Dissociative Identity Disorder: How the Movies Got It Wrong

by Dr. Amber D. Gray, CCFDVC, DBH

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Photo by: Rostyslav Savchyn

Let’s Talk Dissociative Identity Disorder

Let’s talk about dissociation. The not so new kid on the block, that many individuals still don’t understand anything about. What is dissociation? According to Marlene Steinberg, M.D., dissociation is, “an adaptive defense in response to high stress or trauma characterized by memory loss and a sense of disconnection from oneself or one’s surroundings.” This is a far cry from YouTube videos, laced with individuals who seemingly turn into cats, dogs, or superheroes, due to the alleged trauma of having to do homework. All joking aside, dissociation is a serious disorder, causing pain and suffering in the lives of those who have it.

What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), we’ve all heard of it. We watched the movie Split or Sybil, or knew someone, who knew someone, who was a friend of someone who had DID. In a way, this is quite possible. While not every child who is abused develops DID, 90% of individuals with DID are abused as children (Steinberg, 2001). Individuals who have DID, but are not being treated for it, may have spent a lifetime trying to self-medicate. To relieve stress of the symptoms, those who have DID may engage in hypersexual activity, drugs, alcohol, or life risking behaviors. They do this to find an escape from what they experience in their heads.

How Does One Get DID?

How did they get there? Some individuals acquired DID, because of sleepless nights, where they were afraid they may lose their life. Their abusive family member, important person in their life, or even stranger, repeatedly assaulted them. To not think about the abuse, an individual might pretend they are somewhere else or someone else to escape an unescapable situation. Perhaps an individual thought someone important in their lives left them forever. This too, could be another way they acquire DID. The truth of the matter is, there is no 100% way of knowing what causes DID in some individuals, but not in others. Research and time will answer questions like that.

Movies Make DID A Horror Film

Movies make dissociative identity disorder the stuff nightmares are made from. From serial killers at war with themselves, to individuals who run fight clubs with their respective part, to therapist hiding from their inner child, movies about dissociative identity disorder are downright terrifying. After watching a movie about DID, one would not want to be within ten feet of a person with the disorder. Let’s remember, people with dissociative identity disorder often went through a lot of abuse. They also often suffer alone. Let’s not make them monsters, because a monster hurt them. People with DID walk among us all of the time. Not everyone with DID acts the same.

There Are Many Types of Dissociative Identity Disorders

With there being many types of DID, a trained therapist is best suited to sort out typologies. This being said, in general, DID is marked by various types of identity alterations. Some of these alterations include individuals with DID who might experience being good at a skill one moment, only to lose it the next. Their memory, fractured. A part of them remembering one thing, while the other part remembers more of the details. A person could know another language, or about a particular subject and not know why. DID can be an exhausting disorder.

How Did The Movies Get It So Wrong?

In a nutshell, it’s fun. It’s fun and exciting to see a person who behaves in ways we don’t quite understand. However, DID is not fun. It is not exciting. It can be distressing for those who have the disorder. The take away from this article is that in the healthcare field especially, we must be cognizant of how difficult DID is for those who have the disorder. As practitioners in the field, movies can not be our center point for how to engage with a patient who has DID. This disorder is difficult enough. Patients do not need practitioners making their experience in the medical field more difficult. Let’s work together to become more knowledgeable about this vulnerable population.

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