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Psychology Geekery #1

January 8, 2009

I’ve always had a fascination with abnormal psychology, and this week I’ve been reading a book I got from my local library called The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook, by Deborah Bray Haddock, M.Ed., M.A., L.P. It’s good introductory material for anyone interested in the condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything on the subject, and it’s nice to be reminded of old interests. So now, for anyone who’s interested, I thought I’d provide a brief explanation of the phenomenon of dissociative identity disorder.

The most common misconception about dissociative identity disorder (DID) is that it’s some grand, dramatic, sensational thing like what was portrayed in Sybil or The Three Faces of Eve. Another very common mistake is to conflate DID with schizophrenia, which is something else entirely. Schizophrenia is the result of organic brain dysfunction and is characterized by delusions, disordered thinking, and sometimes hallucinations. People with schizophrenia experience a split from reality. DID, on the other hand, is the result of sustained severe abuse beginning in early childhood and is characterized by amnesia, anxiety, and occasional flashbacks. People with DID are said to have a “split personality,” which is an overly simplistic term.

Dissociation in brief, minor episodes is actually somewhat common and perfectly normal. Highway hypnosis is a form of dissociation. Becoming so engrossed in a book or a movie that the rest of the world disappears is a form of dissociation. Any time your consciousness removes itself from the here and now for any reason is an episode of dissociation. If we didn’t have the ability to dissociate like this, then DID couldn’t exist.

DID is the most extreme form of dissociation and begins in childhood as a defense mechanism for dealing with ongoing trauma. A young child in this situation, powerless to do anything to change it, desperate to escape the overwhelming pain and terror, does the only thing she can do in the name of self-preservation: she mentally removes herself. At the same time, she can’t completely withdraw as she still needs to be able to interact with her environment, so a different part of herself that keeps itself and its experiences hidden from her takes over to protect her from having to deal with things she can’t handle.

We all have different aspects of ourselves. The difference is that most of us live integrated lives. We are always one person, regardless of the various hats we wear or the different ways we respond to different situations. For people with DID, however, because they learned early on how to fragment themselves, these different aspects of themselves are separated, encapsulated states that the core person is often unaware of. They come to the front when the person feels threatened and unable to cope with the situation at hand. This continues on into adulthood because they don’t know any other way of being.

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