CN: extensive discussion of plurality, dissociative disorders, mental health, and the impact of trauma, ableism; brief discussion of amnesia.
For every type of marginalization you encounter, there will be an invisible barrier to understanding the humanity of those who face structural disenfranchisement that you do not. Even beyond gaining the knowledge that these structural inequities exist and have been forced upon an innocent group of people, we still carry with us a tendency to view these people with the bias that our society has taught us.
As a disabled person, I find that even if an abled person believes they support disability rights, they can’t really engage with us with nuance and respect as long as they see us through the mainstream societal lens about disability. They still see disability as something tragic and can’t understand when we embrace it with pride. I know from my close friendships with folks with ADHD and/or autism that there is a similar appreciation for the unique way their brain’s structure enables them to engage with the world. “Neurodivergent” is a wonderful word to describe a brain that has built itself to use different mechanisms than the “average” person.
In the past year, I learned about another category of neurodivergence. Like disability and other sources of disenfranchisement, the nature of this condition is one that comes with a bias. Even among progressive, well-informed communities, there are low levels of awareness of this group.
It is my hope to significantly raise those awareness levels and to make a dent in the stigma of this misunderstood group by replacing it with a more accurate reality.
What is Plurality/Multiplicity?
We have all experienced some kind of internal disagreement before: “Part of me wants to do x but part of me really wants to do y instead.” We are all made up of different parts to some extent. But this separation of self can also be used as a coping mechanism. Dissociation is a mental state in which you feel disconnected from the world around you, from your memories, from your body, and/or from yourself. It’s a common symptom of PTSD as your brain attempts to simultaneously preserve the memory of the trauma, so as to not repeat it, and to disconnect from it so as to not be constantly overwhelmed by the memory.
If this tool of self-separation is relied on to cope with multiple traumas that occur very early in life, something interesting happens. Some brains will so fully disconnect the traumatized part from the part that needs to continue functioning to survive, that the two parts begin to act and develop separately, often with a wall of amnesia developing between the two. The more extreme the necessity for separation is, the more independent the two parts are likely to become. This process of self separation is repeated as necessary, and having learned to use this disconnection as a coping mechanism early on, the brain continues to use this tool later in life in response to stress, even if they have been removed from the original source of trauma. These parts are sometimes unaware of each other due to amnesia but it’s also possible through treatment for them to re-establish communication with one another.
Plurality or Multiplicity refers to the mental state of having two or more “parts” that exist and operate independently of one another within the same mind/body.
These “parts” are technically known as “altered states of consciousness”, or alters for short. Unlike the experience of switching between different moods or emotional states like we all do, alters can be as different from each other as two physical people are from one another. They can have different likes and dislikes, different styles, different speech patterns or accents, different sexualities, different genders, different manners of processing emotions, different memories, and different internal conceptions of what their physical appearance should be (which often differs from what the body looks like). A collection of alters that belongs to a single “person” is called a system.
Dissociative Disorders and Plurality
The most famous version of this state is the mental illness formerly known as multiple personality disorder-- which is now an outdated and undesirable term. Its correct and more accurate name is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). There is also the lesser-known OSDD-1 (Otherwise Specified Dissociative Disorder); a similar set of symptoms that don’t fully meet the criteria for DID. The two disorders are similar enough in function that I’ll be using both terms interchangeably through the article.
Despite the fact that the existence of “split personalities” was once thought to be incredibly rare, or even argued to be a hoax entirely, current studies show that DID affects 1-3% of the population and OSDD affects up to 8%, which means you likely know several people who have one of these disorders. Due to the intense stigma around the disorder, only 6% of folks with DID are widely open to others about their diagnosis.
But plurality and multiplicity are not exclusively defined as a mental illness. While at first glance, the simple existence of alters seems like a form of illness, using the social model of disability, it becomes clear that the trauma is the illness. Simply being “multiple” is not necessarily a state of dysfunction on its own, it is just severely at odds with society’s expectations of how minds should work.
As such, the identity of being “plural” or being “multiple” is also used by groups of people who do not have DID or OSDD. There are people who have no known childhood trauma or accompanying PTSD who identify as plural. It’s not clear if there’s anything that causes this pattern or if brains are just different sometimes. There are people who were formerly diagnosed with DID who have undergone significant treatment and no longer experience it as a disorder but are still plural in the way their mind is structured. Among the many kinds of folks who identify as plural or as “a system,” many use we/us pronouns to refer to themselves and use they/them plural for other people to refer to them.
And here’s where I ask you to approach the incoming information with curiosity and to sit with any discomfort that arises until you feel able to set it aside.
Why Plurality/Multiplicity is Relevant to Me Personally
In 2018, during a period of extensive trauma work, I met my first alter, though I didn’t know that’s who she was at the time. I thought she was a long since estranged or rejected “part of myself” and that our reunion would help me feel whole again. While it was true that re-establishing communication with her lead to the best mental health of my entire life, it was also true that I did not feel like we had joined into one whole person. I felt like two people.
What does it feel like to have two people in your head? Honestly: Crowded. I suddenly had two thought streams in my head instead of one, two voices of inner dialogue, two sets of feelings. What was surprising was that the more we each leaned into the idea that we were separate, the happier we both felt. Eventually, she picked a name for herself: her name is AJ.
Because all of this was still happening within “my” headspace and I didn’t experience any day to day amnesia, it all still felt like me. But when I was “channeling” AJ, I felt more energized, more assertive, more sassy, more comfortable talking to strangers, and the shift to embodying these traits was effortless, whereas usually, it would be very resource costly for me to perform. When I was AJ, my clothing preferences were different (and actively in conflict with my wardrobe at the time!), the way I focused on my work was different, what motivated me was different, the way I processed emotions was different. Later I learned that she even had memories that I was missing.
There were a few key factors that motivated me to seek out an evaluation for dissociative disorders, which is something most therapists are not equipped to do:
I had been doing trauma work with trained therapists for 14 years and the processing never seemed to end. A mental health crisis in 2017 triggered a downward spiral that seemingly undid all the work I had done prior, to an extent that even my therapists were baffled. Something else was going on.
When I accidentally ran across the concept of plurality and its associated vocabulary, it strongly resonated with me. AJ and I tried out some of the suggested tools and they worked!
I realized that dissociation was a daily symptom for me. I had never brought up this problem in therapy because dissociation had been so debilitating to me as a teen that the mild amounts I used daily as an adult seemed like nothing in comparison.
Despite the fact that I was convinced there were only two of us, I met my second alter Jessica without warning. When I first started “channeling” her, I felt so intensely dissociated that I couldn’t move for half an hour and could barely speak for the rest of the day. I had never experienced this level of dissociation without a crisis to accompany it. My awareness of my internal workings was changing.
I used the ISSTD database to find potential therapists and then contacted several in my area asking if they offered evaluations for dissociative disorders. Once I found one, we began the process: 1. We held an initial consultation to give her a general idea of what was going on. 2. I filled out a paper evaluation, which took about an hour to complete. 3. The therapist processed the results of the paper evaluations and 4. We had several follow up sessions to go into more detail about my marked responses in the evaluation. The process took about a month and a half, with some scheduling interruptions.
At the end of the evaluation, she said that with confidence, she could give me the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder.
A New Piece of My Identity(s)
I’m Plural. I have DID.
Being Plural is part of my identity. Having Dissociative Identity Disorder is part of my identity. I am a writer, an editor, an activist, a cook, a girlfriend, a best friend, a daughter, a 31-year old, disabled, chronically ill, bisexual woman, and I have DID. This is my coming out post.
Receiving and accepting this diagnosis has sufficiently encouraged the members of my system to stop hiding and as a result, my knowledge of my system has changed rapidly. As of this writing, I’m aware of ten people in my system, myself included. This number went up several times during the time it took me to write and publish this article and there may be more alters I’m not yet aware of.
And despite my confidence that I definitely have DID, there just isn’t a way to say the phrase “there are ten+ people in my head” without sounding, “crazy.” We so associate this idea with delusions, breaks from reality, psychosis (which incidentally, we should be offering empathy to people who do deal with psychosis and delusions as well). We think of horror movie plots that are built around the threat of “the dangerous alter that kills everyone.” Just the phrase “the other people inside my head” brings up fears of a kind of chaos and lack of control that we don’t know what to do with if we encounter it in another person. It may also inspire doubts, scrutiny, questions like, But are there really separate, independent selves operating inside your one brain? Or are you just pretending to seem interesting or edgy? And despite research to the contrary, you may even have heard about mental health professionals who don’t believe DID is real.
My hope is that I’ve named most of the biases you may have had regarding the idea of “multiple personalities” and that by naming them, I have disarmed them to some extent. Now that you know what your biases are, you have a greater choice about whether to act on them. I hope you choose to let them go. I hope that you’ll read on to learn more about DID and OSDD and how they may be different from what you’d expect.
The worlds of plurality and DID have entire vocabularies and structural concepts of their own so here’s a quick run-down of the words you’ll hear me use:
Host: The person in the system who’s in charge of maintaining everyday functionality, who may be originally unaware of their system. Example: I am my system’s host.
Headmate: Another more casual word for alter
Fronting: Controlling the movements and actions of the body, as if you were in the driver’s seat of a car or behind the control panel of a machine.
Switching: The transition between when one alter stops fronting and another alter starts fronting. This process is often accompanied by symptoms of dissociation.
Inner world: The internally imagined image of the place that alters exist when they are not fronting and/or the place where alters go to communicate with one another.
External world: The physical world outside of the mind
Singlet: Someone who is not plural
You can find more DID & OSDD related vocabulary in this excellent video.
Correcting My Own Misconceptions About DID
Leading up to my diagnosis, I did a lot of research into DID and having also been exposed to the same set of inaccurate media representation of DID as everyone else has, I quickly began discovering a lot of misconceptions I had about how the disorder presented and functioned. Just as I had been originally hesitant to use the term “disabled” because of the inaccurate definition of disability that mainstream media taught me, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that DID describes me and my experiences. The truth is, it’s a disorder with a very broad range of presentations and functionalities, and learning about this range, and about some of the key mechanics behind the disorder, were key to my being able to understand how this label applies to me.
DID and OSDD are coping mechanisms developed in response to trauma
Alters aren’t just random “personalities” that disrupt normal interpersonal interactions and cause chaos. Because dissociative disorders are caused by trauma, both the existence of alters and the nature of the alters themselves stem from whatever original trauma or threat the person/system faced and it’s much easier to understand them as a response to that trauma. Developing alters is a means of adapting to a difficult or even dangerous environment so each alter has a job in the system, and that job typically also fits into how the system functions together to keep the host “safe”. My motto, as I’ve continued to meet new members of my system, has been, “If you are here, there’s a reason.”
The majority of DID presents covertly
A great deal of my research into DID was by watching youtube videos made by DID and OSDD systems. What I didn’t realize was that by utilizing resources on Youtube’s platform, the videos I came across were skewing toward an overt presentation of DID, which is not the more common kind. After all, which is more likely to be visually engaging, entertaining, and clear to demonstrate in a video format: A set of alters that are only subtly different or a set of alters that are wildly and visibly different from one another? Of course, it’s the latter! But despite being more of a hit on Youtube, systems of overt or obvious alters don’t represent the majority of DID or OSDD cases.
Because DID is a survival-based coping mechanism, it’s frequently much more advantageous for the system to be undetectable externally. To prevent detection, alters that are notably different from the host can learn to pretend to be the host as often as necessary, or more commonly, alters in their natural state don’t have very obvious external differences between them, making it more likely that people won’t notice the changes in personality. If you learn that someone in your life has DID or OSDD, you might think, surely I would’ve noticed that! But often, if the system is doing its job well, you’ll have no idea.
Switches aren’t always obvious
In movies about DID, someone switching from one alter to another is often a very emotional, dramatic moment. For some systems, it does look like this, or the experience is otherwise vulnerable or uncomfortable in a way that is unpleasant to go through in front of other people. But for many systems, switches are also externally undetectable. You might only notice a slight change in posture or see the person zoning out for a few moments and then coming back in focus. The switches within my system aren’t obvious at all. They happen quietly, usually when we’re alone, and are sometimes so subtle that even we don’t notice that it’s happening. Which brings us to our next point:
It’s normal to not know who you are at a given moment
While some alters have a very strong, obvious, or distinctive presence, it’s very common for folks with DID to go through periods where they are unsure of who is fronting at the moment, or when it feels as if it’s a combination of several alters fronting. This state is especially common when dissociation symptoms are strong or during times of stress. The internal world can feel “blurry” and the divisions between alters can get less clear. Recognizing who’s fronting is a skill that can take time to build up.
“Full amnesia” or “blackouts” aren’t always frequent in DID
While in order for someone to be diagnosed with DID they must experience at least one instance of full amnesia as a result of an alter fronting who then has their own memories of that experience (which is not required for the OSDD-1 diagnosis), not every host walks around every day blacking out on everything that happens when one of their alters is fronting. It is, however, common for people with dissociative disorders to struggle with memory because the mechanism of storing memory is disrupted by the structure of the disorder.
For my system, full memory loss is rare and the metaphorical walls between us are low enough that memories are shared quickly and easily, which makes it easier to switch without disruption. More commonly, I experience “emotional amnesia” where there is some amount of emotional distance between me and the memory. For me, memories of an alter fronting might be like watching a TV with the screen brightness dimmed or like only looking at the screen with my peripheral vision and never directly. We also have the occasional memory glitch where we know we have the relevant information somewhere but it takes a few extra seconds for the information to load up into our immediate recall.
Any kind of trauma can cause DID or OSDD
I, like many, was under the impression that the trauma that precedes DID had to be particularly severe or violent in order for the brain to react with that coping mechanism. Turns out, it really doesn’t matter what kind of trauma you experience or how severe it is. It just has to be repeated, very early in life, and you have to cope with it using a significant amount of dissociation.
It’s normal to not know about your system for many years and then to learn about it all at once
For many folks with DID and OSDD, it is important to their ability to function in everyday life for them to not remember their trauma, but it’s also frequently important for them to not know that they’ve developed alters in order to compartmentalize that trauma. While some hosts are aware of their systems in some capacity early on, many hosts go through their lives with no idea that they have an entire system of headmates helping them (and sometimes hindering them) in life. And because there’s so little awareness of disorders like DID and OSDD, it’s unlikely that a host will interpret their unusual experiences-- such as memory gaps, finding yourself in a place you don’t recognize or don’t remember traveling to, having sudden significant shifts in preferences or presentation-- as evidence that they must have multiple entities in their head. That’s just not an explanation we quickly jump to. As a result, our brains explain away the anomalies, and since we’ve only experienced what it’s like to be ourselves, we don’t realize that many things that are normal for us are not normal for singlets.
But, if a system is able to find a new life for themselves after trauma, with consistent safety and stability, the alters might slowly start revealing themselves to the host, testing the waters to see if they can handle it. It’s common for hosts to go from knowing about zero alters to knowing about a whole bunch in a short period of time during this transition of awareness.
There is overlap between the LGBT community & the DID community
When you have a lot of different people in your head, the chances of you all being the same gender identity or the same sexual orientation is very slim! As a result, it’s very common for some of the alters in a system to be trans or genderqueer, and for a range of sexualities to be included. Having already learned the language around exploring and questioning your sexuality and gender identity from the LGBT community, it has been much easier to learn these details about my headmates. Experimenting with using we/us or they/them (plural!) pronouns was also made much easier by the precedent set in so many LGBT communities that exploring these things is a normal process.
As a bisexual woman, I also want to acknowledge the significance of the term “coming out” and how it carries a specific set of connotations associated with the LGBT community and the work they’ve done. I also believe that “coming out” is about challenging society’s expectations of who you are supposed to be, and the oppression you’ll face if fail to conform. When you come out, you are saying, “You’ve assumed incorrectly. And you can no longer assume. Now you, personally, know someone who embodies this stigma and you need to reconcile that with your idea of who I am.”
Folks with DID can have fulfilling, successful lives.
I should know better but because all of the media representation of DID I had seen were of villains or tragically broken victims, I didn’t realize that it was possible to have this disorder and live a happy life. I didn’t know that it was possible to treat, manage, and make progress with handling the disorder and I didn’t know that people could be happy as plural, without having to try to integrate back into one entity.
I’m hoping that you can see me and my system as representative of this fact. We have created and maintained this blog for 3.5 years and grown its following significantly as well as having published work by over a dozen guest writers on this blog; Pre-pandemic, we were in charge of a popular weekly tango dancing event that attracted internationally known musicians to play live; We sought and received treatment for our many illnesses and have gotten our health to a manageable place; We have an amazing romantic partner who we will have been with for 10 years in November and have an awesome community of friends who support us. And while having DID certainly increases the number of challenges we have to face in life, I love my headmates and I’m happier for knowing about them.
I’m still learning to own this identity and integrate it into my understanding of myself(s). Despite the potential for backlash or rejection in response to coming out, we decided that it was more important to us to serve as much needed representation for an incredibly marginalized group, and that everyone in my system deserves the opportunity to express themselves freely and openly.
If you are interested in learning more about DID and plurality, or if you yourself are plural, I highly recommend checking out the resources below.
Signed- Kella, AJ, Jessica, Oberon, Casey, Sylvia, Faye, Gary, and two others who wish to remain anonymous.
Resources for and about plurality, DID, and OSDD: