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.