The People of Many Faces: Dissociative Identity Disorder

[Editor’s note: The title of the article has been updated from the previous title “The People of Many Faces: Multiple Personality Disorder” to reflect the current term for the disorder]

What comes to your mind when you think of Multiple Personality Disorder? What perceptions do you have of people with this condition? Many of us are prone to experiencing emotions of fear, distrust or uncertainty as our initial response. Disgust, horror, abhorrence, anger and intolerance are some of the more extreme reactions people have when directly confronted with this disorder. But are these reactions and feelings really justified?

Perhaps, when you think of this disorder, your mind directs you to “Split” or similar horror movies where the antagonist is someone with this condition. Maybe one of their “personalities” is a murderer, psychopath or a person with no remorse and with evil intent.

People with Dissociative Identity Disorder (the more accurate and recent term for Multiple Personality Disorder) are often known to be aggressive, out of control, violent or unpredictable. However, they are no more likely to be criminals or prone to violence than typical members of the human population. Ironically, they are more likely to hurt and sabotage themselves.

Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID is a mental disorder wherein a person has at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states known as “alters“. It is a psychobiological response to trauma suffered in a specific window of time in early childhood.

Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder theory

DID is a severe dissociative disorder and complex post-traumatic stress syndrome. A key aspect of childhood development is the formation of a single consciousness. Chronic trauma faced by a child before or during this period severely impedes this development. The child is unable to form one central consciousness. This eventually “splits up” into several identities which the child uses to cope with traumatic situations. These identities allow the child to deny the traumatic situations and pretend the trauma has happened to “someone else”.

As the child becomes an adult, the disorder persists, although it is very hard to diagnose. This is due to the disorder preventing the person from discovering the various alters (identities) as a “protective mechanism”. When past trauma triggers the person, another alter may appear to take control of the body and protect the person from potentially self-harming or remembering their trauma. This leads to continuous bouts of amnesia which makes diagnosis hard.

Misconceptions and misinformation regarding the disorder have led to the shunning and demonisation of those with DID, making it harder for them to seek medical treatment. In extreme situations, exorcisms are performed on people with DID since they do not have an explanation for their behaviour. These situations also make it harder for them to seek treatment as they don’t understand their own symptoms.

This article was written to shed light on this frequently misunderstood disorder. It hopes to encourage scepticism of stereotypes or biases brought up in media or elsewhere. Education about similar situations, and understanding without preconceived notions is important so as to not accidentally (or purposely) ostracise people facing these difficulties, be it DID or other mental health issues.

Written by Avvari Sai Divya