Multiple Personality Disorder Dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder, is one of the most intriguing and least understood of mental disorders. The publication of Sybil in 1973 created a wave of public fascination and, more importantly, professional recognition of childhood physical and sexual abuse as precipitants of the disorder. Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of “..at least two separate ego states, or alters, different modes of being and feeling and acting that exist independently of each other, coming forth and being in control at different times” (Davison and Neale 180). “Each personality is fully integrated and a complex unit with unique memories, behavior patterns, and social relationships that determine the nature of the individual’s acts when that personality is dominant” (Breiner 149).
While psychologists now recognize childhood abuse as a precipitant of DID, the general public is, for the most part, unaware of the strong, almost universal connection. “The vast majority (as many as 98 to 99%) of DID individuals have documented histories of repetitive, overwhelming, and often life-threatening trauma at a sensitive developmental stage of childhood” (DID (MPD) 2). The two main types of abuse that occur are sexual, involving incest, rape, molestation, and sodomy, and physical, involving beating, burning, cutting, and hanging. Neglect and verbal abuse are also contributing factors. DID is more common among women, probably because females are more frequently subjected to sexual abuse than males. This disorder is often referred to by professionals as and “emergency defense system” (Alexander, et al.
94), comparable to the defense a helpless animal uses when being preyed upon. By going into a trance-like state, the animal believes its attacker will think it is dead and leave. By the same token, an abused child uses this defense to distance its mental self from its physical being. The child dissociates, or breaks the connection between his/her thoughts, feelings, and his/her very identity. The child becomes like a “hidden observer” (Alexander, et al. 94) who does not have to deal with the pain or fear of the attack.
All thoughts and memories of the abuse are psychologically separated from the child. After repeated abuse, this dissociation becomes reinforced. If the child is good at it, he/she will use it as a defense mechanism in any situation that he/she perceives as threatening, and different personalities begin to develop. “Trance-like behavior in children has been found to be the single best predictor of childhood dissociative identity disorder” (Carlson, et al.
118). It has been documented that disassociative identity disorder can only develop during childhood, usually between the ages of 3 and 9. There is no “adult onset” disassociative identity disorder, due to the fact that “..only children have sufficient flexibility (and vulnerability) to respond to trauma by breaking their ‘still coalescing’ self into different, dissociated parts” (Rainbow House 2). It has also been found that only children who are highly susceptible to hypnosis are able to accomplish disassociative behavior. This is because a hypnotic state is very similar to the trance-like states that the children enter into, so if the children can be easily hypnotized, they can also easily go into trances. Others respond to their abuse in a more typical fashion.
Children with disassociative identity disorder may have several different alters or personalities, each with its own distinct characteristics and strengths. These alters become dominant at different times according to the outside stressors, but “..there are usually only 3 to 6 alters who are particularly active..on any given day” (Rainbow House 3). When active, these alters may or may not be apparent to observers (In fact, the personality differences in children with disassociative identity disorder tend to be subtle and fewer in number than seen in adults suffering from this disorder). When the alters are of different ages, talents, or temperaments, the distinctions between them become more obvious. It is also interesting to note that the same may be true for the disassociative identity disorder sufferer him/herself; that is, one personality may or may not be aware of the existence of another personality. In some cases, there may be an awareness of only one or two of many alters, in others, an awareness of all.
One case study involves a young woman named Elly. During the course of Elly’s therapy, four alters came out. There was Little Elly (age 5), who was fearful of more abuse; Jed, a male teenager who was a helper and protector; the Protector, who was aware of the other, alters and the incest Elly had been subjected to; and the Evil One, who wanted to destroy the other, alters. “Elly was amnesiac for the other alters, Little Elly knew about the Protector only, and Jed and the Protector knew about everybody” (Ross 128). “When the Protector was out, the Evil One was amnesiac and unable to listen” (Ross 129).
The actual number of alters appears to increase proportionately with the severity of the abuse, its frequency, and the length of time it has been perpetrated on the child. Since the purpose of the alter is to protect the “..host personality from the knowledge and experience of the trauma” (Rainbow House 3), the more alters there are, the more easily the trauma is dispersed. It is during times of stress or anticipated stress that the different personalities emerge. (Sybil’s mother sexually abused her with a buttonhook. Subsequently, Sybil suffered from hysteria whenever her shoes were buttoned; only after intensive therapy did she remember the abuse and realize why the buttonhook evoked such a strong reaction).
While the personalities themselves may differ, the characteristics and basic type of progression of disassociative identity disorder do not. There may be many types of alters in any one disassociative identity disorder individual, but most are variations on the theme of five primary alters: “a depressed, depleted host; a strong, angry protector; a scared, hurt child; a helper; and an embittered internal persecutor who blames one or more alters for the abuse” (Rainbow House 4). Disassociative identity disorder individuals are usually not diagnosed until they approach or reach adulthood, and even then, not until having undergone years of misdiagnoses. There are many reasons for this …