What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
January 16, 2018 Kristance Harlow
Dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly called multiple personality disorder, is an extremely misunderstood condition related to serious trauma usually in childhood. It’s a controversial diagnosis, in part because it frequently occurs alongside (comorbidly with) other disorders.
The latest criteria for psychiatric diagnostics is the DSM-5, released in 2013. According to the DSM-5, the following is the diagnostic criteria for Dissociative Identity Disorder:
“A. Disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states, which may be described in some cultures as an experience of possession. The disruption of marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in affect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning. These signs and symptoms may be observed by others or reported by the individual.
B. Recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
C. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
D. The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. Note: In children, the symptoms are not better explained by imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
E. The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during alcohol intoxication) or another medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).”
The central characteristic of DID is the presence of two or more distinct personalities, known as alters. Someone may develop these “split personalities” because as a child they were repeatedly abused and the different personalities protected them. Alters may be born to make a person feel safe or to fulfil a necessary role.
Alters are a way to compartmentalize traumatic experiences. When an alter takes control, a person can experience memory loss because the alter can hold their own memories. Which can be the reason an alter came into being in the first place, to hide away memories that are too painful for one person to bear alone. Sometimes an alter will stay hidden for decades before coming out and revealing memories they had been holding onto. The group of alters is called a system.
Due to the rarity of the diagnosis (not necessarily the rarity of the disorder, as its prevalence is hotly debated) and the diversity of cases, this is only a rough summary of what DID is. It looks different for every individual because trauma is uniquely experienced and there are infinite ways unresolved trauma can affect a person.
Trauma must be resolved to be healed, trauma that is not resolved can only be transmitted.
Like other trauma related disorders, symptoms are often repressed until safety has been established. At which point, trauma starts to show itself. It’s a perfect illustration of the adage, life’s a bitch, just when life is getting good past trauma comes rumbling out to throw shit into disarray.
There are still harmful myths surrounding DID, including the pervasive one about it not being real and if it is real it’s untreatable. Dissociative identity disorder is an actual diagnosis and the experience of having multiple distinct alternative personalities is a lived reality for many people. If you want to learn about dissociative identity disorder, you’re more likely to find accurate information today than you would even five years ago, but centuries of stigma are not undone in a few years of cultural awakening.
Trauma must be resolved to be healed, that which is not resolved can only be transmitted. Mental health professionals well-versed in the topic know that you should never go digging for trauma, you have to let it come to light on its own.
Thanks to the power of social media, it is possible to hear from real people who have DID. They can explain the experience much better than any outsider ever could.
What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
Hank Green and the team at SciShow Psych summarize dissociative identity disorder in just over 5 minutes. This video is a good primer on the subject.
Being Diagnosed with DID
Wyn has a channel called the Entropy System. Wyn was diagnosed with DID in early 2017 and is already a voice to fight stigma. The video above is one of the most candid narratives of DID I have ever come across. She is articulate, sincere, and shares her experience with being diagnosed. I highly recommend this video to anyone who wants to gain a more empathetic perspective.
Shedding Light to Fight Stigma
MultiplicityAndMe is all about Jess and her alters. On this channel we often hear from her alters (all of whom are males). This short documentary was aired in Australia and in other videos Jessica and her alters share behind the scenes stories and clips. Her system has been inspiring other people with DID to talk openly about their lives through an ongoing collaboration called MultiplicityAndUs.
Symptoms and Behaviors
Chloe Wilkinson brings yet another face to DID. Her channel has exploded in popularity and it’s obvious why: she’s articulate, smart, and provides quality content that is well researched. In this video, Chloe talks about what symptoms manifest for her and what it can feel like to switch between alters. Did I mention how adorable she is?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association. ISBN 0890425558.
Brand, B., Loewenstein, R., and Spiegel, D. (2014). Dispelling Myths About Dissociative Identity Disorder Treatment: An Empirically Based Approach. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 77(2), 169-189. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2014.77.2.169
Chalavi, S., Vissia, E. M., Giesen, M. E., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Draijer, N., Cole, J. H., … Reinders, A. A. T. S. (2015). Abnormal Hippocampal Morphology in Dissociative Identity Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Correlates with Childhood Trauma and Dissociative Symptoms. Human Brain Mapping, 36(5), 1692–1704. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22730
Herman, J. (2015). Trauma And Recovery: The Aftermath Of Violence–from Domestic Abuse To Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks. ISBN 0465098738.
Peisley, T. (2017). Busting the myths about dissociative identity disorder. [Online] Sane Australia. Available at: https://www.sane.org/the-sane-blog/mythbusters/busting-the-myths-about-dissociative-identity-disorder [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018]
Ross, CA., Ferrel, L., Schroeder, E. (2014). Co-occurrence of dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorder. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15(1), 79-90. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2013.834861
Salters-Pedneault, K. (2017). What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?. [Online] Verywell.com. Available at: https://www.verywell.com/dissociative-identity-disorder-425423 [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018]
Tartakovsky, M. (2016). Dispelling Myths about Dissociative Identity Disorder. Psych Central. [Online] Available at: https://psychcentral.com/lib/dispelling-myths-about-dissociative-identity-disorder/ [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018]
Traumadissociation.com. (2018). Alters in Dissociative Identity Disorder. [Online] Available at: http://traumadissociation.com/alters [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018]
Tull, M. (2017). How Trauma May Lead to Dissociative Disorders. [Online] Verywell.com. Available at: https://www.verywell.com/how-trauma-can-lead-to-dissociative-disorders-2797534 [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018]
Wabnitz, P., Gast, U., & Catani, C. (2013). Differences in trauma history and psychopathology between PTSD patients with and without co-occurring dissociative disorders. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4. doi: 10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.21452
Updated March 7, 2019
Join the mailing list.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call your local emergency number. The numbers listed here are the commonly used numbers for the stated region, the numbers can vary greatly depending on where you live. If you don't know your country's equivalent to 911, this wiki page and The Lifeline Foundation have comprehensive listings.
112 & 999
112, 999, 110
112, 911, 999, 111, & 000
Find help for a crisis by texting, calling, or chatting online with these free crisis organizations. Looking for one outside of the USA? Check out our support listings.
These online and international resources may help you anywhere you are located. Looking for local support outside of the USA? Check out our support listings.