CN: Extensive discussion of plurality, dissociative disorders, and identity disruption, brief discussion of some of the distressing symptoms of dissociative disorders
Most mornings, my boyfriend will greet me with a hug and say, “Who are you today?” This is a more complicated question for me than it is for most people.
I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder in August of 2020, a mental health condition that means my identity is split up into a bunch of separate pieces, each with their own names, interests, personalities, and emotional ranges, and I’ve spent the months since then learning as much as I can about the alters in my system. You can learn all about DID, plurality, and the basic terminology I’m using in this article.
One of the basic concepts within plurality is the idea of “fronting.” When an alter is fronting, they are controlling the body, and their emotions and thoughts are the strongest in the forefront of the mind’s awareness. Some alters front frequently, while other alters never front at all. Some alters can easily front for a full day and other alters will get tired of fronting after a few hours and need to tap out.
Fronting is very much like running a relay race: We sub in for each other and change places as we need to, sometimes in response to the requirements of the current external environment, sometimes to provide relief to whoever fronted last, sometimes in response to a trigger (positive OR negative), and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all.
The idea that different identities are present to engage with the outside world at different times is at the center of plurality and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out who is fronting. If your plurality is the result of a dissociative disorder, dissociation can make it difficult to clearly understand what’s going on inside your own mind, and it should come as no surprise that being uncertain about who you are is a common symptom of identity disorders.
We wanted to share with you the strategies that we use on a daily basis to figure out who is fronting at any given moment. If you are plural, we hope these strategies might be useful to you, and if you’re not, we hope this article will further illustrate what the experience of plurality and/or dissociative disorders is like.
We do want to start with a disclaimer: We can only describe our experience with DID and what fronting feels like to us. We recognize that this process is going to be very different for other systems. Our system does not have amnesia very often, our communication within the system is very good, and we frequently share emotions and memories with one another. As a result, regardless of who is fronting, I simultaneously feel as if I am the one controlling the body and yet I can also feel a disconnect from who I am normally when someone else is fronting. This general framework heavily influences what strategies we use to determine who is fronting. In this article, I will sometimes use “I was Jessica” and “Jessica was fronting” interchangeably because this way of talking about fronting is comfortable and intuitive for everyone in our system.
Here are twelve questions that we ask ourselves to help determine our current identity.
What is My Emotional Baseline?
While every alter is going to experience a range of emotions, many of us have a relatively consistent emotional baseline that we return to when our emotional state is fairly neutral. If this baseline is particularly distinctive, this is usually the easiest clue about who is fronting. If my emotions feel flat, dull, and depressed regardless of what I’m doing or who I’m talking to, I am usually Jessica. If I feel frightened and small, I’m probably one of the Littles. If I am effortlessly cheerful and energetic, I am almost always Faye. If I am easily distractable and spontaneous, I am usually AJ. Some alters’ emotional baselines are more subtle and hard to describe in specific terms, and yet there is a specific and consistent way that it feels to be them, which you can sometimes learn to identify.
How Do I Respond to Our Avatars or Names?
It’s generally very helpful to keep a running list of all the alters in your system as you become aware of them. As of the writing of this article, our system has 23 alters and counting, so a list is very necessary to keep track of everybody! In addition to this list, we also have a file on our desktop that contains a series of avatars we’ve created to represent each person in the system. If our emotional baseline isn’t distinctive enough to determine who is fronting, usually our second line of defense is to look through that file.
Alters typically have an idea of their self-image which is frequently different from that of the body. It’s common for systems to get in the habit of searching for “face claims” on Pinterest or to use avatar-makers to create a likeness of themselves, which helps with feeling real and valid. We primarily use this piccrew and Facebook messenger’s avatar maker for ours.
If we look through these avatars, oftentimes one of the images will stand out or otherwise produce a “That’s me!” feeling. In contrast, looking at the other alters or looking at photos of the body will produce a flat, disinterested feeling that signals whoever is fronting does not resonate with that identity.
If our “That’s me!” feeling is uncertain or faint, we follow this exercise up with thinking about the name that goes with the alter we’re identifying with. Sometimes just saying, “AJ” in our mind is enough to get the clarity we need, other times we imagine someone else calling us by this name and that will produce the pleasant feeling you get when someone sees you for who you are.
What Clothing Do I Want to Wear?
We discovered early on that the personal styles of everyone in the system are widely different, which means that sometimes we can determine who is fronting based on which items of clothing we gravitate toward. This method, of course, relies on the privilege of having clothing in a range of styles and the ability to be flexible in what you wear in your daily life.
For us, clothing has been an important aspect of getting to know our identities in part because, prior to diagnosis, it was a means of hiding our plurality. We all internalized the importance of dressing in a certain predictable way that wouldn’t call attention to our style in an effort to present as a unified person, to the point that even the development of our primary style was extremely limited. The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to experiment with different clothing styles in an environment where very few people would see us and our clothing choices could be for our benefit only.
Alters who like to dress in a particularly masculine way are easiest to identify through this method, since button-up shirts, army green or plaid colored clothing were big changes from our old unified style. Faye is particularly fond of the color grey whereas Amy almost always wears black when given the opportunity. We even get information based on which pair of socks we choose to wear! (Granted, we have A LOT of very cool socks to choose from.)
There are also a handful of items that were purchased for specific alters to help them feel welcome, such as necklaces, hair accessories, or comfort items. Gravitating towards one of those items can also be relevant information.
How Do I Want to Spend My Time?
Our next strategy involves noticing which activities we are feeling particularly drawn to. To help with this strategy, we have actively put a priority on making sure everyone in the system gets to pursue their own hobbies and to have those activities readily available should they be fronting that day.
For example, one of our easiest tells is to look at our drawing tablet and contemplate drawing something on it. If I’m immediately overcome with the urge to Draw All The Things, I know right away that AJ is fronting. Sam enjoys listening to music, Amy likes to work on our poetry, Jessica feels content doing editing work, Casey is always looking for more things to clean, and a strong urge to get out the markers and coloring books usually means that a Little is nearby.
What Is Easy or Hard?
In addition to looking at what we want to do, it is also useful to pay attention to what we don’t want to do, what we feel neutral toward, and what we feel actively fearful or avoidant of. How much we enjoy physical touch is a particularly useful metric since there are several of us who can never get enough cuddles, some who enjoy them but can live without them, and others who aren’t super into them at all. Getting a hug can give us an idea of where we are on that spectrum at the moment.
We also try to pay attention to what things are easy to do, and which things are hard. Alters are created to handle specific kinds of situations or environments which leave us with varying levels of aptitude for the skills we developed, or didn’t, as a result of those environments. For example, we all have some ability to do something like socializing with people we don’t know well, but for some of us that will take a lot of concentration and effort and feel uncomfortable regardless, and for others it will come easily. The ease with which we engage in certain activities, or the effort, is a valuable source of information when figuring out who is fronting.
What is My Relationship to Recent or Distant Memories?
A key symptom of DID is that the dissociation of identity is usually accompanied by dissociation of memory as well. Different alters identify more strongly with certain memories than others, and depending on the severity of amnesia that you experience, some alters will only remember experiences in which they were fronting and not other ones. We no longer have regular instances of full amnesia, but we do regularly have emotional amnesia, where you do remember what happened but it’s a little foggy, or you feel as if you’re watching the memory happen to someone else.
While we usually don’t use our relationship to certain memories as a tool to go looking for who is fronting, if we notice that a lot of memories from a specific time in our lives are popping up today and they aren’t immediately relevant to what we’re doing, then that can be a clue to who is fronting. For example, one day we were shopping at a grocery store that we used to work at. We have continued to visit this store once or twice a month since we stopped working there three years ago, and yet on this specific occasion, we found ourselves flooded with many specific and detailed memories of people we used to work with and kept expecting to see them just around the corner. This experience helped us pinpoint the fact that Hazel was fronting since she was most active during that period of our life.
While it can often be harder to keep track of who was fronting during less eventful times, like when we went to a doctor’s appointment or watched a TV show recently, occasionally we get lucky and realize, “Oh, I know for certain I was AJ when I watched that and now I can remember that show much more clearly, so I’m probably AJ again.”
What is Distinct About My Voice, My Language, or My Physicality?
For some systems, this tactic goes at the top of their list. Some alters have very distinctive ways of speaking, tones of voice, even different accents, or are otherwise very obvious in their outward expression of who they are. Our system tends to be more subtle which makes this a more specialized tool for us.
Though lots of us sound similar in the way we speak, our male alters on average speak in a deeper range, a few of us tend towards the higher melodic voices, and Littles often sound quiet and small when they speak. Syntax, vocabulary, average volume, and the pace at which we speak can all be clues as well. Not speaking much is also a pretty strong indicator.
Body language or overall physicality can sometimes be harder to notice from the inside, but my boyfriend says that he notices someone else is fronting when our body language changes. Sometimes we will notice things like how long our strides are, as we walk, or if they are timid or confident. Amy’s physicality is particularly distinctive both in that she puts both her hands in her pockets (whereas AJ usually only puts one hand in a pocket, and I don’t put my hands in my pockets unless I’m cold) and Amy also has a habit of pushing her hair out of her face by running her hand from her forehead over the top of her head; a habit which none of the rest of us have.
Am I Displaying Any Unusual Involuntary Behaviors?
Because alters are usually created in response to sources of stress or threat, the habits they developed to cope with that stress can stick around long after the danger has passed and pop up at inopportune times. Many of us engage in debates on facebook or twitter but if I am particularly consumed by one to the point where I can’t step away even when I know it’s no longer productive to continue arguing, Jessica may be fronting. If someone asks for my opinion and I hem and haw anxiously, unable to identify any preference at all, I may be Holly. If I am very distracted from conversation by the possibility that my partner is neglecting food on the stove or about to make a wrong turn on a drive, and can’t help but blurt out the problem I see, I am likely Sam or Shelby. If I am very distressed and can’t seem to calm down even after the problem has been addressed, one of the Littles is probably fronting. If I can’t stop cleaning or noticing obscure cleaning projects that I need to do, I am definitely Casey.
What Triggered Me to Be Up Front?
Specific alters can be triggered by specific environments or necessities, so if you have an idea of why a switch is happening or know that a certain alter’s trigger recently occurred, that can sometimes lead you to a conclusion about who is fronting. We’ve noticed that if someone who is highly unstable or emotional is fronting but then gets overwhelmed and decides that they don’t want to front anymore, AJ is almost always the one to replace them. Similarly, if someone in the system who is not fronting has been distressed but is not yet ready to acknowledge or share their distress outwardly, Jessica usually fronts, because her job was once focused on hiding inner turmoil.
What Level of Dissociation Am I Experiencing?
Because dissociation is one of the key symptoms of this disorder, we all have a range of dissociation and related symptoms that we experience. However, along the same lines as the strategy of noticing emotional baselines, certain alters tend to carry with them different baseline levels of dissociation fairly consistently. The people that front the most frequently are more likely to feel present and grounded (unless we are in a crisis). But some of our trauma holders find it very difficult to be present in the body, which can lead to cognitive confusion and brain fog, the body feeling numb and devoid of pain, feeling unable to move at all, or difficulty holding a conversation with someone in front of us. Specific alters tend to dissociate in a specific way, making both the severity of the dissociation and the way it manifests, useful information.
What is Happening Inside the Inner World?
When an alter is not fronting, we can still have an awareness of one another in “the inner world” which is basically where alters go when they aren’t in control of the body. If you are the one fronting, you can concentrate on the inner world and “see” it in your mind’s eye. If your connection with the rest of your system is currently fairly clear, you can look around and see who is “near” the front and who is otherwise occupied.
If all our other techniques have failed, we’ll go down a list of everyone in our system and try to find each of them in our inner world. Some people are easy to skip over because they don’t front or their presence is so distinctive that we would know if they were fronting already. But usually, by process of elimination, we can figure out who is fronting based on who we can’t find in the inner world. This method isn’t foolproof because sometimes alters disappear from view or are unavailable for other reasons that you aren’t always consciously aware of. But this tool is pretty useful when used in conjunction with some of the others.
Do I Need an Answer?
A surprising discovery to us as we’ve learned more about our system was that both the level of certainty and the level of importance of knowing who we are at a given time fluctuate from day to day.
There are days where our identity feels fuzzy and uncertain or when switches are frequent or unclear. It’s possible for multiple people to front, or have different levels of influence over the front. Some of the words other systems use to describe these states are things like co-conscious, co-fronting, passive influence, blended, or “someone is nearby”. While there is a general consensus on what these terms mean, it’s incredibly personal what each phenomenon feels like to you and your system and what language you use to describe your ever-changing internal state.
Being under extreme stress or high levels of dissociation can also distort your perception of who is fronting. And if your system is undergoing big changes, such as new alters splitting off, fusions, or an alter changing their role in the system, it often takes some time to adjust to the new normal, which makes it harder to use your go-to tools accurately.
There are days where we simply don’t feel the need to figure out who we are, at all. Perhaps being in this state indicates that a frequent fronter is fronting since we are the ones who are most likely to be able to go through the day and carry out normal tasks without disruption. But regardless, on these days, if I think about my identity, I just feel like “me” and I’m not worried about which version of me I am.
And then there are days when my identity is clearly defined. If I switch, I know that it’s happening and I know who I am within a few minutes of becoming aware of a switch. These are usually the days when nailing down my identity feels validating and engaging, like a fun game I get to play as the day goes on.
Regardless, figuring out who is fronting is an ongoing learning process. If you’re struggling with this skill, try not to worry about it too much! It’s normal to make mistakes and the majority of the time, misidentifying who is fronting does not have terrible consequences. It’s a useful skill to have and can help you understand your own emotions and actions better but knowing who you are is not required in order for you to be valid or real.
Introducing Plural Merch!
In our brainstorming for new merch designs, we were inspired to design some plural pride merch! We wanted to honor how important our relationships with our other system members are and frame their existence as a strength, not a weakness. The phrase “Together We Survived” was inspired by plural pride merch that The Entropy System used to sell, but no longer does. Be sure to send some support their way and check out their youtube channel.
You can now buy this design on stickers, mugs, T-shirts, and many other products! 15-30% of each purchase goes directly to supporting Yopp.
Resources for and about plurality, DID, and OSDD:
- A video on “31 Myths and Misconceptions About DID/OSDD”
- A video on the concept of fronting and its complexities
- A video on the differences between DID and OSDD-1
- Absolutely every video made by the Ring System
- A video on “My Identities Impersonating Me: Why DID is a hidden disorder.” (Note: Multiplicity & Me is an example of a more overt system, which is a less usual presentation but makes it easier to capture and communicate on camera.)
- A video on “How I Found Out I Had DID” by the Entropy System
- A facebook group that welcomes all kinds of plurals and is excellent at maintaining safety and acceptance within the group
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.