Myths About Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personalities) Created by the Media
Books, movies, and television present this disorder in ways that are often inaccurate and individuals with the disorder are negatively portrayed leading to stigma and reluctance to seek treatment.
When I was on internship, I worked on a Women’s Inpatient Unit. This particular unit treated women with what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Despite perceiving myself to be open minded, I wasn’t sure what I really thought about this disorder. The idea of different “people” in the same body was a bit out there for me. While we saw a clients with a wide variety of problems and disorders in the psychology clinic graduate students worked in, this disorder was still believed to be extremely rare and so I had never treated anyone who was believed to be suffering from it.
By the end of the first night however, I would become a believer. What I observed seemed physically impossible. I’ll leave the full story for another time, the short version is I received a call from an intern at another hospital that a woman known to the unit who was supposed to be checking in again that night, wouldn’t be doing so. She had ingested enough alcohol to put her in a coma. I later observed a patient being brought onto the unit who was checked in. Then she added that she wasn’t checking in, she was just there to let us know that this other patient wasn’t going to be there as she was in a coma at another hospital. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now she and the woman supposedly in a coma were one and the same.
Following internship, I had the opportunity to hear Chris Costner Sizemore speak at a psychology conference. Sizemore was the women that the movie, The Three Faces of Eve was based on. During her presentation, she spoke about what it was like living with what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder (now Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID), her experience of the integration process which unified her 22 personalities into one, and what her life had been like since then. She also discussed how her doctors had taken her story without her permission, and published a book, then helped create the movie.
One of the most troubling topics she spoke about was the ways in which the doctors had capitalized on her suffering by providing information that was inaccurate in terms of her specifically and Dissociative Identity Disorder in general. Since then, I have become increasingly aware how books, movies, and television present this disorder that are grossly inaccurate and how the way individuals with the disorder are negatively portrayed.
Myths Related to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)
Myth: People with DID are Violent.
Truth: People with DID are usually no more violent than other people. They are actually more likely to be victimized by others than to act violently towards others, according to research (e.g. Brand, Loewenstein, & Spiegel, 2014). People with DID are also more likely than the general population to be re-traumatized and to experience multiple instances of abuse and violence.
There is no evidence linking crime to DID. However, the media has often incorporated a character with DID into horror movies by using a modified version of the evil twin trope with a single person and an evil alter. This has contributed to the misconception that those with the disorder are dangerous.
Myth: DID isn’t real. It’s either caused by therapists who are inadvertently suggesting that the disorder is present or people are just faking it to get attention.
Truth: Research shows that DID has distinct markers that separate it from all other disorders. It is the one disorder that has almost no overlap with others outside the dissociative disorders. It is even quite distinct from the other types of dissociation. Additionally, there are documented physical differences between personalities that are impossible to fake. Some examples include different prescriptions, allergies and eyesight. There are even cases where only one personality had a physical disease like diabetes while the others didn’t.
It’s the only condition that has such pronounced amnesic periods that result is lost time and completely separate personality states. While there are cases where the therapist “created” the disorder by suggesting it, these can be differentiated from real DID as can people trying to fake the disorder.
People who truly have the disorder often believe they are seriously mentally ill when it first presents as they have blackouts, and things start happening that make no sense such as people calling them by a different name, referencing seeing them somewhere they have no recollection being, find things in their home they don’t recognize or remember buying and in some cases don’t even like. This causes a great deal of distress and confusion. People with DID take a long time to seek help since they often have never heard of the disorder and fear that they’ll be locked up for a rare illness. This plus the fact that people view the disorder negatively, prevent people from faking it.
All disorders have cases of people who will fake having them and DID is no different. However, the rates of people pretending to have the disorder isn’t higher than for other disorders and many types of disorders, for example eating disorders, actually have higher rates of malingerers than DID. There are also techniques for distinguishing malingerers from real cases. Those who try find it very difficult to manage the small details necessary for each of their fake alters, and quickly give up.
Myth: DID is a personality disorder
Truth: DID is often believed to be a personality disorder because of the association with “split personalities” and because the former name was multiple personality disorder. But DID and personality disorders are two entirely different things.
Personality disorders consist of a fixed pattern of feeling and behaving over time which usually develops in early adulthood. Personality disorders are characterized by extreme emotional reactions and patterns of behavior which make it hard for the person to have normal, stable relationships and to function in society.
DID is a dissociative disorder as the new name suggests. As opposed to having extreme emotional reactions to others and the world around them, people with DID lose contact with themselves: their memories, sense of identity, emotions and behavior. DID also usually begins to form in early childhood though it may appear as a problem at almost any age.
Myth: DID is the same thing as schizophrenia
Truth: While Schizophrenia and DID are often confused with each other, they are actually different categories of disorders and have very different symptoms. Whereas DID involves dissociation and alternate personalities which assume control at different times these symptoms are not found in Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a type of psychosis which is characterized by delusions or false beliefs, hallucinations or sensory experiences in the absence of anything that might cause them, paranoia, disorganized thoughts, speech and movements and social withdrawal. Schizophrenia is considered to be a thought disorder.
Myth: It doesn’t matter if DID is portrayed incorrectly in movies, people know it’s just fiction and doesn’t reflect reality.
Truth: Movies and TV rarely provide an accurate picture of the DID. Symptoms are commonly sensationalized, exaggerated or are just plain wrong. Movies and TV shows that misrepresent DID spread inaccurate information about a real life problem. This causes people without knowledge and information about the disorder, including those who have it, to develop false beliefs and fears related to it. It also stigmatizes people with the disorder and discourages them from getting help while isolating them from social support.
One final thought I’d like to share. While this disorder may sound like something from outer space or perhaps just seem like an impossibility, I came to realize it is neither. It is definitely possible for a person to develop this difficulty and it something that is found in people of all cultures and backgrounds and far closer to home than one might imagine.
During the time I was so very fortunate to work with these women, I came to see it as indicating an incredible strength of person that is present even in early childhood. When faced with the most horrific of life circumstances as a child — all our women had been abused and many had been tortured, several in satanic cults — you can either fall apart and stop functioning or you can find a way to cope.
Developing different personalities enabled these women to cope and continue functioning often at very high levels. By compartmentalize different aspects of their torturous past along with the associated memories and feelings, and developing other personalities who had no knowledge of the abuse, they could continue to live their life. They could go to school, have relationships, work and simply function on a day to day basis without the burden and vulnerabilities created by this type of devastating history. And this strategy worked for them for decades. They were usually well into adulthood before there enough troubling and confusing events that had occurred, enough things they had no explanation for, before they would tentatively seek out help.
But while this disorder may seem to be the epitome of “crazy” to us on some level I never have stopped understanding that I was so privileged to have been granted the opportunity to know these truly astounding women. I will always be grateful to them for all the taught me. I learned so much about coping with adversity, never giving up no matter what it takes, and about life in general. And I gained an enormous amount of respect for these amazingly strong women who had been to hell, looked the devil in the eye, and survived in spite of it.
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. L., Loewenstein, R. J., & Spiegel, D. (2014). Dispelling myths about dissociative identity disorder treatment: An empirically based approach. Psychiatry, 77(2), 169–189
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