Dissociative identity disorder: when two heads AREN’T better than one

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Dissociative Identity Disorder, Kettle Mag
Image: Stephen Bartels, Flickr
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One of my favourite books of all time is Sidney Sheldon’s Tell Me Your Dreams (if you’d like to read this book but haven’t yet, beware; spoilers are on the way). In his thoroughly-researched and ground-breaking novel, Sheldon weaves together a tale of three women who are connected by a series of gruesome murders. However, in true Sheldon-esque fashion, the plot takes a big twist when it is revealed that all three women are in fact the same person: a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. But what exactly IS this personality disorder?

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is more commonly known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and is a more common disorder than most people think, affecting one to three percent of the general population. Much is still unknown about this disorder, but several misconceptions seem to perpetuate even in the mental health community. Let’s separate the fact from the fiction.

It is obvious when someone has DID

Fiction. Movies like Sybil and Split portray DID sufferers as obviously insane, talking to themselves (or the “voices in their head”) and donning totally different personas from one moment to the next. In reality, the changes in personality are often very subtle, and a person can spend years in the mental health system without a proper diagnosis.

Hypnosis is helpful in unearthing repressed memories

Fiction. Hypnosis is still considered by many in the medical field to be “fringe science”. While there are numerous claims that hypnosis is effective at reducing pain and anxiety, many mental health professionals are wary of using hypnosis on highly suggestible patients. People with dissociative disorders often fall into this category, so hypnosis is often passed over in favour of more reliable treatment such as cognitive-behavioural therapy.

DID patients can have hundreds of personalities

Fact. While the average number of personalities (called “alters”) is 16, there are rare reported cases of patients having upward of 100 personalities. To be clear, research suggests that these alters actually represent different facets of the core personality that have “fractured” away to protect the patient from extreme trauma experienced in early childhood (not unlike the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series that protect pieces of Lord Voldemort’s soul). The ultimate goals for DID patients are to either integrate the alters back into one personality or to get the alters to work together as a cohesive unit.

It’s all in their head

Fiction. Doctors working with DID patients have reported significant physical changes in patients when switching from one alter to another. These changes can include food allergies appearing and disappearing, changes in blood pressure, and vision differences. One doctor allegedly reported that some patients’ eye colour would change depending on the alter, but that report has not been substantiated.

Dissociative identity disorder is still a largely misunderstood phenomenon, but ongoing research may shed some light onto this enigmatic disorder sometime in the near future. To learn more, visit www.did-research.org or read these scientific journals.

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