Trying to Understand Dissassociative Identity Dissorder
Dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder, is one of the most intriguing and least understood of mental disorders. The publication of Sybil in 1973 created a wave of public fascination and, more importantly, professional recognition of childhood physical and sexual abuse as precipitants of the disorder.
Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of "...at least two separate ego states, or alters, different modes of being and feeling and acting that exist independently of each other, coming forth and being in control at different times" (Davison and Neale 180). "Each personality is fully integrated and a complex unit with unique memories, behavior patterns, and social relationships that determine the nature of the individual's acts when that personality is dominant" (Breiner 149). While psychologists now recognize childhood abuse as a precipitant of DID, the general public is, for the most part, unaware of the strong, almost universal connection. "The vast majority (as many as 98 to 99%) of DID individuals have documented histories of repetitive, overwhelming, and often life-threatening trauma at a sensitive developmental stage of childhood" (DID (MPD) 2). The two main types of abuse that occur are sexual, involving incest, rape, molestation, and sodomy, and physical, involving beating, burning, cutting, and hanging. Neglect and verbal abuse are also contributing factors. DID is more common among women, probably because females are more frequently subjected to sexual abuse than males.
This disorder is often referred to by professionals as and "emergency defense system" (Alexander, et al. 94), comparable to the defense a helpless animal uses when being preyed upon. By going into a trance-like state, the animal believes its attacker will think it is dead and leave. By the same token, an abused child uses this defense to distance its mental self from its physical being. The child dissociates, or breaks the connection between his/her thoughts, feelings, and his/her very identity. The child becomes like a "hidden observer" (Alexander, et al. 94) who does not have to deal with the pain or fear of the attack. All thoughts and memories of the abuse are psychologically separated from the child. After repeated abuse, this dissociation becomes reinforced. If the child is good at it, he/she will use it as a defense mechanism in any situation that he/she perceives as threatening, and different personalities begin to develop. "Trance-like behavior in children has been found to be the single best predictor of childhood dissociative identity disorder" (Carlson, et al. 118).
It has been documented that disassociative identity disorder can only develop during childhood, usually between the ages of 3 and 9. There is no "adult onset" disassociative identity disorder, due to the fact that "...only children have...