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What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) was previously called multiple personality disorder. It was portrayed in the 1973 book and film, “Sybil,” and before that, in “The Three Faces of Eve.”

DID is one of the dissociative disorders in the DSM-5. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of the American Psychiatric Association). According to the Mayo Clinic, “Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that involve experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life.”[1]

Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by switching to alternate identities, as if several different people were living in the same body. Each identity often has its own name, personal history and characteristics, including differences in voice, gender, mannerisms and even such physical qualities like the need for eyeglasses. The identities may or may not be aware of each other.

It is extremely rare. I’ve run into a number of people who claim it, but I’ve only seen one in 50 years of dealing with the mentally ill.[2] The young woman (I’ll call her Brenda) was in her 20s and presented with flat affect and difficulty maintaining relationships. She had been the victim of rape and sexual violence on several occasions. I was her pastor and she came to me for counseling.

During a session, she went blank for a few minutes, raised her head and spoke in an entirely different voice, identifying herself as someone who knew about the original person, but was not related. Her personality was completely distinctive. As time progressed, two more very dissimilar personalities emerged, usually when she was talking about being sexually assaulted as a child. When she snapped out of one persona, she had no memory of what had occurred other than a feeling she had “blacked out.”

I was skeptical and tested her in numerous ways, but even her eyesight, vital signs, and MRIs differed between personalities. Obviously, I was way over my head, and referred her to a clinical psychologist, who treated her with in-depth analysis, and a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. After years of therapy, the various personalities disappeared and she appeared to be integrated. The attending psychiatrist told me that people with DID were not just abused, but tortured as children.

As a result of the torture and extreme abuse, the victim’s mind protects them by shattering into pieces, which become the multiple personalities. The goal of treatment is to put them back together again. In Brenda’s case, she had been brutally raped as an infant and toddler by trusted family members. Unable to face the horror of her trauma, she had split apart. Her personalities emerged with me because she was in a time of stress. She had been sexually assaulted by a guy she went out with. Part of her recovery involved facing him in court and not falling apart under cross-examination. I was shocked at the abuse she endured and proud of her inner strength.

Brenda had full-blown DID, but there are milder forms, usually involving a dissociative fugue, which is a temporary state in which a person has amnesia and ends up in an unexpected place not being able to remember who they are or anything about their past. Invariably, there has been severe abuse and trauma in the past.

Well-meaning people sometimes mistake DID for demon possession. I believe that demons are real and that possession is possible, but the difference, I think, between DID and demonic activity is the presence of trauma in the former and the presence of evil in the latter. In Brenda’s case, none of her personas were evil or cruel. One was so frightened she could barely move; another was logical and assertive. A third was a promiscuous flirt, and a fourth was a very strict moralist. They had very different in mannerisms, speech, vocabulary, and even health, but there was nothing demonic about them.

If you or a loved one is experiencing amnesia, a feeling of being detached from self, a blurred sense of what is real and what isn’t, or a perception that other people are not real, please seek high quality psychiatric and depth-psychology help. It may be a long road to recovery, but most people do recover with proper treatment and go on to live productive lives.

And, please remember that no matter what has happened to you in the past, and no matter what you’re presently going through, God loves you unconditionally and will never forsake you.

[1] Accessed 7 Jan. 2023

[2] Although up to 75% of people experience an episode of depersonalization/derealization in their lives, only 2% have a dissociative disorder, and only about 1% have dissociative identity disorder.

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