Is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) Like a Costume?

Oct 31
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First, a note: Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a real psychological disorder. It’s not artificial like a costume, nor is it scary (well, it can be confusing and frightening to those living with it, but it doesn’t involve terrorizing others). Here, I use costume to paint a picture of what life can be like, in part, for someone living with DID. 

I’m writing this on Halloween because thoughts of costumes created a winding train of thought that ended in thoughts of a friend of mine who lives with DID and then thoughts about the protagonist of my novel Twenty-Four Shadows (a fictitious story based entirely on fact, including information about what DID is like to live with graciously shared with me by my friend).

On Halloween, many people, kids and adults alike, enjoy dressing up in costumes. It can be amusing to disguise yourself to see if others will recognize you. It can also be fun to don a costume to take on a different role for a few hours, to escape and imagine. On Halloween or at other costume parties, people get to take on a different persona. They are someone else, but they never lose sight of who they are. The different identity is merely something external to who they are.

DID is a disorder that forms in young childhood in response to traumas or abuse so extreme that the little child’s psyche escapes from the horror by dissociating, or disconnecting from the moment. Other identities are formed subconsciously in order to help the child “escape” and deal with the abuse. The result is the formation of different identities that develop their own characteristics and consciousnesses and share a body with the original child. DID lasts a lifetime.

Halloween costumes let people change identities. In DID, the person switches between identities. However, unlike a costume, he or she

  • Can’t “put it on” or “take it off” at will
  • Isn’t the driving force behind the switch
  • Doesn’t choose the identity or the the identity’s characteristics and personality
  • Isn’t aware of what’s going on when a different identity takes over
  • Is often confused about what happened during a switch

DID isn’t fabricated, and identities are real in their own right. They’re not costumes. This actually presents a different type of challenge.

Someone with DID undergoes identity switches from the inside. Some external characteristics can be different; for example, some identities might wear glasses while others don’t, and some have different clothing they change into at times, but the essence of the appearance remains the same. The personality, behavior, gender, sexual orientation, age, and more are different. But the look is essentially the same.

Imagine you dressed up as a chef. People interact with you based on your role. People treat you like a chef and some ask you to cater a party. You agree because that’s what you do. You eventually remove your costume. No one truly wants you to cater because you’re not actually a chef and you’re someone who ruins canned soup. It was just fun to pretend.

Now, imagine you’re dressed up and acting like a chef. People interact with you that way because they know you as a chef. Someone asks you to cater a party. You agree because that’s what you do. Your chef identity recedes and you re-emerge. You’ve switched back to yourself. You’re not sure what happened, but you know you lost time. How long was another identity out in the world? A few days later you get a phone call to confirm the details of the party you’ll be catering tomorrow night. What party? You don’t cater. You ruin canned soup. What are you supposed to do now? This is the reality for those living with DID.

Halloween involves the opportunity to don a costume and pretend to be someone different for a few hours. DID isn’t an opportunity. It’s a life-long experience of navigating the world when sometimes you’re not yourself.

Isaac has a similar experience when out with his best friend. People clearly recognize them, but he has no idea who they are:

Isaac looked at the intrusive table companions and tried to determine just who they were. Clearly they knew him. Fairly well, too, or so it seemed. His heart started to pound. Was he supposed to know them? Ugh! He hated it when this happened. There were so many times when he was out in public, in a store or in a restaurant or at the park with Reese and Dominic, for example, that people seemed to know him but he didn’t recognize them at all. More than likely, it was a function of his role with the Conifers. As a marketer and event planner, he was out and about the community year-round as well as frequently present at games in the summer. Still, though, he would think that he would recognize people he came in contact with. Sometimes he did, but they felt like mere acquaintances. Too frequently he had experiences like this one, where people seemed personal and friendly with him but he had absolutely no clue who they were. He faked a happy grin. “Hey! Not much. What about you guys?”

“We just grabbed lunch and are headed to rehearsal. Speaking of which, you plan on joining us again anytime soon? I mean, I know you only play with us occasionally, and not to further inflate your ego or anything, but your trumpet playing adds punch.”

Isaac swallowed hard. He should probably feel relieved by that comment. Clearly these people had the wrong guy. He didn’t feel relieved, though. He felt nauseated. They called him by name. Why? Terrified, he risked a look at Max. Max knew that Isaac didn’t play in a band. Hell, he didn’t even play the trumpet. Or any damn instrument, for that matter. How was Max reacting to these bizarre people? Thankfully, not at all. He continued to toy absentmindedly with his beer.

One of the random chummy strangers followed Isaac’s gaze to Max. “Where are our manners?” she asked jovially. “Isaac, will you introduce us to your friend?” Oh God. How could he introduce these people he supposedly knew but didn’t? He leaned over too far when the woman nudged him. “What’s up with you? You’re acting really weird, and not in a fun way like you usually do. You don’t seem like yourself today.”

Fantastic. He faked another smile. “Sorry. I’m, uh, I’m just having lunch with my friend Max, and, uh, I—”

Mercifully, the woman turned her attention away from Isaac and onto Max. She stuck out her hand enthusiastically. “Max.” She shook his hand heartily when he extended his. “Very nice to meet you. I’m Neptune. This is Adrian and Jet.” She gestured toward each of her companions as she said their names, and each one extended his hand to shake Max’s. The one called Adrian had to lean across the table to do so, and he brushed against Isaac when he did. “We’re part of the band Your Grandma’s ’Hose.”

As the three oddballs talked with each other and drew Max into a conversation, Isaac couldn’t keep up with what they were saying. He felt extremely ill. His hands were sweaty, and he could feel the perspiration bead on the back of his neck and roll down his shirt. He tried to take a drink, but anxious tremors in his hands made the bottle shake when he lifted it. He quickly set it down. He tried once again to tune into the conversation, but the words were drowned out courtesy of the voices that had resumed their commotion in his head. This time, it sounded like a pretty intense argument. About what, though, he hadn’t a clue. The music had started playing, too. The pressure in his head was intensifying and was almost unbearable. He couldn’t show it. With tremendous effort, he focused on Max and what he was saying to the three amigos. Mercifully, he heard Max say, “Yeah. It was nice to meet you, too.”

As the three stood up to leave, the one whom Neptune had called Adrian squeezed Isaac’s shoulder and said, “Don’t be a stranger. You know the schedule.” And just like that, they were gone. Isaac stared at the courtyard door even after it had closed. He was afraid to look at Max. He had to do so, though, when Max spoke.

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