CN: extensive discussion of the symptoms and experince of dissociative identity disorder, such as dissociation, trauma flash backs, amnesia, anxiety, and extreme emotional fluctuations.
Dissociative Identity Disorder is a really unique and amazing mental illness, or as we like to call it, a survival mechanism. In most of the media portrayals of DID, the separate identities are dramatically and obviously different, switches are highly visible, and the host is constantly disoriented by their blackouts and finding themselves in places they don’t remember traveling to.
While DID can look like that, it doesn’t always. As we talked about in our first article about being diagnosed with DID, our system is pretty different from a lot of the widespread beliefs of what DID would look like. As such, while you would think that you would notice that someone was walking around with a bunch of different identities, we didn’t show many of the obvious signs before diagnosis.
In fact, we were so lacking in the early signs of DID that I was pretty shocked when I received the diagnosis. It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that this disorder could’ve been with me my entire life, and I never noticed. I considered myself an extremely self-aware person. I had done years of therapy and inner work. How did I not know about this???
To help reorient myself, I began carefully reviewing the chapters of my life and looking for the hidden signs of DID that I had previously missed. I ended up finding quite a few.
Note: As always, I can only report my own experiences with my system and my specific iteration of DID. Your experiences might be different and just because you share one or two of these with me doesn’t mean you have DID. Dissociation exists as a symptom outside of DID and there are other things that can cause these patterns. If possible, consult a mental health professional if you are concerned by the things in this article that you recognize in yourself.
Not Recognizing Myself in Mirrors or Photos
For as long as I could remember, if I walked into a room with a mounted mirror, I’d be distracted from interacting with the people present because I was looking at my reflection. I always felt a distinct disconnect from the person I saw staring back at me and it felt that if I looked long enough, I could figure out who she was.
I had a similar, though less extreme reaction to photos of myself. I always wanted to see what I looked like, as if I couldn’t really remember. And rarely did I find a photo that I thought was a meaningful representation of who I was.
An “Alter” Ego
One day in drama class, I came up with a character: A 40-year-old British Navy captain named Agatha. She was so incredibly different from me- stern, strong, quick-witted and unafraid of showing it, a little grumpy. And yet when I “pretended” to be her, her personality just came out of me easily and naturally. It was such a clear shift that my friends started calling Agatha my “alter ego.”
Then, one night, I was lying in bed awake, my heart pounding in my ears as it always did due to an undiagnosed medical condition I had. I noticed a feeling of distress with each pound, like something about the noise was upsetting to me. I wondered what this could possibly be about. And then the thought came to me, “Oh, it’s because Agatha has PTSD from being in combat and the pounding sound reminds her of the sound of explosions. That makes sense.”
And here you can see why such a blatantly obvious sign of DID- having an alter with their own identity, emotions, and memories- can be so hidden. My brain told me this was an unremarkable fact that I didn’t need to worry about. It never occurred to me that this was a very very weird thing to be happening. My system effectively placed traffic signs in front of my consciousness and directed me away from the realization that having the character you made up in acting class experience their own PTSD flashbacks was not something you typically expected to happen.
A Disappearing Hobby
Many people take up hobbies with a passion, drop them, and then never revisit them. But until I was about 10 years old, my primary hobby was drawing. I had been drawing and painting with intention since I was 5 years old. In school, I was known as “the drawing one” and schoolmates regularly approached me to ask me to draw something for them that they couldn’t do themselves. Drawing wasn’t just something I enjoyed. It was a key part of my identity as a child.
And then one day I stopped. I just didn’t draw anymore. There was no slow petering out or jumping to a new hobby instead. I just quit drawing altogether. Over the next few years, I would occasionally draw for school assignments but my identity was no longer tied up in the activity and if anything, I would feel stressed out while I did it. By high school, I had stopped all forms of visual art and I didn’t pick it up again until last summer after I had started reconnecting to the other members of my system.
Obvious Blackouts and Not So Obvious Blackouts
Amnesia as a result of another alter fronting is a necessary symptom to be diagnosed with DID and for a long while, I didn’t believe that I had this symptom. Many folks with DID experience “coming to” in the middle of an activity or in a new location with no memory of how they got there, often feeling as if no time passed between the last moment they remember and when they returned, even if hours or even days had passed. I only had two blackouts related to trauma that I knew of. Perhaps my use of the word “only” before “two blackouts” is also indicative of the amount of protective denial my system had to use to keep me in the dark.
But after some mental digging, I remembered the strange night where I was lying in bed, I closed my eyes, I felt a breeze from the open window across my face, I opened my eyes, and it was morning. Never, in my life, have I been able to fall asleep in less than 10 minutes, and 30-45 minutes is more typical, even when I was young. The experience was so foreign to me, I continued re-telling that story long into adulthood.
And after doing even more digging, I discovered that when I combed through memories of important events in my life, it was like I was looking through the names of computer files, each one named after a distinct memory. But what I discovered was that sometimes when I opened the files, there was nothing there. I felt like I remembered what happened but I actually didn’t. Or sometimes I could remember a basic outline of what happened but no details at all. This was in stark contrast with having clear memories, including emotional content, from the same time periods.
This version of amnesia was particularly hidden from me because it didn’t seem to start and stop in the middle of things, so I never experienced that sensation of losing time, and the important information about what had happened was always passed on to me, so I had no indication that I was forgetting anything. My brain had worked very hard to keep me in the dark about what I didn’t know.
Fear of Losing a Skill or Ability
A symptom of DID, because of the amnesia, can be drastic fluctuations in your level of skill or knowledge about a given task. If one alter is fronting during a math lesson, another alter may not know how to solve those problems when asked to later on. I didn’t have any clear signs of this happening but I did have a consistent, reoccurring fear that I would spontaneously lose all my ability to do the thing I needed to do when I needed to do it. Before DJing for a new venue, I used to get scared that I would show up and suddenly be terrible at DJing. I chalked this up to general anxiety but it was sometimes paralyzing.
There weren’t any abilities like school or work skills that I would lose but I eventually realized that what did regularly fluctuate was our ability to think on our feet, make decisions in the moment, feel motivated to do something quickly and efficiently, and think in terms of the bigger picture. I ended up developing a lot of habits around planning and pre-scheduling so I could make as many decisions as possible ahead of time. That way, whoever was fronting would know what to do regardless of their skill level.
Extreme Emotional Fluctuations with No Apparent Source
I have always felt emotions very deeply and for many years I chalked up the constant waves of unexplained emotion that I felt on a daily basis to a combination of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and being a sensitive person with an active nervous system. Emotions are just weird and unexplainable, I thought.
But in addition to these fluctuations, I frequently would watch a movie or read a book and be so upset by something that happened, that I could not finish watching/reading it, but have no idea why I felt that way. I’d listen to songs and feel as if they perfectly described something I had been through, that I hadn’t actually experienced. In high school, I became aware of a deep sense of grief that other people my age didn’t seem to connect to, as if I had lost something big and fundamental to my life, but I had no idea what that thing was.
The other side of these drastic reactions was that sometimes they would disappear just as quickly as they had arrived. I once had a breakdown because I could tell that my chronic pain was going to prohibit my ability to play guitar– a real loss that it is understandable to be deeply upset about. But shortly after, I stopped thinking or talking about it and acted as if the change didn’t really impact me.
And in an even more apparent example: I would sometimes have days where my anxiety was so high, I could not leave my room, for fear of some unknown danger. On its own, this already seems like a pretty severe symptom of mental illness. But even more strange was that not only would I feel perfectly fine the next day but I would completely neglect to tell my therapist about the incident, without feeling like I was hiding it or pretending it didn’t happen. A full-on mental health crisis didn’t feel relevant to talk about in therapy.
Not Being Fully in Control of my Actions Under Stress
Something I used to talk a lot about in therapy was how difficult it was for me to initiate difficult conversations with others or conversations that I thought would upset the other person. My therapist would always coach me on what sorts of things I could say, why it was valuable for me to do it, that I deserved the potential positive outcome etc. I would leave the session with renewed confidence in my ability to navigate the conflict.
And then the time would come to bring up the topic, the thought would be in my head to say out loud, and my mouth wouldn’t move. I’d try and try and try to say the words I had planned and nothing would come out. Even if someone explicitly asked me, “Is this okay?” the only words that I could say were, “Yeah, that’s fine” when my actual answer was “No, that doesn’t work for me, because of X.”
I would go back to my therapists and tell them that it felt like I had no control of what I said or did in those moments, that I just couldn’t advocate for myself when I needed to. I felt like a puppet, where my movements and words were being controlled by something, someone else, while I was trapped inside the doll, yelling, trying to be heard. These therapists understandably heard “I can’t” as “it’s very very difficult” when in fact, when a dissociated identity has control over the body, you do not actually have control over what happens next.
Living by the Mantra “Get Yourself Together”
While many people are scared of the vulnerability of showing your emotions to others, my fear carried over from just worrying about people close to me noticing something was wrong, and into worrying that strangers would notice.
Before leaving the house each day, I would concentrate on what I called “Getting myself together.” Sometimes this was a simple process, but if I had just had one of those big unexplained emotional fluctuations, it was a lot harder. I would often think, “If you can’t be together, you need to at least be able to pretend that you are together.”
Internally, I was afraid that if a stranger tried to interact with me while I wasn’t “together” that I would say or do the “wrong” thing and have no way to stop myself. I worked very hard to make myself invisible in public so that no one would try to talk to me, and if I saw someone I recognized while out and about, I dreaded the decision of whether to approach them or hope that they didn’t see me. It’s hard to fully describe how scary it was to not have control over which version of myself would come out when someone spoke to me. This fear took up a lot of my resources when I left the house, and yet I never talked about it with anyone.
For a number of unfortunate reasons, as a kid, I developed a habit: If someone asked me, “What’s wrong?” it was an immediate trigger to wipe the last 10 minutes of my memory clean. That way, when I said, “Nothing that I know of,” I wasn’t lying. I truly couldn’t remember if something had been bothering me or not.
I continued this habit into adulthood and it became a big point of contention when I was in an abusive relationship. My abuser used the question, “what’s wrong” as a way to scrutinize my reactions to things. When I’d say, “Nothing” he’d insist I was acting weird and interrogate me about what was going on, but I truly didn’t know.
And during my years in therapy, it became a regular occurrence that I would be talking about something deep and difficult, with a clearly articulated thought in my mind, and I would feel the thought being pulled away from me. I wasn’t just forgetting. I would sometimes describe this as, “Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to talk about that today,” as if someone else was enforcing this behavior for me. I didn’t fully realize this was DID-related until I watched a Youtube video of a DID system, and I saw their face transform as the exact same thing happened to them.
Fear of “Fragmentation”
There were many challenges in life that I worked to avoid because I thought they were “too hard.” But it took a number of years of therapy before I had words to describe what I feared the consequences would be if I went through something that was too painful, too scary, too difficult. I was scared that if my emotions became too big, for too long that I would “break apart,” that I would no longer be whole, that I would stop being me. I feared that if this happened, I would turn into a sort of zombie, completely unable to make my own decisions or choose my own actions, and dependent on the influence of other people to determine how I cared for myself or potentially didn’t care for myself.
At the same time, in a way, I craved the relief of this fragmentation. I was terrified of it and also wished I could give in to it, escape the constant onslaught of emotions that everyday life caused me, take a break from existing.
These feelings very accurately describe dissociation, how it is both a source of pain and anguish at the lack of control and the feelings of disconnection, and how it is also a means of coping with pain and a source of escape from emotions you don’t otherwise know how to regulate.
Most folks with DID will be in the mental health care system for 6-12 years before they are correctly diagnosed. This is partially caused by a lack of awareness and education about dissociative disorders in the mental health care industry. Many mental health professionals receive extremely little training on this set of disorders. My previous therapist shared with me that I had been the one to teach her about what OSDD-1 was and how it relates to DID.
But these misdiagnoses can also be caused by the fact that DID is, on average, a covert disorder. It is created to be a survival mechanism and in most cases, it is in the systems’ best interest to hide its existence from the outside world. In many cases, it is in the systems’ best interest for even the host to be unaware of its existence. All of these factors combined contribute to the reality that despite all the symptoms listed here, I didn’t even consider the possibility of dissociative disorders until I had already been seeing good, competent therapists for 13 years.
This article is not at all intended as a diagnostic tool but it is hopefully a tool for self-reflection, or for validation if you already have a related diagnosis. DID often means living a life full of unexplained feelings and experiences that you have no words for. I hope we’ve given you some words to describe a few of them.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.