Beginning to work with DID

My therapist often tells me there’s no road map for recovery; every person with trauma does it in their own time and in their own way. I try to let that be a comfort. Sometimes I hate that there’s no clear path. I want check boxes I can tick off. Instead, it feels like I’m wandering around in a big, dark forest where I occasionally stumble onto a new path or a road block.

Working with my dissociative identity disorder feels more like I’ve fallen into a pit with several other people of various ages who are also stumbling through the recovery forest. Some of these people are willing to talk to me and help to plan our escape from the pit. Others, especially most of the younger ones, don’t say anything. They sit alone or in pairs looking shell shocked and neglected. The teenager is pissed off and sassy but seems pretty satisfied that I’m in the pit with her. A couple of the adult people wander around and mumble but they’re in no state to help us find a way out. And then, of course, there’s the shadow creature who lurks, says nasty, mean things to everyone and is just generally a jerk.

My therapist is out of the ‘office’ the next couple of weeks so we spent our last session talking about how I’m going to stay regulated and safe over the next three weeks. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about how others with DID work with their systems and manage symptoms. I was diagnosed with DID when I was in my mid teens and have actively suppressed my system since I was in my twenties. Research on, and treatment of, DID has grown a lot in the last twenty years. Mostly I’m reading blogs and subreddit posts about how others with DID work with their systems.

I still don’t know much about my system and that makes it harder for me to communicate with my alters and figure out what they need. I’ve decided to try to track my mood and dissociative episodes throughout the day so I can have a better idea of what’s happening and who’s coming to the surface. I’ve noticed that I’m having small chunks of lost time and I want to know why that’s happening.

Here’s what the google form looks like, in case it might be helpful for someone else. I based it on a document I found on this system‘s blog. I believe the document they share is from a DID treatment center in Maryland.

If you’re reading this and you have DID, please feel free to comment with any tools you use to work with your system. Or just reach out to say ‘hi’. We are pretty isolated right now and trying to find places where we can connect with other systems.

Beginning Parts Work

learning to live with DID
Written December 12, 2020

For the last several weeks, my therapist and I have been talking about me beginning to work with my dissociative identity disorder and the parts/alters that are as much a part of me and my body as I am. She’s been very gentle and cautious during these discussions. We began talking about it because in the midst of all the awesome work I’m doing, I’m not giving myself space to be angry. I’ve been trying to avoid working with my dissociative identity disorder most of my adult life. I spent most of the 16 years with my ex-husband believing that while I was dissociating, I wasn’t living with active alters anymore.

Yesterday I officially met Max for the first time. She is one of my alters and we are co-conscious almost all the time. I talk to myself a lot throughout each day and usually those conversations are with Max. I was going about my usual morning routine and talking to myself out loud when I suddenly realized this was an opportunity to actively learn about this alter I spend so much time with and who is a rock in my daily life. I asked her if she had a name and she didn’t hesitate long before answering.
“I’m Max. I was born when you were 20 and I’m still twenty. I’m a tall, lanky blonde woman with short cropped hair and I’m gay.”

Max has, for twenty-eight years, been the part of me who keeps things together. She’s pragmatic, makes sure I take my meds, tracks what I’ve done each day, and she adamantly props me up when I get down on myself. I felt excited that she so quickly told me about herself and I felt a lot of judgment about so clearly having another complete personality who shares a body with me.

My therapist and I talked about that judgment in our session yesterday. She pointed out that I absolutely accept my friend with DID. Zero judgment and lots of empathy. I look at my friend, who was violently assaulted by several men before the age of 12 and it makes perfect sense that she has alters. How could a child survive that kind of experience and keep it a secret without splitting into pieces? If that’s true, and I believe it is for many survivors, then I must have experienced some extremely fucked up shit because I have a whole host of alters living inside me. Judgment towards my system gives me a crack to crawl through to a place where that didn’t happen to me. I can’t explain how that makes sense but it works.

This morning I’ve had a lot of intrusive memories flooding back. I feel like a mess. Foggy, bumping into walls when I walk through the rooms of my house, overwhelmed, sad. I don’t want any of this to be true.

A letter to my alters

To all of you with whom I share this body,

First, I’m sorry I’ve spent so long denying you space in our life. I feel torn between not wanting the abuse and your existence to be true and recognizing that, collectively, we have saved ourselves from some form of annihilation. I can feel my head ache when I think thoughts like this. I feel fuzzy and exhausted as I write this. That’s how I know you’re all here, not even under the surface, but pressing at consciousness all at once.

I want you to know that the reason I don’t want you to be real is because the reality of all of us sharing a body goes hand in hand with the reality of the terrible things that happened to us. I remember enough to know that terrifying, heinous things happened to us. And I know that many of you experienced things I don’t remember, events that live on in the cells and nervous system of this body we share.

I recognize that I cannot go on denying your existence. You deserve to be acknowledged and given the space to live and express what ever’s going on for you in the moment. The truth is, it’s going to take time for me to become skillful at living in harmony with all of you. We do have help. We have my therapist, our dear friend and Max. I don’t know if all of you know Max but she’s a total badass and she will do what she can to help all of us learn to live together. There are times I will have to set boundaries and times when we’ll have to pause something that’s coming up until there’s space to address it. I want to propose that I get as much energy as possible to be with my boys on the weeks they’re here. I will come up with a system for us to communicate while they’re here. The weeks they aren’t here, we can dedicate ourselves to giving time and space to each of you. I imagine it’s going to take time for us to create a functioning system. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to accept your existence and listen to your needs and wants.

I know in my heart that we can do this. I’m scared because we had that therapist so many years ago who encouraged us to do this work when we weren’t in a good place to be doing it. I vaguely remember that being traumatizing to most of you. It sent me into a psychotic state. I have to remember that I’ve come a long way since then and I have a therapist who can skillfully guide me through this process. And we’re not alone. We have our dear friend and her system. I have a feeling that some of you are already friends with some of her alters. Perhaps those bonds will help us as we do this work.

I love all of you, even those of you I don’t yet know. This is our journey and I can see how the fact of our existence can facilitate everyone’s recovery.

Processing the letter I sent to my father

written late July, 2020

It’s been two weeks since I sat down and willfully wrote a letter to my dad in which I laid out the impact of his abuse. In that time, my digestive system has gone haywire and I’ve had vivid dreams. I can’t yet fully grasp exactly what’s shifting but I feel the change flooding my body. Just two days after I mailed the letter, on the morning of my dad’s birthday, I woke from a dream in which my dad had died. In the dream, I didn’t feel any sadness at his passing, or anger that he wasn’t here to suffer; just a sense of urgency that I had to talk to the Catholic bishop about what my dad had done.

The cataloguing of the harm that was done to me in the form of a letter to the very man who violated me, left me looking back across the journey of surviving and healing so far. I remember the phone call I got from my sister when she was 16. Her voice was shaky as she asked me if I had any weird memories about our dad. I was 19 at the time, married to my first husband and very high as I tried to figure out what she meant. She was still living at home, and though our mom had divorced our dad, she still saw him on a regular basis. “I’m not sure what you mean”, I said. She began to tell me that she was having recurring flashbacks in which she was a small child lying in her bed and my father was placing a pillow over her face. In that moment, it was as if a puzzle piece of my life slipped into the big picture and the image it completed became frightenly real.

“I remember that too”, I said.

And that was the moment I took the first step in integrating the rape. I couldn’t remember every detail that went along with the puzzle piece but I knew deep down what my dad had done to us in the darkness of our rooms. A neural pathway unused for a decade instantly opened a floodgate to the synapse cluster of childhood memory. I remember feeling like I couldn’t trust this newly restored connection and knowing in my bones that the abuse we were remembering explained everything I had been trying to make sense of during my teenage years. Why did I hate my father with such intense passion? Why was I afraid of him? Why did I only have snippets of memories of my life before the age of twelve? Why had I again and again chosen partners who were controlling and abusive? Why did I have alters who sometimes lived my life for me and the accompanying lost time that’s often associated with dissociative identity disorder?

This journey of processing and integrating seems endless. I used to think I’d reach a point where the work was done and I was whole. The reality is, it’s more likely that I’ll continue doing the work of integrating for many years, perhaps even the rest of my life. That’s why these acts of rape against children are so heinous; it takes a lifetime to recover. A lifetime which could have been devoted to so many other creative and helpful things.

The long winter’s night

(Art credit: Keeping Hope Alive by Phatpuppyart-studios on Deviantart here)

I’ve kept to myself for months now. The pandemic has made that easier. Once every few weeks, a friend from town comes for a socially distanced visit on my back patio. We have to choose the day carefully so it’s warm enough for us to sit outside and chat comfortably for an hour or two. I hear from my childhood friend occasionally and my friend with trauma and I connect when one of us needs support. My eldest and their partner are here all the time but we are content to have brief chats and then go about our separate lives in the same house. I don’t know how long it’s been since I left social media. Six months, maybe?

My younger kids come to stay every other week and those weeks are the hardest. I love them, appreciate the time we have together, and I struggle because their presence is triggering and it’s hard work to stay truly present with them.

In the beginning of the pandemic, being so isolated was challenging; I tried to find meaningful things to do with my time but found I had little energy or focus for those tasks. The stress of the pandemic, coupled with my own state of mind, make it extremely challenging for me to accomplish most projects and sometimes even chores. At some point a few months ago, I stopped trying to accomplish anything other than surviving each day and do just the chores that keep us alive and healthy.

I wake up each day an hour or so before sunrise. The darkness and the quiet give my nervous system time to set a calm baseline for the day to come. And I love to watch the light change. There’s a moment during the gloaming time when color comes back to the world. From my window, I can see it happen while I’m sitting in my bed. One minute, everything outside seems swathed in shades of dark blue and grey. The next, the rocks on the mountains spark a hint of orange that softly glows. If I happen to catch that moment as it happens, I put on some warm clothes and go outside.

Did you know that the birds don’t just start singing at some point during sunrise? The smaller birds will click and chuck for a time before singing. This morning I went outside just in time to hear those first small sounds beginning. It’s been about twenty minutes and they are just starting their songs. The always silent trees, also seem to wake up when the light returns. I see their thin top branches reaching for the first rays of light as it set them softly afire with a warm golden color.

The winter sunrise mirrors my own process in high speed. I am the rocks on the mountains, the whispering birds and the bare-limbed trees in the dawn of my own becoming. The warmth of my own embodiment, a product of this last year’s work, is slowly awakening my inner world and I am beginning to see myself as a landscape with the potential to eventually fill out with oxygen giving leaves, frolicking animals and life sustaining fruits and flowers.

As I write this, the mountains are now aflame with a deep pink and I hear the sounds of the crows and jays calling to one another in their secret languages.

I have needed, still need, the time and space to dwell in my inner land of darkness. Intentionally allowing myself to live in my own long winter’s night is an achingly slow process; I cannot yet see my inner world, except in the glimpses I catch in glimmers and the now less frequent triggers. I imagine most of myself as still sleeping the vast unconsciousness of hibernation. Perhaps some aspects of myself thrive in this darkness because they can more easily move about unseen. But I know most of me needs the warmth and discernment that comes with light.

Perhaps the me I am familiar with as myself is the fox or owl who thrives while most others sleep. Some brave and small part of my greater whole has taken it in stride to be the sentinel who keeps watch through the long night; they pass the time by recalling stories, sharpening tools, protecting the village from roving animals and armed raiders and occasionally laughing at the darkness because they know it will not last forever. I have stood watch through a night that has lasted years. I know I have nodded off at times, only to awaken to find fences that were torn down by wild winds or pillagers. I feel exhausted from this long watch and dawn gives me hope that I will eventually have my day in the sun.