by Carolyn Kaufman
When the DSM-IV was released, Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) was renamed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The change was intended to convey the psychological community's belief that rather than housing multiple "people" (personalities) in one body, people with DID have one single personality or identity that has been splintered by trauma.
The purpose of the splintering is to protect the birth or core personality from terrible things that happened, usually abuse. Each of the alters or personalities is part of the same person, but the birth personality doesn't know about them. Each splinter is responsible for handling one type of trauma, which means that people who experience more types of trauma will have more splinters.
If splintering happens often enough, the psyche may begin to create splinters for every function, even the ones that have nothing to do with abuse. For example, the person may create a "personality" that's responsible for doing homework or going to school, and another for doing unpleasant chores around the house, and another that takes the piano lessons the child loves.
We all have multiple parts to our personalities. You refer to yourself as "I" or "me" even though you act differently at work or school than you do at home because you experience yourself as a single whole. You feel comfortable moving from one part of "me" to another, just as you would walking from one room in a house to another.
What makes the mind organization of someone with DID different is that instead of having open doors between the different "rooms" of their personalities, they have walls called amnestic barriers. The differences among personality states are therefore experienced as stronger than usual, making each state feel like a different personality. So the part that gets angry in the grocery store experiences itself as separate from the part that behaves politely at Thanksgiving dinner. The personalities of people with DID are organized more like apartment buildings than single-family homes--everyone lives in the same building, but the walls keep them from being aware of each other in the same way they would be in a house.
Since the different alters developed to deal with different environmental demands, the personality most suited to deal with whatever's going on will automatically "come out" when needed. Usually there are a very few personalities (if there's even more than one) that deal with most things. The person may function out of the birth personality for years, but when she gets into a car accident and is threatened by another driver, a personality that knows how to deal with verbal nastiness might come out to protect the birth personality.
One of the key symptoms of DID is missing time. The gaps in memory are so noticeable that they’re often what bring people with DID into therapy. The people realize when they reach college or get their first job or whatever that other people don’t have these enormous blank spaces.
Because the alter that’s “out” is the one making memories, the rest aren’t, including the birth personality. In an old video of the real "Eve" (famous thanks to The Three Faces of Eve), the interviewer asks one of the personalities where she went when the others were out. She thinks about it and then says, "I don't know. Somewhere." She kind of likened it to sleeping through class. She was there, she just wasn't bothering to pay attention.
So if the core personality is only “out” in the evenings, it will have no memory of going to school. This is how different alters can sometimes speak different languages. One alter was paying attention in German class and the rest weren't!
Some people believe that DID is nothing more than a hypnotic state, partly because it's so easy to temporarily "create" DID, it can be done in a classroom in front of a group of students! (Obviously, I hope, there is no trauma involved.)
Hypnosis is another word for dissociation, and all of us dissociate. Dissociation is an altered state of consciousness—it’s what happens when you’re driving and you suddenly realize you don’t remember the drive because you were thinking about something else. It’s what happens when you’ve watched a really great movie that felt like it was an hour long when it was actually two. It’s what happens when we’re daydreaming and we have to ask someone else to repeat what they said.
Part of the argument against DID is that all of us have different parts to our personalities. How we behave in our bedrooms is different than how we behave in our workplaces; how we behave in front of our families and in-laws is different than how we behave when we go out for a night on the town with friends.
One of the most common misconceptions about DID is that it's the same thing as schizophrenia when in fact the two disorders' causes and symptoms are extremely different.
Schizophrenia is a genetic problem that is caused, at least in part, by problems in brain chemistry. Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, odd speech, strange behavior or catatonia, and negative symptoms, which often look like severe depression. The problems have to last at least a month, and they have to cause problems in the person's life.
So why are DID and schizophrenia so often confused? Well, Eugene Bleuler coined the term in 1908 to refer to the split between thought processes and perception, and the term is actually derived from the Greek words 'schizo' (split) and 'phren' (mind). According to Berrios and Porter's A History of Clinical Psychiatry: The Origin and History of Psychiatric Disorders, TS Eliot was the first to misuse the term to refer to a condition more akin to DID.