They Aren’t Dangerous Characters: Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dangerous characters with multiple personalities continue to be part of cinema. M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Glass, coming to theaters in January 2019, is a sequel to his 2017 movie “Split” and includes a villain with multiple personalities. Two other movies slated to come out in the next few years also depict volatile characters with multiple personalities: “Cowboy Ninja Viking” and the new film from DC Universe with the character “Crazy Jane.”
In “Split,” a sociopath with twenty-four personalities abducts three children. One personality, The Beast, is a cannibal with super-human strength. “Split” is just the latest in a long line of films that depict dangerous, evil characters with multiple personalities. The list includes “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Psycho,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Raising Cain,” “Primal Fear,” “Fight Club” and “Mr. Brooks.”
There’s a name for the condition these movies attempt to portray: dissociative identity disorder (DID), called multiple personality disorder until renamed by the American Psychiatric Association in 1994. In the popular imagination, people with this disorder are dangerous and manipulative. But is that true? Mental health professionals and people with DID disagree with the stereotype.
Dr. Michelle Stevens, a psychologist who has DID, pushes back: “We [people with DID] don’t lurk in dark alleys. We aren’t kidnappers who lock teenage girls in basements, and we certainly aren’t murderers. Instead, we are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors who silently suffer from a painful, scary, often debilitating condition in which our sense of who we are feels divided into fragmented parts.”
Most people who suffer from DID are survivors of severe trauma. Dissociation was their brain’s method to endure terrible things; painful memories were locked away into different selves. Brittany* and Dez both developed DID due to extreme childhood trauma.
Brittany is an American college student who describes her experience of DID as being in a car with six seats. Occasionally, she and her other selves switch out who is driving. When Brittany herself is in the driver’s seat, she describes that as being “awake.” When Brittany is triggered or overwhelmed, another self might take over as driver as Brittany falls “asleep.”
Brittany experiences memory gaps when one of the other selves has been the driver for a time, so she’s worked out strategies for keeping up with life. She keeps a notebook so that she and her “others” can write down what happens. Pre-set alarms on her phone remind the current driver of the day’s responsibilities.
Brittany has been able to conceal her experience of DID. Like many people with this disorder, she is constantly afraid of being found out and having “my life fall apart.” Brittany fears that if people knew, their view of her and her abilities would dramatically change. She describes feeling like an imposter living a successful life while feeling broken inside.
Dez Reed is a middle-aged husband and father who lives in Sasketchewan. His wife, Charmaine Panko, is a lawyer and mental health advocate. Dez describes his experience of DID (with more than twenty different selves) as normal. For most of his life, he thought other people also had memory gaps. Dez explains, “It’s like my whole life is Angela Lansbury just trying to piece together what happened the night before.” He didn’t realize he had a disorder until Charmaine stumbled on this possible explanation for some of his behaviors. A psychiatrist’s evaluation confirmed her hunch.
Receiving Dez’s DID diagnosis was the clue to a lifelong mystery, but living with that new truth hasn’t been easy. Dez describes going from being the most sought-after comedian in Saskatchewan to being unable to book a single gig after going public as having this disorder.
Brittany and Dez’s experiences are relatable to other people living with DID. At the same time, the experience of DID varies widely and there is no typical. One common thread is the stigma that Brittany and Dez describe. When people with DID take the risk to explain their experiences, they may be seen as manipulative, potentially dangerous, or faking symptoms for attention. As a result, they often become skilled at hiding their systems.
Recently our culture has grown in awareness and acceptance of mental illness. But the stigma of DID has persisted. People coping with DID shouldn’t have to live with the added burden of unfair judgment and suspicion. Let’s change the way we view dissociation so that people with DID can find acceptance and understanding, even outside of the closet.
More information about dissociative identity disorder:
PsychCentral: Dispelling Myths about Dissociative Identity Disorder
From the American Psychiatry Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders
The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation http://www.isst-d.org/
Garzon, Justin. “The Media and Dissociative Identity Disorder.” York University: The Trauma and Mental Health Report. January 18, 2013.
Stevens, Dr. Michelle. “Open Letter to M. Night Shyamalan: ‘Split’ Perpetuates Stereotypes About People with Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The Hollywood Reporter, February 1, 2017.
Personal interviews with Dez Reed, Charmaine Panko, and Brittany*
*name changed to protect privacy
Shayko, L. (2018). They Aren’t Dangerous Characters: Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/they-arent-dangerous-characters-life-with-dissociative-identity-disorder/