You may have heard of the term “neurodivergent” which was coined specifically to describe brains that function in a different way without pathologizing those conditions. The longer I’ve lived with a Dissociative Identity Disorder diagnosis, the more I am convinced that it falls under the neurodivergent umbrella. At the same time, it is still a mental illness that can cause a great deal of distress beyond a lack of external accommodation from society. So, is Dissociative Identity Disorder divergent or disordered?
CN: extensive and detailed discussion of the symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder, including trauma responses, amnesia, and dissociation
The social model of disability defines disabilities as an incompatibility between a given person’s mind or body, and the society they live in, which helps reframe disability away from something being wrong with you. It states that once a disability is fully accommodated by the structures around them, the condition ceases to be disabling.
I am a strong proponent of the social model of disability, and I also believe that while aspects of disabilities can be neutralized by accommodations, there are other aspects that continue to feel like an illness, like something is “wrong.” For me, this “wrongness” is not a value judgment but a description of the way my disability impacts my quality of life, even when I’m receiving support and treatment.
I wanted to try to break down which aspects of DID feel to me like they are a disordered illness, and which parts feel like a simple form of neurodivergence that may even be positive. I need to strongly emphasize that this article is about our experience of our own system and no one else’s. If you experience things we list under neurodivergence as distressing, that is perfectly valid! Our article is meant as an invitation to pick apart these traits and notice the range of qualities that come with them.
Disordered: Trauma Triggers, Flashbacks, and Hypervigilance
One way of conceiving of DID is that it’s like a severe version of PTSD. As such, the majority of the distressing symptoms we experience are reactions to past trauma. Trauma flashbacks can involve overwhelming, scary emotions, full-body reactions that are deeply unpleasant, and exhaustion once the flashback is over. These flashbacks can be triggered with no notice and fully derail plans for the day. A mildly difficult, normal life event can turn into a huge ordeal and a more distressing, high-stakes situation can take weeks to recover from.
Triggers in DID have an added layer of difficulty in that the alter associated with the traumatic memory may be triggered to the front. They may not possess the skills necessary to safely navigate the world and their emotional baseline may consist of trauma responses and fear.
Hypervigilance refers to a heightened state of being prepared for a potential threat. We experience a great deal of anxiety anticipating worst-case scenarios, which can easily spiral into panic attacks. Just hearing a strange noise from the car can trigger our body to prepare for a danger that isn’t there. This agitation is exhausting and makes it very difficult to relax, connect, and lean into feelings of safety.
Divergent: Multiple Identities
The most basic and identifiable way that folks with DID are different from a neurotypical person is that they have multiple identities. If you are only familiar with popular media representations of DID, you may see just the existence of more than one identity as evidence of illness but it’s one of the least disordered things about the condition.
Everyone experiences some shifts in the personality they exhibit depending on the context they’re in: At work, at home relaxing, with family, with your best friend, in a high-stress situation, etc. In DID, these divisions are more distinctly defined and are accompanied by differences in body language, style, gender, voice quality, and name. The fact that my mind contains more than one identity doesn’t cause dysfunction until you involve other symptoms like amnesia, dissociation, or inner system conflicts (covered below). Plenty of systems live in a state called Functional Multiplicity, which refers to having multiple identities that collaborate with one another to build a satisfying, functional life together.
A basic criterion of DID’s diagnosis is the presence of amnesia as the result of an alternate identity being present during the blackout as a way to cope with trauma. My amnesia was less debilitating than it is for many systems and at the time of diagnosis, I only knew of two times that I had “come to” without memory of how I had gotten there.
But as my knowledge of my own system developed, I discovered that certain activities seemed to be consistently blacked out: I knew that I played hide and seek regularly as a child but I could not remember any specific examples of it happening. Once I was talking to a friend about a concert we’d done together and realized I couldn’t remember what the second duet we had sung was. They told me it hadn’t been a duet at all, it was a quartet with two other friends. The name of the song meant nothing to me and I couldn’t even remember the melody or which part I sang!
My system managed my memory extremely effectively in that these blackouts did not affect my ability to function at the time but it can feel very disorienting to recognize that there are chunks of my past that I just don’t know and that I have to call on friends or family to help me fill in the blanks.
Divergent: Occasional Memory Glitches
When our system stopped trying to pretend we were one person, a side effect of this shift was that we were no longer centralizing our information to all go to that one person. As a result, sharing information between system members required some extra steps and sometimes this caused some amusing moments of confusion. Like, opening the fridge one morning and being confused at how a full jug of milk had suddenly appeared, because the last time that person fronted, there was only a quarter of a jug left.
On one occasion, we received a phone call from an administrative person and they asked for some information. Whoever was fronting didn’t normally handle this kind of thing and was unprepared. When asked to provide our address, she completely blanked and was stuttering and stammering, trying to cover up the fact that she didn’t know her own address! Thankfully, our partner overheard from the next room, realized what was happening, and jumped in to give us the information.
These moments are usually fleeting and rarely carry longer-term consequences. Occasionally we have to apologize to someone for forgetting to respond to their message or giving them incorrect information but we create systems for ourselves to help reduce the frequency of these mistakes.
Disordered: Uncontrolled Dissociation
The existence of multiple identities gets all the attention in discussions of DID but ultimately it is a dissociative disorder and so using dissociation as a coping mechanism for stress and managing emotions is a huge part of the illness side of things.
When you become heavily reliant on dissociation, you begin to do it without choosing to. And while dissociation is effective at dulling the impact of emotional pain, it also numbs the things that are important to feel: Pain that tells you something is wrong and needs addressing; Feelings of desire, joy, ambition, passion, self-accomplishment, and connection. Dissociation numbs all feelings indiscriminately. When my dissociation was left untreated and I went through times of high stress, I became increasingly absent from my own life and from my closest relationships.
Divergent: Choosing Who Will Front When
When I was unaware of having DID, switches between alters happened unconsciously reactively in response to external triggers, which made me feel like I couldn’t control my own actions. One of the biggest gains of meeting my system was gaining the ability to choose who would handle what situation.
When we have a meeting or an appointment to attend that we’re anxious about, we hold a system meeting in which every alter is asked whether they would be up for fronting during the event. Littles and Trauma Holders are automatically exempt but anyone can say no for any reason. Beyond the basic variation in functionality and skill level, different alters are more or less fluent in different subject matters. So if we have a doctor’s appointment, we need someone to front that is fully versed in all our health issues. And sometimes, some alters just don’t feel like it!
Once we’ve heard from everyone, we collect a list of everyone who said they feel comfortable handling the event. We don’t have full control over switches but when the event arrives, the vast majority of the time, one of those listed people will be fronting.
Disordered: Lacking the Skill of Emotional Regulation
One of the common causes for reliance on dissociation is a combination of exposure to highly upsetting situations and lacking the ability to regulate your own emotions. Emotional responses are pushed away instead of moved through. Emotional regulation tends to be something you learn as a child, but because I never did, trying to sit with a big, distressing emotion is really uncomfortable.
Behind my habit of dissociating is the belief that feeling my emotions is dangerous to me, and that feelings should be fixed and removed before they interfere in my ability to function. And when you are in emotional pain and have the added distress of being scared of your own pain, it is very very difficult not to revert to dissociating and instead choose to move toward the pain and ride it out.
Divergent: Big Emotions
There are a lot of mental illnesses that are associated with feeling emotions particularly intensely or in response to small, seemingly insignificant things. Managing these emotions can feel like an illness but the fact that you have them, and that they happen to be larger than normal, is not. My feelings take up a lot of space and it is okay to ask my loved ones to hold that space for me when I need it.
Disordered: Lacking Information About Myself Because of Dissociative Barriers
For many years, my most distressing mental health symptoms were caused by not knowing that I had DID. Like many systems, as the host, I was kept in the dark about the existence of the other members of the system, which meant I didn’t always have the relevant information to address a crisis when it arose.
Early in life, AJ suffered a series of traumas that culminated in her being alone and thoroughly distraught at night time. Later in life, if we found ourselves feeling distressed and alone at night, this original trauma would get triggered. But with no memory of the trauma, we couldn’t identify it as a trigger, and instead, we’d have an added layer of confusion and fear that our emotions were so overwhelming. These situations resulted in new trauma and new splits, which in turn, would also get triggered when similar situations cropped up.
While we’ve been able to halt this particular cycle now that we know about it, we still occasionally experience an intense trauma response with no known trigger, and it can be much harder to come out of it or avoid it happening in the future, without that information.
Divergent: Having Conversations with Other System Members
Our system members have always been motivated to talk to each other and share information fairly easily, which greater enables the functioning of us as a collective. It’s surprising to me, then, when I see comments on DID-related media from people who believe that talking to your alters means you are getting worse or that you are disconnected from reality.
System conversations are necessary for everyone’s safety, well-being, and satisfaction, but they are also enjoyable and meaningful. Knowing that I am never alone and that I have a whole team of close friends ready to support me who know me better than anyone on the planet, is incredibly valuable. And sometimes the conversations are just funny! Here’s a sample conversation we had at the grocery store with one of our Littles:
Little: Can we get more sprinkles???
Kella: We have so many sprinkles at home.
Little: Yeah but we’re almost out of my favorite ones!! Can we get more of those?
Kella: I mean, I guess, but I’m not sure they have any right now. I don’t see-
Little: LOOK! THERE THEY ARE! THEY HAVE THEM!
Kella: *sigh* Yes, okay, I’ll buy the sprinkles.
Disordered: Inconsistent Capacity to Care for Ourselves as Adults
Having a variety of identities means that our skill sets are diversified as well. Some alters are responsible for day-to-day responsibilities but others are not and when those people are fronting, completing the basic tasks to take care of ourselves can be difficult. Some of our system members are not adults and shouldn’t be saddled with adult-level responsibilities when they are out.
Most of our Littles are infrequent fronters but Shelby, who is 12 years old, fronts regularly and often gets “front stuck” which means it’s difficult for her to switch with another system member. Shelby can find fronting very distressing because she is old enough to do some things but ultimately, she still needs an adult to look after her. We have taken to reaching out to friends on days Shelby is fronting to remind her to exercise, eat her vegetables, do a few pre-defined chores we picked out as appropriate for her age, and go to bed on time. Without their help, Shelby struggles to take care of herself and feels deeply ashamed about it.
Divergent: I Have Different Needs, Desires, and Goals at Different Times
While caring for child alters can feel daunting, embracing the other identities in my system has made it easier for me to understand why I constantly have so many different creative projects going at one time. Rather than feeling like I am failing to focus on something, I can see my many goals as a sign of inner richness and feel accomplished that we’ve successfully identified so many of the things other system members want.
It also no longer feels like a failure that the way I interact with other people changes depending on who is fronting. Some of us are social and animated, some are quiet and reserved; Some love cuddles and intimacy, and some prefer just the occasional hug or no affection at all. And now that our friends are aware of the reason for this variation, they no longer expect us to behave the same way all the time, which helps the alters who are visibly different feel more at ease.
Disordered: System Members Overriding My Choices
One of the scariest parts of DID can be discovering that another system member has made a choice that directly impacts you, without your knowledge. This could look like making purchases that conflict with your budget or contacting people who you do not wish to speak to. This tends to happen when there are communication breakdowns within the system and system members are fighting for their own individual needs, rather than working toward meeting needs collectively.
This undermining of autonomy for us most often crops up in a more internal way: If I’ve identified that I’m frustrated with my partner for not doing chores, I decide that I’m going to bring up this problem when he gets home. But when the time comes, I attempt to start the conversation and I find myself frozen and unable to speak. Someone else in the system has decided that addressing the conflict directly is a threat to us and prevented me from doing so. I can’t tell you the number of times I have had something to say and been physically unable to say it out loud because of this problem. It’s disruptive and disempowering when it goes unaddressed, and prior to diagnosis, it lead to a lot of fears around being unable to do difficult things when the time came.
Divergent: System Members Who Disagree with Me
The above problem is most effectively dismantled by open communication among system members. When we have an important decision to make, for example, deciding to leave our current therapist for a new one, we make a point to ask every single system member for their input on the decision. If someone says they don’t want to go through with it, this is not seen as a problem to be fixed. This is accepted as information and prompts us to have a more in-depth conversation with that system member about why they aren’t comfortable with the proposed plan and what could be done to mitigate their concerns.
Sometimes inner system conflicts take longer to resolve, such as when there was a larger-scale betrayal and trust has to be earned back. But ultimately, we all know we’re on the same team and even when we experience anger toward another system member, we know that they believed they were protecting all of us when they lashed out. It is okay for resolution to require time and healing.
Disordered: Nightmares and Derealization
We have dreams that we classify as “nightmares” about 2-4 times a week. They are typically not of the screaming and crying variety but it’s fairly regularly that we wake up still steeped in the upsetting emotions of the dream.
These nightmares are sometimes accompanied by a symptom common in DID patients called derealization, which essentially means you feel disconnected from reality or struggle to tell what it real and what is not. On more than one occasion, we’ve experienced being on the edge between sleeping and waking and “hearing” someone yelling for help. When we fully wake up, the yelling stops but we can’t tell for certain that the cries for help weren’t real.
Other times, this derealization has been triggered by an actual noise in the external world that is misinterpreted by our nightmare-plagued brain as some kind of intruder or other threat. When this happens, we typically lie awake but frozen, unable to go check for danger or to fall back asleep. (Thankfully, our Emotional Support Cat, Rosa, has developed the ability to notice when we are in this state and she usually comes to check on us and help us unfreeze.)
Divergent: Having and Using an Inner World
Many types of systems have something called an “inner world” which is basically an internal visual representation of where all the alters “go” when they are not fronting. Some mental health professionals will use a technique where they ask their patients to imagine a place that embodies safety for them when they need to access that feeling of security. The inner world is a similar concept but it tends to look and function in a consistent way over time, rather than being dependent on what the fronter is imagining.
To someone who has never used creative visualization as part of their mental health care, inner worlds can sound out of touch with reality. But Inner worlds are both normal and incredibly useful. They can be used for alters to communicate with one another, to create safe spaces that cater to the individual needs of system members, and can even be used to process specific emotions or traumas. It is a valuable tool for healing and functionality, rather than a disconnect from reality.
The theoretical binary between disordered and divergent could also be described as distressing or just different. Both deserve accommodation, compassion, and understanding. There are aspects of my DID that I wish could be cured: Trauma responses, derealization, and dissociation from the emotions I want to feel. But the fact that I am a member of a system and that my mind is cared for by a team instead of an individual, is not something I would ever voluntarily give up.
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, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.