I am Mr. Robot.
And Elliot, and his unseen friend. Let me explain.
***Contains spoilers for seasons one and two
“…in its second season “Mr. Robot” [is] a show that poses Big Questions and dares to leave them hanging.
But most crucially, though, it raises the worry: There’s nobody out there like this, is there?
Seriously, there isn’t, is there?” — Tom Long, The Detroit News
I am a person who experiences the collection of symptoms known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID — the same condition as the protagonist of the now-infamous hacker drama that everyone’s talking about these days.
I don’t disclose that I have DID to very many people. If you met me you wouldn’t be able to tell. The last thing I need are more secrets, but my discretion has more to do with ensuring safety than avoiding embarrassment.
According to the Adult Treatment Guidelines from the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, “patients who have made themselves known to the media have had very negative experiences” such as being “exploited, violated, and traumatized,” leading the ISSTD to recommend therapists “actively discourage patients from going public with their condition or history.” Add on to that the devastating risks of being forced into treatment, misdiagnosed, or prescribed destructive medications and it’s easy to see why precious few people speak publicly about living with DID.
That’s why the hype and chatter around Mr. Robot has been so fascinating.
For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading as much of the media coverage as possible. It’s a rare treat to hear public conversations about the less relatable aspects of my life, and I’ve been somewhat obsessively soaking it all in.
But that same glowing coverage also includes a lot of quotes like these ones:
“…man on the edge of a total breakdown trying to wrest control back from aspects of himself.” — Wenlei Ma, News.com.au
“The show is set in a kind of mental hell” — John Doyle, The Globe and Mail
“…even bleaker, more claustrophobic, and more deranged than before.” — Melissa Leon, The Daily Beast
“…unreliable, morphine-addicted, paranoid…” — Robert Downey Jr., Interview Magazine
“…all-around damaged soul…” — Mark Perigard, Boston Herald
Unreliable. Deranged. Damaged. Breakdown. It’s jarring to see something so real and normal for me described as in such extreme terms — or maybe my normal is the extreme? Despite numerous references to Sam Esmail and Rami Malek consulting with a psychologist while working on the show, I can’t shake the feeling that the people writing these articles didn’t imagine someone with lived experience would ever be reading them. Still, I find the coverage riveting.
During tonight’s second season premier I split my time between a pirated live-stream in one tab and the #mrrobot twitter feed in another other. I don’t use twitter at all except to check for transit outages (and now, to share this post with others) so the rapid-fire mixture of public confusion, sympathy, and enthusiasm was almost more engrossing than the show; when so much of my survival depends on secrecy, where else can I witness thousands of people engaging with the raw struggle that makes up my day-to-day reality?
Humans are a diverse bunch, and what DID feels like and looks like for each individual will always differ in some ways from the “average” or “standard” if there even is such a thing. My life and Elliot’s are nothing alike. We couldn’t be more different in terms of personality, ideology, outlook, skills, etc. He maintains functioning by retreating from people. I maintain functioning by hooking into (or “borrowing”) the realities of the people around me. I also can’t code past HTML and I don’t think I’ve worn a hoody since high school. But Elliot and I are united by a shared cluster of symptoms that are almost completely un-talked about in public or online spaces.
Mr. Robot does a fantastic job of theatrically reproducing the experience of navigating interactions with dissociative “parts” (or “passengers” as I sometimes call them). Most productions that feature a character with DID depict them from another character’s point of view — we aren’t given access to how a fractured consciousness is experienced from the inside. As a rare artistic representation of DID from the user’s perspective, Mr. Robot is bang on. When you think about it, Elliot really is the only reliable narrator available.
Tonight’s chatter is filled with the usual “Whaaaaaat”/“I never saw that COMING!!!” but the events taking place for Elliot at the beginning of season two are deeply familiar for me.
The journals. The arguments. The bullets to the head. All of these and more are things I regularly experience. I’ve been strangled by one of my parts, I’ve been compelled by other parts to open up my body and cut out specific organs. I’m pretty damn good at resisting these instructions, but they can happen anywhere, anytime — from public transit to a staff meeting — and my focus and/or heart rate pays the price. (You try concentrating at work when someone is repeatedly screaming at you to stab yourself with a letter opener).
Just like Elliot, I work hard at staying calm in the face of what must seem to some people an unimaginable degree of vivid, internal violence.
Also like Elliot, I’m currently engaged in a process of experimenting with different routines to see what triggers “their” participation the least. Luckily I’ve found a profession that pays the rent and helps keep my mind quiet, but a big part of that was learning to accept that the folks in my head are legitimate parts of me and here to stay. The less I try to control or repress them, and more we work collaboratively, the more likely I am to stay healthy and achieve some measure of a positive quality of life. (In that sense, control really is an illusion.)
Of course, collaboration and acceptance are easier said than done. Having DID doesn’t define me as a person, but managing my DID does significantly impact my life choices and routine.
If you’re surprised that these types of experiences are my norm— don’t be. DID is a lot more common than people think. According to those same treatment guidelines I referenced earlier, the prevalence rate for studies of the general population is 1% to 3% — that’s between 71.3 and 214 million people worldwide — which for context is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Brazil, and more than the estimate for the number of people born with red hair worldwide. DID can be profoundly isolating, but Elliot and I are nowhere near alone.
While I’ve got your attention, I’d love to clarify a couple of points that I’ve noticed floating around Mr. Robot’s media coverage. They are in no particular order, and I speak only from my own personal experience.
1. Yes, dissociative parts can beat the living shit out of you.
“Mr. Robot spends the premiere berating and attacking Elliot, trying to rouse him into taking part in the revolution he began.” — Willa Paskin, Slate
When I get punched in the stomach by one of my less charitable parts, it does physically hurt. I work hard to keep it hidden from everyone else, but sometimes I can’t help but involuntarily flinch or cry out.
I’ve never been pushed off a railing, but I’ve been pushed down stairs, shoved into traffic, and forced to scrape the skin off my legs.
2. Yes, sleep can be elusive when you’re just one renter of many in a mental time-share.
“Despite documenting every waking hour of every day, Elliot came to the realization that his alter ego is able to work while he’s asleep.” — Samantha Sofka, Nerdist
I have relatively good information flow between parts, including who’s driving and when, so I don’t experience the complete blackouts Elliot struggles with. DID is a spectrum diagnosis, and my understanding is that it’s common for degrees of amnesia or information sharing to change over time.
That said, some of my parts tend to be more active at night, so even if I know what they’re up to it can be tough for me to get much sleep when they’re spending the wee hours engaged in their own activities.
3. No, Mr. Robot is not imaginary.
“Slater’s character — Mr. Robot himself — was merely a figment of Elliot’s imagination.” — Jefferson Grubbs, Bustle
“Imaginary” would suggest that he’s a product of Elliot, and he’s not: he’s a component of him. A fraction, if you will. Not a delusion, not a fantasy. A living, breathing, separate consciousness that is both Elliot and not Elliot; a snapped-off fragment of grey matter that has seceded from the union and taken matters into their own hands.
For example: when I try to envision the full reaches of who and what I am, I am still only conceiving of 1/9th of my self/mind. I know that the others are part of me, and yet, I experience them as being distinct from what I experience as myself (and they experience themselves as distinct from both me and each other.) My identity and priorities are no more or less valid than their own.
Confused? Thinking this sounds a little sci-fi? Join the club.
4. No, medication wouldn’t magically solve the problem.
“Without meds, Mr. Robot can’t be kept away.” — Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter
While individuals with dissociative disorders may benefit from pharmaceutical assistance during crisis, or to treat comorbid disorders such as anxiety, OCD, or depression, there are no medications currently recommended for the treatment of DID. In fact, most medications a doctor would typically reach for in a “voice hearing” situation have been found to be either totally impractical (due to differing tolerances or willingnesses to maintain a dosage schedule amongst parts), or fundamentally counterproductive (due to the necessity of improving communication with one’s other parts in order to collaboratively navigate daily life).
Repressing a part’s presence through medication is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. Listening, comforting, validating, negotiating, but never repressing.
DID is a debilitating condition, but recovery is possible given the right support. Unfortunately, thanks to the stigmatization of mental illness, histories of psychiatric abuses, and a lack of quality, affordable care, accessing what is needed to get better is profoundly difficult in most parts of the world. It’s a long, rough ride, but a beautiful one.
Have hope for us.