spielberg is the executive producer of Showtime's new half-hour comedy, United States of Tara, so you know it can't be bad. The series stars Academy Award-nominee Toni Collette as Tara Gregson, a woman the show describes as "your average suburban wife and mother... except when she's not." Tara has DID. She's married with two children and has four alter personalities that also share their life.

I think what's exceptional about this show is that it focuses on the normal daily life of a person with DID. While movies such as "Sybil" and "Three Faces of Eve" have explored the trauma that causes DID and the difficulty of healing from extreme abuse, United States of Tara focuses on what it's like to live with DID. You see Tara with her family instead of her therapist.

The show is getting rave reviews for its serious content along with its sense of humor. After seeing the first two episodes, I thought it was brilliantly funny. After seeing more episodes, I'm not quite as enchanted. They've created Tara's alters to get maximum humor and drama out of the show, so I think some of it is very unrealistic and overblown based on what I know about DID. I think it's very unlikely that most people with DID would behave in a few of the ways the show has depicted.

Having said that, I still think Collette is a terrific actress who does a wonderful job portraying all of Tara's alters, and I still love the fact that the show isn't focused on Tara's disorder. It's about living with DID, not having DID run - or ruin - your life. That, in itself, is still enough reason to watch the show, IMHO. Just remember that it's TV, not reality.

If you love someone with DID, United States of Tara is a good reason to subscribe to Showtime. But if you don't have Showtime, you can watch the entire first episode free on their web site.

Trailer for United States of Tara - TV series stars Toni Collette as a woman with DID

Recovered Memories - Books on how the mind handles trauma

There has been a good deal of skepticism in the media (and, to a much lesser extent, the mental health field) about repressed memories. Can someone really repress a horribly traumatic event and then remember it years later? People with DID may struggle with this issue as they remember abusive situations, as it seems counterintuitive that you could "forget" something that seems like it should be unforgettable. No one seems to find it odd that a person in a car crash can forget everything that happened between the time they got in the car and the time they woke up in the hospital the next day - completely forgetting the traumatic event, the minutes leading up to it and perhaps a period of consciousness after the accident. But there has been a lot of popular skepticism about the ability of children to repress traumatic memories that they don't recall until they're adults.

False Memory Syndrome

Unfortunately, skeptics have invented the phrase "false memory syndrome" or FMS to cast doubt on dissociative memories. This is not a medically classified condition. False Memory Syndrome is a phrase coined by an organization that advocates for people who say they have been falsely accused of childhood sexual abuse. It is not a medically recognized condition.

Traumatic Memories

In fact, studies have shown that the brain handles and stores traumatic memories differently than it handles "regular" memories and "forgetting" these events is not uncommon. In her book "The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation: The Hidden Epidemic," Marlene Steinberg, MD, notes that a 1994 study of 129 women with childhood sexual abuse histories documented by ER visits showed that 38 percent of the women did not recall the incidents when interviewed 17 years later. This book is a great resource for anyone wanting to understand dissociative memories.

For a quick but informative and impartial overview of how the brain handles traumatic memories, the Sidran Institute has a great fact sheet called What are Traumatic Memories?.

For more in-depth analysis of how a person can seemingly forget and then recover a repressed memory, "Unchained Memories" is another great resource. This book is not about DID, but it is helpful in understanding how the brain handles and remembers traumatic events. Author Lenore Terr, M.D., uses real stories to illustrate how memory works in traumatic situations and critically examines the difference between recovered memories and "false memories." It's balanced, insightful and very readable. Highly recommended.

More Famous People: Herschel Walker - One of football's greatest running backs reveals he has DID

Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder
Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder
From Amazon: Born into a poor, but loving family in the South, Herschel was an overweight child with a stutter who suffered terrible bullying at school. He now understands that he created "alters" who could withstand abuse. But beyond simply enduring, other "alters" came forward to help Herschel overcome numerous obstacles and, by the time he graduated high school, become an athlete recognized on a national level. In Breaking Free, Herschel tells his story -- from the joys and hardships of childhood to his explosive impact on college football to his remarkable professional career. And he gives voice and hope to those suffering from DID. Herschel shows how this disorder played an integral role in his accomplishments and how he has learned to live with it today. His compelling account testifies to the strength of the human spirit and its ability to overcome any challenge.

Herschel Walker Video on DID

Stand Up and Be Counted

I've been pleasantly surprised over the years to meet other people who know or have known someone with DID. If 1% of the population has this disorder, it's likely most of us have encountered someone with DID (although you will never know about it unless they trust you enough to tell you). If you know someone with DID, please sound off below.

There is also a guestbook at the bottom of the page where you can leave longer comments. It's a bit difficult to leave long, thoughtful comments in this section, but the guestbook has a lot more room for feedback.

Do you know someone with DID?

DID/Dissociative Identity Disorder Links - Learn more about DID

This page merely gives a brief overview of DID and some recommendations about books and movies that may be helpful to survivors and loved ones, but if you'd like to learn more, here are additional links to visit.

Artwork by a Woman with DID - Look Closely

This illustration, entitled "Look Closely," was drawn by Tori, an alter of a woman with DID. The unicorn illustration above was drawn by Aria 8, a different alter of the same person. Both images are shown here with permission.


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