Showtime’s new series about a woman living with multiple personalities, The United States of Tara, soon will be a hot topic of discussion. As someone who has been diagnosed with and lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) on a daily basis, I am thrilled to see a serious and also humorous dramatization of what living with DID is like, and I am looking forward to watching the plot develop. Showtime also provides links to credible and insightful websites relating to DID. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this show explore these web sites with an open mind.
Dissociative identity disorder is not as rare as one would expect. Dr. Richard Kluft, the show’s psychiatric consultant, explains, “there are many DID patients that are so subtle and so disguised that their spouses, their co-workers, their friends don’t notice anything amiss for years and years and years and some are…over the top.” Tara is certainly “over the top.” Nonetheless Toni Collette’s portrayal of Tara accurately depicts the emotional experience of DID.
Most of us with DID do not have alters that appear as extreme as Tara’s. While our friends, family, or co-workers may find us moody and forgetful, rarely would they consider the possibility that we have DID/MPD. I prefer the term “multiple personality” to “dissociative identity disorder.” I tend to use the terms interchangeably, but for me, multiple feels right.
Every multiple has an intricate system connecting her alters, emotions, and awareness. Discovering how this system works is the challenge of recovery. Becoming aware of my various personalities has often been painful and occasionally paralyzing. On the other hand, DID has a positive side, one which I am having trouble letting go of.
Without a doubt I have accomplished a great deal because of — rather, in spite of — my ability to dissociate into various personalities. For example, I am fully capable of watching television, reading a book, and writing a lesson plan simultaneously. Throw in answering the nonstop questions of a toddler or five-year-old, and still, on a good day, I can do it all. Test me later on any of these activities and I will remember the details of them all — at least as long as I have access to the various parts of me who had participated.
About a year ago, someone I know (who has no idea I have DID) commented that it must be awfully strange to have multiple personalities and actually believe you are more than one person. The problem people with DID have, though, is not that they mistakenly believe they are more than one person, but that they literally have more than one “personality.” Because of the way DID rewires a person’s brain, it’s possible to suffer from the disorder for years and not even know it.
The Heart of Dissociative Identity Disorder
The heart of dissociative identity disorder lies not in personality, but in memory. DID is not an organic or chemical disorder but a creative coping mechanism that protects us from recalling trauma and terror experienced in the past. Unfortunately, this memory loss expands beyond just a particular incident or series of traumatic events.
A person with DID may find herself in the middle of a shopping mall with no idea how she got there. I remember finding clothes in my closet that I knew were not mine. I had definitely not bought them. Yet, they were my size. They were there. They certainly didn’t belong to my husband. That was terrifying. What if I had a brain tumor? Maybe it was early-onset Alzheimer’s? Maybe I was hallucinating? Or maybe I just forgot I bought them. Always I could convince myself I had just “forgotten” and then forget what I was so worried about. I would feel distracted and suddenly have to write or work out or watch TV or take a nap. Once I was accurately diagnosed and began to understand how my system worked, I understood that my memory gaps were the result of my “switching“ to different alters.
One of the scariest parts of living with DID is the blackouts. A “blackout” can last from seconds to hours. What is happening during this time is that whoever is present becomes overwhelmed for some reason and retreats. Alters generally take over in order to protect the “main” personality or the system as a whole. An alter may step in to protect the rest.
For example, I was at the doctor’s today. All weekend I have had chest pains and shortness of breath, but I have mainly written that off as allergies and the humid weather — maybe a little stress too. At any rate, I was seeing Dr. K to discuss the fact that I am gaining weight, more tired than usual, and irritable. I am thinking maybe it’s my thyroid. One of my alters, probably Victoria or Joanne (Victoria is the “perfect one” and Joanne is my “organizer/adminstrator”), must have told Dr. K about the chest pains. I have no memory of mentioning them to him, but he insisted on an EKG based on what I “told him.” I realized then that another part of me must have shared the information for the benefit of the “whole.”
My many parts are as much a blessing as a curse. Nonetheless, just keeping track of myself can be an exhausting, uphill battle. My brain, like a computer, sometimes works quickly and efficiently. It retrieves information from many different folders and files and feelings stored by my various selves. At other times, though, it slows down. Files become blocked. Sometimes I will freeze or get stuck in a loop. I need to hit “ctrl-alt-del” and use “task manager” to shut down. Then I can regroup and retrace where I’ve been.
The safeguards my mind has constructed create obstacles that can be difficult to maneuver. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the challenge of simply remembering where I am and what I am doing. Sometimes I find my emotional self trapped in one alter even though a different alter is out and controlling our actions. The younger parts of me are beginning to understand that even though they still “exist” per se, they no longer exist in the same form or physical body that they were in when they were born or became trapped.
One of the strangest effects of DID is what I call mirror shock. There are times when I am unable to recognize the person reflected at me from the mirror. I catch a glimpse of myself and I am shocked. “That’s not me,” I think. Then I realize that it is me even when it isn’t. Although I can see subtle changes in my facial features based on who is most present, my outward body doesn’t always match my inner construction.
The mind is a brilliant and beautiful creature. Mine has constructed itself in such a way that its various facets co-existed for many years without my even knowing it. As my therapy gradually unfolded and I began to learn more and more about DID the pieces of my life started falling into place. That “wow, this explains everything” moment of realization was proof at last that I wasn’t crazy; I was coping.
The way my system has been developing awareness and integrating feels natural. I am not pushing the process as much as I am allowing it to unfold. I worry, though, whether I will still be able to multitask the way I do once (if) I am fully integrated. Will I still be able to tap into the energy and resources switching alters provides me? Hopefully, The United States of Tara will examine that question.
The United States of Tara debuts tonight at 9:00pm ET on The Movie Network.