What is dissociative identity disorder?

Life with DID

Many modern researchers and psychiatrists believe that DID (known as multiple personality disorder until it was renamed in 1994) develops as a coping mechanism that enables a person to separate his or her consciousness from the memory of a childhood trauma. Alters may form as a means of dealing with specific situations or emotions that the host personality simply can't handle.

There's no common timetable for these personalities to emerge or change -- they may appear many years after the trauma occurred. People with DID have different experiences and even awareness regarding their alternate personalities, but there are some common elements.

DID manifests in the form of at least two distinctly different personalities (usually two to four initially, but there can be dozens) that take over the wheel, so to speak, and affect a person's behavior and bearing. The alters have their own identity separate from the person's: their own voice, age, gender, personality, quirks and even physical gestures. Sometimes the alters aren't even human -- patients have been known to develop animalistic alters. Identities can switch back and forth, sometimes quickly, other times over a period of days. Identity can switch back to the host personality for any length of time or frequency, and the host is often unaware of other personalities, though the other personalities are often aware of the host and each other.

While depictions in the media (such as "United States of Tara") can make DID look like a zany romp where you get to act out other lives, it's a potentially life-wrecking psychological disorder.

In addition to the "alters," people with DID may also have other symptoms:

  • Mood swings, depression and anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Substance abuse, suicidal tendencies and eating disorders
  • Severe long- and short-term memory disturbances

So what does it feel like to have DID? Life might feel like a foggy or distant image that you're just observing. People with the condition may feel literally detached from their own bodies. Even when an alter isn't present, DID sufferers can go through altered states of identity, in which no single personality emerges -- they just seem to be observing themselves acting outside their normal behavior patterns. Sense of time can be radically distorted during these episodes, as well as sense of place and perception of the events that are occurring.

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