Dissociative Identity Disorder
Posted: 24 February 2010 04:04 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Is dissociative identity disorder real?

“I’m interested in getting some sound information on dissociative disorders. There seems to be some question within the medical community about whether this is actually a disorder or not. Can you tell me more about it?”
—Asked by Gina, Toronto, Ontario

Dear Gina, Lots of psychiatric diagnoses generate controversy in the general public (e.g. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, juvenile bipolar disorder), although they are noncontroversial in the mental health world. On the other hand, if you want to see mental health professionals spat with each other, ask a few of them what they think about dissociative identity disorder, the condition that used to be more colorfully known as multiple personality disorder.

Many biological psychiatrists who base their practices around medication management will tell you the condition doesn’t exist, or that if it exists it is “iatrogenic,” meaning it is caused by therapists training their patients to interpret their symptoms as if they have a whole set of distinct personalities. On the other hand, there are clinicians who specialize in the condition and they take the presence of multiple personalities so seriously that they will separate therapeutic meetings with each of a patient’s “alters” (i.e. individual personalities). True believers will point to data that different personalities have different electroencephalogram tracings. Cynics will point out that actors can generate different EEG tracings when they switch characters.

As all psychiatrists, I have my opinion about dissociative disorders. I like to think it is a middle-of-the-road position, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

The dictionary defines dissociation as “an unexpected partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s conscious or psychological functioning that cannot be easily explained by the person.” I don’t think anyone could doubt that this phenomenon exists. You can do the mental experiment. Think about a time when you were driving a car and suddenly realized you’d completely lost attention to the last number of miles, or that you’d missed a turn without even realizing it. That is dissociation—you are doing something important and you lose track of the part of yourself that is doing it.

Like all other mental difficulties, dissociation runs a spectrum from normal to extremely pathological. In my clinical experience it is very common for traumatized and/or very mentally ill people to manifest high rates of dissociation. People who dissociate a lot have conscious experience that is like Swiss cheese: full of holes. But unlike sadness, anger or clear psychosis, it is not usually readily apparent, so it gets less attention than it should. People who suffer with this rarely complain about it, because almost by definition, their fragmented conscious awareness makes it very difficult for them to even notice that they are missing things and/or not aware. We also do not have good pharmacological interventions to reduce dissociation, so it has gotten less money behind it than have many other mental conditions.

There is no doubt that some people behave as if they have multiple personalities. And not all of them have been to therapists who have trained them to interpret their dissociative experiences in this way. Does this mean that dissociative identity disorder exists? In my opinion it depends on what we mean by “exists.” Yes, dissociative identity disorder exists if by exists we mean there are people who complain of its symptoms and suffer its consequences. Do I think that some people have many biologically distinct entities packed into their heads? No. I think that some people dissociate so badly that either on their own or as a result of therapeutic experiences it becomes the case that the most convincing way for them to see their own experience is as if it is happening to multiple people.

If this sounds like an endorsement of the condition, it is in a qualified way. I am personally less sanguine, however, about treatments that proceed as if each of the separate personalities really exists concretely and then work to integrate them again. This is the most common therapeutic way to treat the disorder, but I have seen precious few successes and a lot of people made worse by this intervention. In all fairness, however, I used to work intensively on inpatient psychiatric wards and had to care for the train wrecks left behind when integrative therapies failed, so maybe I’m negatively biased.

Here is a final strange paradox regarding the question of whether dissociative identity disorder exists. Whether clinicians believe or disbelieve, they will all tell you that it is one of the most serious psychiatric difficulties. Patients who demonstrate dissociative identity disorder symptoms are all extremely ill in my experience. They have frequently undergone significant trauma, especially early in life. The chaos of their personalities and behavior often leave a tornado track in their wake, and they suffer tremendous emotional discomfort and anxiety. And, as I mentioned above, unlike mental conditions such as depression or psychosis, for which good—although far from perfect—treatments exist, there is very little evidence that any currently available interventions are of much help.


“If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts.”

Posted: 24 February 2010 04:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Joined  2005-04-17

Intriguing.  My reaction to what I’ve just read is that (probably in the most serious cases), the cause was more like what we understand as post traumatic syndrome.  This doesn’t always become symptomatic of getting lost necessarily the way that the author describes getting mentally ‘lost while thinking about something while ‘doing’ something else like driving and forgetting a turn but the author suggests that what has happened to people who have many of these kinds of events were somehow traumatized at an earlier date and either do not realize the connection or remember the causal event.

I do recall therapies where the therapist suggested setting self apart, like another person watching what happened or is happening…..........like an observing fly-on-the-wall.  Apparently some believe this puts the patient in a safe ‘other person’ position while watching and analyzing what happened or what they are presently doing. 

While I might tend toward agreeing, I’ve not known or been around actual people with the deep kind of problems we all think of a multiple personalities.  I have seen movies based on actual stories (how much can we believe, as outsiders, in what movies tell us).  I’ve read books written about and even by folks that have had the problem though and my understanding is that the ‘personalities’ or so completely different in value set, spiritual ideals and approach to the same sets of problems that I cannot duly see how these could in any way be analyzed as being ‘lost in thought’ which the author gives as a mild disassociation all of us have witnessed. 

While the cause of these very deep and vibrant personalities, while rare, have seemed to have happened to some may well be a symptom of post-traumatic-syndrome, they appear to be very real and well defined in those few who live with multiples, clueless to the existence of the others.


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UBUNTU’ in the Xhosa culture means: ‘I am because we are.)”  So, I AM because WE are