Dissociative identity disorder (DID), a mental illness formerly known as multiple personality disorder, can be a confusing, frustrating, even frightening disorder that makes someone feel like a stranger: a stranger in the world and a stranger within his or her own mind. Imagine what it would be like to be a stranger to yourself. Picture a party or a school dance or a family holiday gathering. (You don’t have to love these things — just picture it.) The setting is festive. It’s light and cheery. Perhaps there are colorful decorations. There’s delicious food, both of the junk variety and the healthy variety. And of course there are happy people. Most of them know each other and mingle happily. There is conversation, laughter, joviality. And you don’t know a single person; nor do they know you. You are a stranger in the room. You decide to stand by yourself. However, will you stay yourself? Will a different part of you emerge, in effect taking over who you are for a while? If so, who will it be? Someone you don’t really know and thus can’t predict what he — or she — will do? You’re a stranger in the room and a stranger to yourself. This, in part, is DID.
How Does DID Make Someone a Stranger to Himself?
In dissociative identity disorder, someone is one person with his/her own unique identity, just like any other person on the planet. With DID (which begins in childhood and has a very distinct cause), someoene’s psyche has fragmented into different parts/alternate identities (often called alters). Each alter (with DID, there can be as few as two or more than 100) is also unique with his/her own identity.
The different identities aren’t always aware of each other. A goal of treatment is to increase awareness so that each alter, and the main identity, knows each other. Its as if that festive gathering mentioned above is perpetually happening in one’s mind, and he/she doesn’t know the others at the party. It’s awkward when that happens in someone’s outer world. It would be disconcerting, to put it mildly, when that is a regular experience inside one’s own mind.
In the novel Twenty-Four Shadows, family man Isaac Bittman discovers that he lives with DID, and he definitely feels like a stranger to himself. At one point, he is venting to his wife, Reese, lamenting that he just doesn’t know who he is:
Here’s the thing. Sometimes I don’t know who I even am, and that frightens me, Reese. I mean, I’m starting to see a pattern. Ishmael is the angry one. Jake is the adventurous and artistic one. Isaiah is the depressed and anxious one. Alton is the musical one. June is the protective one. And there are so many others. So where does all of that leave me, leave Isaac? Who am I?”
Isaac isn’t alone. DID can be very frightening, and it’s easy for someone to feel lost inside his/her own identity. While there is no cure for DID, there is indeed help and hope. Typically, someone with DID does develop awareness of alters. With help, that awareness crystallizes, and he/she gets to know him/herself better and better. The alters, too, come to know each other. It’s very possible for someone living with DID to answer the question “who am I” positively and with certainty. Someone living with dissociative identity disorder isn’t forever doomed to being a stranger to him/herself.