Passing as Normal with Dissociative Identity Disorder
If I'd kept quiet about my brush with hospitalization a couple of weeks ago, my doctor would have been the only person who knew anything was seriously wrong. I missed a blog post the following Monday, but easily could have feigned some other, less embarrassing emergency. We were in the midst of moving and still managed, with a great deal of help that would have been necessary either way, to get the old place emptied and the new one full. Even my family didn't realize the jeopardy I was in. How is it possible to be desperately unwell and no one know? Dissociative Identity Disorder makes passing as normal not only possible for me, but nearly unavoidable.
Nobody realizes that
some people expend tremendous energy
merely to be normal.
- Albert Camus
Dissociative Identity Disorder Develops to Conceal the Intolerable
Imagine a four year old boy. We'll call him Bobby. His father flies into unpredictable, violent rages. What provokes laughter and camaraderie one day will earn Bobby a terrifying beating of staggering proportions the next. When his father hits and kicks him, Bobby's mother hovers nearby murmuring at his father to calm down, as if what's happening is merely a temper tantrum and not overwhelming violence. Afterward, no one acknowledges what has happened. If Bobby mentions his pain or fear, he is punished severely.
This is an example of the kind of situation that is a breeding ground for Dissociative Identity Disorder. Bobby regularly experiences severe trauma. He cannot predict what will set his father off and is therefore in a constant state of vigilance. He has no help, no way out. No one addresses his suffering and he is expected to conceal it. He must appear normal, healthy, and well cared for. Bobby's mind adapts and learns to compartmentalize in order to meet the outrageous demands of his abusive environment. How do you eat dinner with a man who, hours earlier, beat you senseless? How do you politely ask him to pass the butter? The solution DID offers is simple: you aren't aware of the violence, or the fear and pain it causes.
Multiples are able to function at a high level and "pass" as healthy by dint of an elaborate inner world and exhausting always-on-guard compensatory strategies for avoiding detection by others. - The Stranger in the Mirror, Marlene Steinberg and Maxine Schnall
Dissociative Identity Disorder Disguises Problems
The mind of an adult with Dissociative Identity Disorder is stunningly adept at concealment. Like Bobby, people with DID often aren't aware of the paralyzing fear, the crushing grief and pain that exists somewhere in the dissociative web until it wells into a full-fledged crisis. Even then, Dissociative Identity Disorder helps them - even forces them - to pass as normal. This is how a person like me can appear to function normally while struggling to survive.
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Gray, H. (2010, November 11). Passing as Normal with Dissociative Identity Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, April 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2010/11/passing-as-normal-with-dissociative-identity-disorder
Author: Holly Gray
First, I wanted to say that you are not doing anything wrong, and you are not doing anything to make him "leave". You yourself also can't really do anything to keep whatever is going on from happening. Have you spoken to him about these changes? Is it something that he recognizes?
I can't say anything.
Both of my parents are dissociative so I was prone My did was a trigger waiting. I'm carrying myself everywhere I go, in my arms, on my back, mind, throat, and tongue. Im choking on this secret it's like a double life. The elephant in the room decided to get up and sit on me. It takes 60% of my strength to hold myself together and I know I know I didn't say 100% but when the outside world is JUST as straining I'm sure you can see why it feels like im breaking. I'm constantly watching myself making sure I don't let something I'm hiding slip. Which brings paranoia leading to anxiety that's me cracking under the pressure of everything. I can't put it in order ,youll see it's all just a vicious cycle . when I can't calm myself down there's usually some kind of substance available one way or another and I don't mind stealing at this point. My nerves have a constant horrible sensation kind of like electricity, caffine over load, or like someone's put your blood flow on fast forward. This never makes it to the surface and sometimes it doesn't make it to me either. I need to feel a thrill stronger than my anxiety level different from the worrying adrenalin rush I get on a daily basis. Sex, drugs, dangerous situations, telling people the ACTUAL truth then saying "I'm just kidding I would never" I'd be considered the wolf in sheep's clothing. I'm a little fulfilled Knowing that sometimes I dont care that i make people's lives harder. I feel a sense of emptiness so I take energy from others, blunt truth. What a life that I've learned to have fun with.
"How do you eat dinner with a man who, hours earlier, beat you senseless? How do you politely ask him to pass the butter? The solution DID offers is simple: you aren’t aware of the violence, or the fear and pain it causes."
This is so close to actual life at my house when I was a kid that it gives me chills. What a concise and descriptive passage. Keep on keeping' on, Holly. I appreciate your work.
How can I best be there for her?
What if I don't know how badly she is really doing?
First of all I think it's wonderful that your sister has someone (you) who cares and is willing to take the time to learn more about Dissociative Identity Disorder. Not everyone has that.
I think psycho-education is priority one, personally. It's hard to offer support when you don't understand what you're dealing with. If I were you, I'd read The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook by Deborah Haddock to begin with. It's really accessible and offers accurate basic information about DID. I'd also recommend The Stranger in the Mirror by Marlene Steinberg. It's easy to read and does an incredible job of normalizing dissociation while also highlighting the severe symptoms that differentiate people with DID from those without. I like both of those books so much for those new to DID because they both take the scary out of it, so to speak. It's much easier to learn to manage something that isn't completely terrifying and intimidating.
"What if I don’t know how badly she is really doing?"
You won't always. And neither will she. I always say that one of the more frustrating things about living with DID is that you don't know you've fallen off a cliff until you hit the ground. She may hit the ground without either one of you anticipating it - and that may happen many times. As long as she's safe, it's not the end of the world. She can begin to anticipate decompensation by paying attention to mental health warning signs. Dissociation makes that hard and that exercise may be very frustrating for her right now. Over time, and through trial and error, she will begin to get a clearer picture of the red flags that signify deteriorating mental health. You can help by listening, observing, and asking questions. Over time and trial and error you too will begin to get a clearer picture of what it looks like when your sister's not doing well, no matter how well her system covers it up.
It really is a process. A long, and arduous one at that. And change may occur slowly. But I can personally attest to the fact that, slow or not, that change can be remarkable.
Hang in there.
(and WHO not to raise them around!).
I think the kind of inconsistency in childhood you describe can be incredibly damaging. There's no way to protect yourself because you can't ascertain what behaviors garner what sorts of responses. That creates a hopeless, helpless situation - something no human being can endure for long without repercussions of some kind.
"I don’t believe I have complete multiple personalities but I have experienced moments were certain things will trigger a reaction. I just feel like my mind and my emotions just wash off me and I feel different, talk different, but I still largely remember MOST things I do."
One thing to be aware of is that dissociation exists on a spectrum. Dissociative Identity Disorder is the most severe manifestation, but there are other dissociative disorders as well. Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS), for instance, is often similar in many ways to DID. You can read more about DDNOS here: http://www.isst-d.org/education/faq-dissociation.htm#types
Thanks for commenting, Nicholas.
I'm glad your doctor realized the jeopardy you were in! Passing as normal can be dangerous that way.
I've heard that about Australia before in reference to Dissociative Identity Disorder. I really hope awareness of DID spreads. I think raising awareness should result in part in there being more clinicians willing and skilled enough to treat it.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope to hear from you again!
But even without this occasional convergence of thrilling seeking alters and hypomania, I always seem to fake being normal. I 've come to realise lately that I have actually done this all my life. For example, the more anxious I get often the slower and quieter I get. Also when I am incredibly socially panicked, out comes miss social and everyone thinks I'm miss friendly and miss confident, which is so not true. I feel like I have a face for everything so I can pass for normal and no one need ever see the real me. I believe it truly started out as a defense mechanism, but in the end just became my way of life. So to now learn to connect honestly with people is extremely difficult for me.
I think this really says it all for me:
"I feel like I have a face for everything so I can pass for normal and no one need ever see the real me. I believe it truly started out as a defense mechanism, but in the end just became my way of life. So to now learn to connect honestly with people is extremely difficult for me."
I'm not DID, but I'm sure similar. I pass for "normal" so well that most people, doctors included, are stymied when I tell them what's going on. Sometimes it's hard to get a doctor to take me seriously because of it. What can I say, I have advanced dissociative skills. I have a merit badge and everything.
It's amazing how lonely it is to pass for normal. And how lonely it is to look at other people like aliens. I'm aware I'm human. If you prick me I bleed and all that, but I just don't identify with the humans. I've written about it many times.
And I find myself really hating the "passing" girl. She's such a big lier. And I hate liers. And then I think I hate everyone for believing the lie. Functionality at an extraordinary cost.
It's funny ... I thought of you a time or two when I was writing this post. Though it's focused on DID and the unique things about DID that allow for "passing as normal," as I wrote I was thinking too about how so many others with different mental illnesses are exhausted by the effort to appear normal.
"What can I say, I have advanced dissociative skills. I have a merit badge and everything."
I am picturing a real live fabric patch emblazoned with the words ADVANCED DISSOCIATOR on it. I wish I had the Photoshop skills to illustrate it. It's kind of awesome.
The "passing" girl. I love that you said this because it's a beautiful example of what I mean when I say that DID is an extreme manifestation of what everyone experiences.
And I understand the hate. We used to have a pretty derogatory nickname for one particular system member who's job is, to put it in everyday terms, Public Relations Specialist. She's terribly good at it and we'd be a mess without her. Still, like you said: Functionality at an extraordinary cost.
it also makes me realize how... I want to write the word "dangerous," but fear that is being over dramatic. but it is true. anyway, what I was going to say, was how dangerous the combo of bipolar and DID can be.
when I start to decompensate, I get really polite and helpful. well, somebody does. and inside we are drowning, screaming. and also REALLY angry that nobody is responding or helping.
for so long I literally did not understand that I was not communicating on the outside what I was feeling on the inside. I did not know that I was the missing link.
So thank you for putting these experiences down on paper.
Thank you all for sharing!
I have that same problem - not being able to put my experiences and feelings into words - a lot of the time. And like you, hearing from others with Dissociative Identity Disorder really helps. That's one benefit of blogging about DID that I wasn't prepared for - the insight all of you offer. I guess it didn't occur to me that people would comment! :) I'm so glad you do. The dialogue really helps.
I am sorry you have been struggling lately. My thoughts are with you.
"What I can never understand is the disconnect from the often public perception that many of us are attention seekers."
Ah yes, the attention seeking thing! I've been reading more from people with other types of mental illness lately and it appears this is something they hear too, that they're just trying to get attention. Once I realized that I started noticing how often people respond to all kinds of things that way, not just mental illness. Knowing that helps me to take it less seriously. It's still frustrating though. And for whatever reason Dissociative Identity Disorder chronically garners that kind of judgment.
Thanks for your compassion, Paul. It helps.
"I get quite tired of trying to be normal."
I think that's what I like so much about Camus' quote - he highlights the exhaustion that results from the effort to pass as normal. It really is so tiring.
"What an experience to suddenly be thrust into a classroom with kids who I felt were so different from me that I would catch myself staring at them as if they were aliens."
I still feel this way today.
"It really kind of sucks-needing her but being angry at her for being such a good blocker."
I definitely get that. Have you told her how you feel? I ask because in February I was so frustrated and defeated with a similar situation - an alter that had/has an enormous amount of power and I felt helpless and angry. I knew if I kept fighting her I would never win. I was desperate and out of options. I did the only thing I knew to do - I wrote her a letter and told her exactly how I felt. That began a dialogue that culminated in a contract between the two of us that changed our relationship. It was hard, but it was worth it. Now this same alter I very nearly hated is someone I am incredibly grateful for. She still has an enormous amount of power, but she listens to me and works with me.
First I want to thank you for encouraging me. I really appreciate that, more than I can say.
" ... we already know that we can and have survived unimaginable truths."
That is an excellent reminder and one I sorely needed to hear, kim. You're right. And when I put things in that perspective, I feel stronger and more courageous.
I've OD'd, kept in the secure psychiatric unit overnight, been released, gone home and then to work like nothing has happened. This ability to hide is often the problem I face, when asking for assistance in a crisis... it can feel like I'm screaming out for help, but all my therapist sees is me being a little more withdrawn and saying that I'm hurting. The language I use, doesn't match the trouble I'm in.
What's worse, is when the danger is so well hidden within the dissociative layers, that you don't realise how much trouble you're in. That's when it gets scary very quickly.
I'm glad you're feeling better now Holly. I'm not sure about you, but I find it difficult to admit my frailty, so thank you for sharing this with us.
"The language I use, doesn’t match the trouble I’m in."
"What’s worse, is when the danger is so well hidden within the dissociative layers, that you don’t realise how much trouble you’re in. That’s when it gets scary very quickly."
Yes again! I don't even have anything to add, you've articulated it so well.
It really is hard to admit frailty. There are so many others, like you, who are bravely writing about life with DID and I'm inspired by that. And when I feel a little over-exposed, I borrow courage from all of you.