Switching, new memories and feeling rough around the edges

It’s been a hard week. I went looking for my diploma in the boxes where I keep stuff packed away. I didn’t consciously focus on anything as I dug through photos, old clothes and paperwork. I didn’t find my diploma. And then everything began to fall apart. It started with some massive dissociative episodes, then my sleep became disrupted and anxiety, paranoia and cognitive shutdown set in.

By yesterday, I was in a state I haven’t experienced in well over a year. I was vacillating between being in my sympathetic and dorsal systems. Feeling like fleeing or dizzy and shut down. Woven in and out of those two states, were the memories of a fancy handmade dress I had when I was little (something I found in one of my boxes) and a man’s hand grasping at the dress while he said “dirty little princess”. The memories were intrusive and I was terrified of what else might arise. Half the time I was riding in the passenger seat as Little took over and felt anxious and confused.

I have my boys this week so I did all I could to keep it together while showing up for them as much as possible. I let them know I was having a hard time so they would understand why I couldn’t always respond to them.

The memory wasn’t a particularly awful one, comparatively, but it felt gross and unavoidable. I certainly tolerated it better than I have when similar things have come up in the past. I am trying to make space for this experience, meanwhile am also pissed off that my carefully constructed routine and ground were temporarily dismantled and broken.

I slept a little better last night and am so far not struggling today. Someone I know recently said that we have to get rid of our attachments to the past in order to move forward in life and feel good. Tell me, how do you stop being attached to something that literally informed every aspect of your being? That continues to demand processing and attention every day even though it happened 30-45 years ago?

Checking in with my alters

One of the tasks my therapist has been suggesting I get into the habit of is that of checking in with my alters daily, as well as when I have big feelings or cognitive dissonance. Most of the time I’m still avoiding doing this because I’m afraid opening up myself to all their voices might drive me back into psychosis or, at the very least, a crying puddle on the floor. My friend with DID and my therapist assure me it will actually improve things so I’ve been trying it little bits at a time.

It’s a lot to have so many individual voices and needs in my head and body. Some days I get headaches from everyone talking at once. Other days, they’re all mostly quiet but I suspect that’s because I’ve become very adept at ignoring or pushing them down.

Earlier this morning I asked what each of my alters would like to do today. I listened to Little tell me that she’d like to color today. Easily done. Then my 15 year old said she would like to kick some ass today. I responded that we couldn’t do that and then turned my back on her and everyone else. After that, I felt so very sad and sorry for myself. Anger was there too but I didn’t allow it to come up for more than a few seconds.

I had a few big feelings before I checked in with my alters but they were mostly deep gratitude and acknowledgment. I allowed those feelings to be felt and move through me. The sadness, anger and pity felt more stagnant and oppressive. Thinking back on it now, I realize that was probably because I shut my alters down once something came up that I wasn’t comfortable with.

I’m starting to get glimpses of how truly precious and strong my alters are, each and every one of them. They were born out of the need to keep me safe so I could survive long enough to heal. Without them I’d probably be dead or so mentally ill as to be unable to live on my own. They lived through traumas of which I only have snapshot memories. They deserve respect and the safety to exist and have their needs met.

With that in mind, I will now ask my alters let me know what they want/need today.

Little wants to color. She’d also like me to remember to tuck our stuffies in tonight before bed. It’s easy enough and I’ve noticed that when we do that, I sleep a little longer and have fewer flashbacks and night terrors.

Baby wants to be held and snuggle with stuffies. She would also like to help me feed the crow and jays. She loves all animals.

My fifteen year old would like to kick some ass. We can’t do that because I don’t want to hurt anyone and because it would get us into trouble. She is willing to put on the kick boxing gloves later so we can punch the punching bag. She would like to listen to angry music while we do that. I’m on board with that and am even willing to make an angry playlist one day this week.

Max would like to get our life a little organized and run some errands. I’ve let so many things go this last year and perhaps by allowing Max to do these things, I can accomplish some things, help some people in need and gain a sense of agency. Maybe I can let her front today and see how that goes. She’s very capable and certainly feels more sure of herself than I do.

I want to play guitar and sing some sad songs. The man I dated in high school is coming for a visit next week with his girlfriend and I always get a big maudlin before and after he comes. I don’t regret that we didn’t stay together but he knew and loved me when I was at my lowest and there’s no one else in the world with whom I have that connection. The sadness that comes with his visits honors that connection and takes a lot of courage to make space for.; the relationship was mutually abusive and complex and my family and friends tried to keep us apart and that led to a lot of shame.

I know there are a couple of others in here who haven’t yet fully introduced themselves. One of them would like to do some reading about healing from trauma. The other is a mess and maybe just needs to be seen and acknowledged before she’ll start communicating with me.

Writing all of this down as I checked in has been quite helpful. I feel like I can attempt to give everyone the things they’ve requested today. I can’t promise I’ll be successful at all of it but it’s a start.

Memory, Trauma & Alters: walking the tightrope of recovery

My therapist and I have been trying to get an accurate count of my alters, as well as their names and ages. It’s been difficult, to say the least. I know a few of them quite well but there are others who hang back in the shadows. I have a sense that one was born when I was doing parts work twenty years ago. The therapist wasn’t skilled at the work and pressured me into it. As a result, I had a psychotic break in the middle of writing my master’s thesis and taking care of my first child.

I admire the tenacity of my brain. The person I’d been couldn’t cope with the tsunami of feelings that came with exploring my alters, especially the small ones who carry the memories of my childhood abuse, so someone else was born who could put the lid on all of that. The person who had the psychotic break got left behind in some dark place in my mind, while her replacement finished my degree, became a good mother to baby and pretty quickly packed up and left my alcoholic husband. It was as if the parts work had never happened

After each of my other babies were born, the previous alter returned and I experienced post-partum depression and psychosis again. I didn’t understand it at the time because I had decided I no longer had DID. I was diagnosed with post-partum issues but, thinking back, I was experiencing the same symptoms I’d had while doing the parts work. I became paranoid that my babies were aliens or demons, had the urge to leave them laying in their cribs instead of holding and feeding them, and sometimes saw people who weren’t there.

I remember so little about my life. My therapist explained to me that long term memories often aren’t made when we’re in our sympathetic nervous system. This is why it’s not uncommon for abuse and assault survivors to remember seemingly insignificant things about the violence perpetrated on them, but have fragmented memories of the specifics. Those specifics might not be committed to long term memory but the body, the nervous system, remembers.

I live in a body that clearly remembers being violated and harmed. I’ve worked hard to spend more time in the ventral vagal system, the part of the nervous system that feels safe and in which we can feel connection. Even so, I still have at least one or two nights per week in which I wake with flashbacks or night terrors. I still have a sensitive startle response. It’s confusing. I appreciate having been protected from the full force of the memories of 22 years of childhood domestic abuse. AND, the disconnect I experience because my alters hold most of my memories feels disconcerting. I want to be whole but I’ve experienced so much splitting that I’m afraid that might be impossible.

At the same time, I recognize that I’ve only just begun doing parts work and I’m taking it quite slowly. Perhaps I need to make more of an effort. It’s so hard to know how much I should push myself. Doing this work is like walking an invisible tightrope that doesn’t go in a straight line. I have to keep moving forwards on the tightrope if I’m to get to a place of steadier ground but I’ve fallen off the rope before and gotten lost in psychosis. I’m terrified of that happening again so I’m being super cautious. Maybe too cautious to move forward towards more integration.

Further confusion is caused by the things I say while I’m dissociated sometimes. There seems to be an alter in there who consistently comes up when I’m dissociated but I don’t remember or understand the things she says. I think she might be the part of me that got lost in psychosis because she babbles about things that have happened throughout the day and very much wants to make her experience more organized. But she seems lost in her own internal process.

I’m going to make an effort to actively work with my DID this week, while also being cautious and trying to listen to myself so I can begin to understand what my limits are. This work still terrifies me but my goal for this year was to live in the present with whatever’s most true. Feelings, memories, breath, body, and alters.

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.

Light in the Darkness

Sometimes two things happen almost simultaneously and where they would have brought sweetness and peace on their own, together they are force that break down the walls of the prison you’d built around yourself.

Yesterday, someone I was close to in high school, someone I’ve stayed in touch with through the years but am not particularly close to now, wrote to me to discuss a shared effort to get masks to more people during this pandemic. He ended his message with:

BTW, to me, you will always be Lisa, the girl I loved in high school.

I was touched to know that he loved me then and does so still. Also confused about my feelings to the response because I had never told him that I was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and that Lisa was/is one of my alters. She was in control a lot during the time that I knew him and was wild and fun but also someone who left destruction in our wake. How could he have loved Lisa? I have done a lot of work to integrate her into my family of alters and she has not appeared at the front of consciousness for at least 20 years. I responded to his message with appreciation but also surprise. His response:

There was (and still is) a light in you that’s warm and inspiring.

I cried when I read it. A cry of relief and vulnerability. My therapist is relentless in pointing out that I have friends who’ve known me most of my life, through the good and crazy bad; friends who loved me then and love me now. She asks over and over again why I think that is. My response has been confusion. I can’t imagine how they could have stuck by me when I was out of control and hurting many of the people closest to me. I can surmise that they must have seen something special in me but the knowing of that just wouldn’t sink in past the protection I’ve put up around my heart.

I woke this morning with a tender heart, still very much touched by yesterday’s exchange with my friend. I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend telling me that she’d gone out to check the cows this morning and one of them had given birth to a precious new calf. I started sobbing at the sweetness of the occasion and at the hope it brought to my heart.

Suddenly my mind and heart were online at the same time and were spinning with the processing of it all. Here’s this new, innocent creature, birthed in the midst of our human pandemic. Hope. And the answer to my question about why friends have loved me through all these long years. I may have been wild as a young woman, destructive even, but it was never from a place of malice. I started out as sweet and innocent as my friend’s new calf. But the things I suffered at my father’s hands, and later at the hands of other men, introduced a darkness into my uncomprehending being. I can’t fully understand how my mind turned it inwards, but the wave of feelings I experienced this morning told the story of a child who was faced with a radically unfair choice:

Find the strength to live seeing the immense darkness that dwelt in the world she was born into. A darkness that towered over her tiny frame; one she could not protect herself or her sister from.
Or, take that darkness into herself; believe that the unspeakable evil visited on her was deserved.

I see now that I chose the latter, because what else could I do? I could not make sense of a world in which evil lurked around every corner and could not be reigned in by anyone, no matter how powerful they were. I created a space within myself where that blackness could live so that I could walk through the world with some measure of hope, and with the sense that the darkness was a force contained in me, not one that ran rampant through a world of innocents. Over the years, and through abuses by multiple other men, my dark nature became confirmed again and again. I think that until very recently I continued to believe that I harbored an evil within me that I had to keep contained.

And then came the simple words of a friend:

There was (and still is) a light within you that is warm and inspiring.

A light. In me. One that is warm and inspiring. How could that be if there is an evil in me?

It’s not just Lisa who I believed carried this darkness. When I was living with my abuser, Paul, I came to believe (truly and with all my heart, and he reinforced the belief) that a dark and evil man lived inside of me. A vampire of a man. At the time, I even told my mother of this man; told her I had to capture him, drive a stake through his heart and cut off his head.

And yet, even then, when I watched the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I heard Van Helsing say to Mina:
There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.
I cried because the words slipped past all the prison guards around the truths I had created and pierced my heart with a knowing that I, too, was a light in the darkness. And now my friend’s words echo this truth.

It’s a shame, though a product of the times, that in his book, Bram Stoker had two men kill Dracula. As much as I appreciate the book, I find Dracula’s death in the movie so much more powerful. In the end, it is Mina who takes his life, not as an act of vengeance, but one of love and compassion. She understands why he turned away from God and made a monster of himself, and she understands that the monster must not be allowed to continue spreading darkness. She has also felt that same darkness growing in her own blood and she knows the power of it. When she drives the stake into his heart, it is with love and with the support of those who love her and believe in her light.

If I am indeed a warm and inspiring light then I must apply myself to cutting out the darkness I took on as my own, because it does not now, nor did it ever, belong to me. I was violated, my innocence torn away from me, by those with darkness in their hearts, and they were content to let me believe that I drew darkness to me. To pry loose my belief that I am a source of darkness will be an act of compassion for myself then and now. I do not believe it will be a simple task but I see now that I have already begun this work, thanks in large part to the words of a friend and the birth of a new calf.