I  have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Before you start thinking about all that you know about the disorder or its American historical counterpart Multiple Personality Disorder, probably influenced by media portrayals such as that train wreak of a movie Sybil – stop. Now. These portrayals are so wrong and full of tropes it’s not even funny.
It’s not just Sybil that does it, either. There’s a bunch of modern shows, movies, games and other various forms of media that run into this problem. Even those that are supposedly “all about DID” such as United States of Tara, which is really just another comedy/drama series despite it being “supported” by a licensed psychiatrist. I have a very particular bone to pick with that show though, and will probably cover it later in more detail.
For now, let’s just go through a list of these tropes and just why exactly they piss me off.
- Dissociative Identity Disorder vs. Multiple Personality Disorder
- Overinflated, walking stereotypes
- The sociopathic, amoral or otherwise violent alter
- The focus on “roles”
- All multiplicity is a result of mental disorders
- There is only one form of multiplicity
- MPD or DID is a “terrible affliction”
One of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across is that Dissociative Identity Disorder is the modern-day evolution of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) and that the diagnosis of MPD no longer exists. The problem here is that this runs under the assumption that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the end-all be-all of diagnostic manuals. Other diagnostic manuals exist, and their history and criteria differ among them. In the International Classification of Diseases Version 10 (ICD-10), the diagnosis of MPD still exists.
However, this is not an excuse to ignore the history of such established diagnoses in the area of origin or plot setting for a given form of media. Perfect example? Niki Sanders of the TV show Heroes, who was diagnosed with MPD. Problem with this being, she was diagnosed in the United States, after the diagnosis had already been changed to DID via the DSM IV-TR.
Basically where the alters  are highly exaggerated in their mannerisms, including but not limited to behaviors, appearances, emotional responses and thought patterns. This is like assuming that everyone in the world is a walking stereotype, despite the vast amount of diversity from person to person. This diversity applies to alters within a DID system as well as people within other forms of plural systems. Like singlets, people within a system can be extreme or subtle in their mannerisms. Insisting, assuming or believing otherwise erases their personal identity.
United States of Tara is full of examples of this. Buck is the stereotypical angry hick war veteran, complete with drinking beer, wearing flannel plaid shirts, smoking and a love for guns (supposedly the actress has been trying to not make him a stereotype – I don’t exactly see how this has been pulled off). Alice is the prim and proper 50s housewife with perfect hair, fabulous baking skills and highly feminine clothing. T is the flirtatious, loud, “out of control” teenager with revealing clothing and a disdain for people telling her what to do.
There’s an annoying assumption that there’s one of these in every system. It’s also used a lot in writing to portray the system as crazy, dangerous or a villain. Some portrayals even revolve entirely around them, like in the movie Session 9 with Simon, the evil alter of the former asylum patient Mary. Others, like Jessica in Heroes, are just used to further emphasize the “crazy” of the system or host. Which just makes us all look like people to fear, that eventually one of these dangerous alters will come out and try to hurt you or otherwise ruin your life. This is an extension of the assumption that being mentally ill makes you more likely to be violent, which isn’t true.
The assumption that everyone within a plural system, especially ones resulting from DID, has a “role” to fulfill in order to keep the system functional in society is a result of hyperfocusing on the clinical model and understanding of DID. Basically that each alter was created by the host to perform a task or deal with a situation that they themselves couldn’t handle, thus giving the responsibility to someone else. The problem with this is that it strips people of their personal identities. This is especially true for systems that aren’t from DID, because it erases their experiences in favor of a clinical model that doesn’t even apply to them. Furthermore, it strips us of our depth and diversity and reduces us to flat fabrications. Essentially, masks to be put on and then taken off when we’re no longer “needed”. This would be outrageous for anyone else – so why is it acceptable for us?
Some of the more common roles that are used are protectors and keepers. In United States of Tara, Buck is portrayed as the protector, the rough and tough sort of guy that’ll pummel anyone that causes problems for Tara or her family. Even to the point of getting into a fist fight with her daughter’s boyfriend. Alice asserts herself as the keeper of the system, keeping all of the other alters in check and providing guidance. Though perhaps this role will be better suited for Shoshana in season two, though I don’t particularly plan to find out. In Sybil, the keeper role falls on Vicki. And in Heroes, Jessica is pushed into the role of protector, though her methods portray her as a Very Bad Person, even if her intentions are good.
Here’s the thing about mental disorders. They’re considered disorders because they negatively impact the person’s ability to function. If a system isn’t negatively impacted in functionality in society, how exactly do they have a mental disorder? Because their way of operating is different from yours? Sharing a given body with multiple individuals is not what makes a disorder, there are many systems that can function just fine and do not consider themselves to be mentally ill.
Fuck no! There is just as much variation in multiplicity as there is in any other concept. A lot of the times when a system comes out as plural, people will assume they mean DID or MPD. And if they come out with having DID or MPD, people assume a particular model that they’re familiar with. There is no one form. There isn’t even an outline of multiple forms. Every system is different, and no portrayal of multiplicity will be able to represent all of them.
This one I can answer with a single, very common response among DID systems:
We do not suffer from DID. We survive because of DID.
The thing about DID is that it is developed through a survival tactic. The host retreats from a situation to preserve their mental health, and someone else comes out to handle the situation while they are gone. This enables us to get things done should one of us not be doing well, or if they are triggered by something. If one cannot handle taking showers, another can do it for them. If one cannot handle interacting with a particular person because of past trauma, another can do it for them. This is not an affliction – this is a tool, a coping method, used by many to survive. Some cope by avoiding triggers, adjusting behaviors or perceptions. We cope by switching and passing the ball to someone better equipped to handle the situation.
And these are just some of the ones I can remember off the top of my head right now!
Now. The problem with media portrayals of DID? They don’t take these things into consideration. They focus on what will sell, what will make their plot or character more interesting, edgy or unique. They do not care about accuracy, or who is affected by the lack of it. They do not care about the cycle of shit that they contribute to every time they further enforce one, many or all of these tropes. All they care about is their plot device. And because of it, we get hurt.
I am not your plot device. I am not your idea to further develop your “character”, or your character’s “affliction” or “struggle”. Using me as your way to advance your story line doesn’t make your story interesting or unique. It makes it harmful. It contributes to society’s perception of us as dangerous, crazy or even nonexistent. It is what makes people stare at us with disbelief or shy away when a system tells them they are plural. It is what makes us afraid to come out, because of the sheer amounts of psychophobia in our culture and the emphasis on mental health and the schism between the neurotypical and neuroatypical. It is what gets us locked up, forced into treatment or integration in attempts to “cure” us of our “afflictions”. It is what makes my heart race as I type this.
If you want a plot device, come up with an actual, creative idea of your own. Stop recycling the same overused garbage. It doesn’t make you unique, edgy or artistic. It makes you cliché and an inconsiderate, ableist and psychophobic douchebag.
1. My use of the terms I, me and my throughout this post and all others addressing me are used in a plural sense, encompassing all of us as one unit to better communicate with others. It is used for when all of us are addressing a given audience and is not in reference to the host of the system. I apologize for any confusion this may cause, linguistic or otherwise.
2. The use of the term alters throughout this post is in effort to remain consistent with the clinical understanding of DID. None of us identify with this term and do not use it for any DID system that does not personally identify with it.