Dissociation is an often misunderstood, frightening and sometimes complex disorder to recognise and diagnose. Thankfully, in recent years Dissociative Identity Disorder (commonly known as DID) has been increasingly recognised by mental health professionals. Once it has been correctly identified and the appropiate treatment is prescribed, a vast majority of those who live with a dissociative disorder can make huge progress taking back control of their lives, some people have even reported they have made a ‘full recovery’.
When your thoughts and feelings, perceptions and memories become ‘disconnected’ from your own sense of identity and reality, it changes who you feel you are and the way you see things. This is the basics of what happens during dissociation.
Don’t get me wrong here, at times we all feel disconnected, that’s natural and usually happens without us realising, e.g. everyday we take the bus, train or drive to work down the same route, yet often don’t really have any recollection of the journey itself. But when it happens on a regular basis it can be scary, confusing and traumatic.
Dissociation can be seen as a defence mechanism helping people to survive traumatic experiences. Experts state that it is generally regarded as being caused almost exclusively by chronic and extreme abuse, mainly sexual abuse, and often at the hands of caregivers.
Research suggests that approximately 20% of DID survivors are male. However this is arguably not necessarily an accurate picture. Men often feel under greater pressure to hide their struggle due to society’s demand on them to be ‘strong’, and they are more reluctant to seek help due to the increased stigma of being a sexual abuse survivor. Therefore are less willing to seek help and so a diagnosis isn’t given.
Men also are more likely to ‘act out’ their emotional pain, and so many unfortunately end up in the Criminal Justice System, as opposed to women, who are more likely to end up in the Mental Health System. There is thought to be a high proportion of men in prison who suffer from a dissociative disorder, but it is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia or a personality disorder. It is no surprise that many of them have been sexually abused as children.
With DID, people experience shifts of identity as separate personalities. Each identity can assume control of the body, behaviour and thoughts at different times. Each has a distinctive pattern of thinking and relating to the world. Severe amnesia means that one identity may have no awareness of what happens when another identity is in control. The amnesia can be one-way or two-way. Identity confusion is usually moderate to severe. It also includes severe depersonalisation and derealisation.
The aim of treatment and self-help for DID is to bring about increased connection between feelings, thoughts, perceptions and memories, and to foster a sense of empowerment. This creates a greater sense of wholeness and internal order, and less disruption in work, social and home life.
The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation provide guidelines for the treatment of DID; our colleagues over at First Person Plural offer support and information to DID survivors of sexual abuse; and our friends over at PODS (Supporters of Dissociative Survivors) offer support to partners or family members of people who suffer from a Dissociative Disorder.