What do you do if your Husband is 4 Different People? Have a partner with Complex PTSD/DID? You are not alone. Part 1: Our Story
Well, actually, John used to be 9 different people, but…we’re working on it. Yes, what was once called Multiple Personality Disorder is real and no, these people are not ‘crazy.’ If anything, they might be the pinnacle of human resilience! Turns out it is a coping mechanism for a severe trauma, or possibly several severe traumas, during childhood. Adults still living with this coping mechanism are the way they are because they managed as children to segregate certain parts of their mind from other parts in order to continue living and functioning normally while simultaneously enduring horribly painful or frightening situations. In many cases this is caused by sexual assault, often by a person who cares for them, but not always. For some it is a result of having to understand neglect. How would a toddler explain to itself why no one seems to love it or care for it? And for some it is the result of a parent becoming suddenly very ill at an age where they are incapable of understanding the nature of illness, the cause of illness and its consequences.
[For a quick intro to DID, see: http://www.pods-online.org.uk/index.php/information/articles/faqs-dissociation/what-is-dissociative-identity-disorder-did]
In my husband’s case, his trauma was his mother suddenly becoming severely ill with rheumatoid arthritis when his younger brother was born. He was two and all he knew is that he made his mum sick, he didn’t, but we’re working on that, and she stopped being his mum, again, she didn’t, but she was in too much pain to hold a 2 year old and could barely hold her new born. He thought she moved on by being happy with a ‘better baby.’ His brother is many things, a fantastic father of three, a very hard worker, an avid gardener — but ‘a better baby’ is not one of them. Again, we’re working on it.
Neither of us knew that John had Complex PTSD, also known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) until we moved in together. Suddenly, in the middle of the night he would jump up and try to get away from me — he would run into the living room declaring that he couldn’t possibly be in a relationship with me because at some point in my life I had done _____ (insert completely random young adult/childhood activity here, the supposed offense rotated topically). Sometimes he was angry and would try to run out of the flat, which I somehow kept him from doing. I am 5 foot 6 and weigh somewhere around 120 pounds, he is 6 feet tall and weighs somewhere around 220 — mostly muscle. The fact that I somehow manage to keep him relatively safe is a minor miracle! He would crawl under the kitchen counter/breakfast bar and lie there shivering refusing any type of blanket or comfort. Sometimes he would run around the flat with his bathrobe over his head like a disturbed specter at 4 a.m. In case you might be wondering, yes, I have therapy now, too, and yes, I do have flashbacks of these incidents. Let’s not even go into the self-harm and suicide attempts that would happen in those dark hours of the night. And then day would come, and I would have my John back and he would go to work and everything would be OK aside from disturbing text messages that he often wouldn’t remember sending, until he came home. Then the nighttime routine started all over again.
Obviously, this situation was not sustainable for very long and something had to be done. I will always be thankful for one of my best friends who helped me sort this all out. I met him for coffee sobbing and helplessly repeating, “Its not John’s fault!” He looped his arm through mine and gently walked me to counseling right then and there.
First came the slow build up to therapy for John. I am a Ph.D. student and have access to the free counseling service at my university, the one my friend so kindly guided me to. There was an amazing counselor at the service who explained what was going on, after calming me down, and helped guide me through stabilizing John while we waited for him to get therapy. That was a whole other issue: therapy. Long-term, hard work, expensive therapy. Its hard enough to have a discussion with a partner about going to therapy, try doing it when they don’t remember the conversation the first time, or the second, or possibly the third! A major part of DID is amnesic barriers. The personalities cannot always remember what happened when the others were present; sometimes they don’t even know the other personalities exist. I had three completely separate conversations with John about him going to therapy, all of which ended in him agreeing to go, which was fantastic and a huge relief, but none of which he remembered when he was in his conscious mind. It was heart breaking having to do it over and over again — knowing that he had already been through years of therapy for PTSD from a very severe road traffic accident in his teens — all of his personalities, also known as ‘alters’ remembered that. Somehow I kept having the conversation with alters and not with John. Eventually we managed to get it right, I had the conversation with his conscious mind and he contacted the people at PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors, http://www.pods-online.org.uk/), a fantastic group who I would whole heartedly recommend to anyone suffering from DID or with a loved one who is struggling through it — email them if you need help or support. Just do it. John forwarded me their response, so that he didn’t get dissociated and accidentally delete it — depending on which alter got the email. I selected a handful of therapists I thought would be suitable for him. We sat down together with the list and he chose one. Well, first one of his alters chose one and then John’s conscious self reiterated the same request. Voila! Therapy. He emailed the therapist later that week. Keep in mind that the process of having those conversations and eventually him choosing a therapist took a good month and a half. And then there was the waiting list. We waited from November until February of the following year. In the meantime, he was getting dissociated daily and I was the closest thing he had to therapy. This is where much of the good stuff comes in, as well as a whole lot of heart wrenchingly painful stuff. Thankfully, the counselor has provided me with some literature and a fair amount of what I could only describe as training.
[I will write a separate post about the importance of therapy for both of you and what that process looks like.]
The business of alters is incredibly personal and complicated, so I will not, for now, air all of John’s different personalities here. Suffice to say that there were moments when I actually had to convince him that he was not dead, that Sarah Palin was not his fault (this was 2015!!), that I was not a secret lesbian who wanted to run off with my best friend (though she is an amazing human being and we are really close, so I kind of understand that insecurity) and that he was not gay. It would have been fine if he was gay, I would have understood, but he isn’t. I challenge you to manage not to laugh during some of these conversations. They are both heart wrenching and hilarious — don’t worry, he knows about them now and occasionally references them with a wry smile or reminds me that the random things he is fixating on are probably about as much nonsensical as these moments. Picture a giant man crying in the bath because he thinks Sarah Palin was somehow his fault when he has NEVER lived in the US. He had not even been to the US until about a month after this happened when he very bravely somehow met my entire family for the first time mid-crisis mode. Did I mention that my husband is a trooper? He is, hands down, the strongest person I have ever met.
In any case, John is now happily attending therapy once a week. His therapist is brilliant, it has helped more than I can describe and he is getting more and more whole every day. Six months later, he is well into the process of re-integration. That being said, he is progressing much faster than the average person with DID. This process can take from 5 to 10 years for many people and as with all mental health issues it is always two steps forward, one back, so don’t get your expectations up regarding your partner’s recovery speed. This isn’t a short-term thing. We still don’t exactly know why John’s recovery has been so efficient, but my therapist — the original from the counseling service who I now am in touch with regularly — thinks that it is a mix of John’s own hard work and also because I play a therapeutic role in his life. John gets therapy almost continually at home as well as his official therapy on Tuesday evenings. I get therapy about once a month, and yes, you will need it, too.
Life with someone who has DID is anything but average. It is extraordinary — equally heart warming and heart wrenching — a fantasy world hidden within real life. It is the strongest bond you will ever create with another human, with the possible exception of your children (something I have yet to experience). They will meld into the very core of your being and you into theirs, but during that process you will feel like your entire existence has been put into a blender. Don’t worry, if you both put in the effort you will come out the other side, together, stronger, happier for having lived through this as a team; but the journey isn’t easy. The road is long and hard, but healing is always a relief, a lightening of the everyday weight on your shoulders. It does get easier as time moves on, but patience, a lot of patience is required. There have been many times when I have acted completely inappropriately, had hissy fits, thrown things, even punched poor John, yelled like a banshee — lost my patience. Sometimes, for whatever inexplicable-the-universe-is-a-complete-mystery reasons, it helps the situation. Sometimes it makes everything ten times worse. You are human and you will react how you react, but keep in mind that, as previously stated, this is no short-term commitment and you have your half of the responsibility for how the healing process goes. You have to keep yourself healthy and whole, or, as healthy and whole as possible. It takes years, tears, a solid sense of humor, and a strength neither of you knew you possessed, but the effort is so incredibly rewarding and bonding.
Here comes the disclaimer: my relationship with John is just that — a relationship. I have my own mental health skill set and he his, we have our own ways of understanding and being together and communicating. It happens that it works out that I have a natural skill at this type of thing– this is not my profession, nor will it ever be. Whether it is just that he and I communicate well or that I was somehow just put together or raised in a way that makes me good at listening and gently guiding, who knows. This works for us, but may not for you. If you don’t feel you have a natural ability to do this type of thing, and if you do not have excellent instruction, as I am so lucky to have access to, leave it up to the therapist. People with DID can see their therapist up to two or three times a week, and if you do not feel comfortable playing a therapeutic role, or if you are unsure of yourself in any way in this area, DO NOT DO IT. This is your partners mind, it is precious, proceed with utmost caution and humility. This is not the place to play or assume that you magically have skills you may not have, it is the place to be very, very careful. Trust me, it took a while for me to realize what I was just naturally doing with John. The counselor realized it before I did and was guiding me before I knew that I was acting in a way that stabilized him and contributed to his recovery. Once I figured out that I was playing a therapeutic role, it made me very nervous, but I forged ahead because it had been working for us and I didn’t want to deprive John, or myself, the opportunity of a quick and efficient recovery if it was there. There are other ways to be a supportive partner, talk to your or your partners’ therapist about it, or go to one of the PODS workshops for partners.
I am not a professional therapist in any way, shape, or form. I have no qualifications other than a couple of M.A.’s in Religious Studies and Oriental Studies. These posts are purely to help point partners of people with DID in the correct direction of professional help and to help them realize that they are not alone. For more articles and general information, feel free to visit my blog: https://somemomentaryawarenesscomes.blogspot.com
Posts to come:
Should I stay or should I go? Finding the best solution for you both.
Human elements — eating, hydration, sleep, exercise, and fun.
John needs to drive the car and Sad can’t drive — Methods for pulling people out of dissociation in public and private.
Therapy — how to access it and the process.
What are alters? Should I communicate with them and how do I communicate with them?
Healthy Boundaries — you time, me time, us time.
Withdrawal and DID — supporting your partner through quitting addictive substances.