Sunday, 17 July 2011

Dissociative Identity Disorder: what are alters and what is switching?

I decided to split this post in two as it made more sense and let's face it; was a bit long...

A person with dissociative identity disorder has inside them, separate parts of their inner self which to them may be experienced as separate people (alters). I like to think of the condition in terms of a bus with lots of passengers. The bus is the body; the driver is the particular alter who is in control at that time. Someone with DID may have a 'main driver' who they might identify themselves as being for the most part and then other parts/alters who may be like them in many ways; or very different from them. 

When the person in the driver's seat swaps with someone else, this is called 'switching'. For some with DID, the driver might be very separate from the others on the bus: you could imagine there is a curtain behind the driver so they don't know what the others are doing at the back of the bus. When someone with DID switches and another alter (or driver) takes over, the original person may not know anything about what is going on during the time that someone else is driving. This is why some people with DID experience time losses, where they don't know where the time has gone or what they have been doing.

Not everyone with DID experiences switching between alters in this way. For some it can be less separate, where the drivers seat may not be screened off so others are still able to communicate with the one driving. For someone else, it could be that the bus has dual controls where more than one person can be in charge and influence actions at one time. My experience of switching between alters can vary. The most separate kind of switching, where I wouldn't know who has been out or what has happened, doesn't happen to me a lot (I think). Up until recently, I didn't think it happened to me at all. I liked to think I always knew what was going on at any one time. My therapist has helped me to realise that this thinking is naïve, as she gently reminds me that I do lose time and find evidence of having done things I don't remember doing: all sure signs that I might not be as omnipresent as I think I am.

For the most part though, my experience of alters is more of a shared awareness. Switching takes place frequently, sometimes an alter will 'come out' for just a few seconds and then go back in and this might happen many times in a few hours, sometimes a part will come out for an hour or two. Sometimes one part might be dominant for several weeks at a time. Most of the time though, no matter if switches are short or long in duration, I know what's going on. It's like I step into the background but am still there and able to influence or control things if need be. It also means, I know what is going on, so I won't experience time losses the way I might if it were more separate. 

Sometimes, I stay in control but others influence me. So I might express views of others because I can hear them in the background. This is how I manage to function relatively normally in the world: because I have the ability to edit and make sure what I say is appropriate. It means I can manage what's going on inside in order to be able to still maintain a job. So, if one part wants to spend the day colouring in and doing crafts, I know about this and can express to that part why it is important that they don't do that until we get home from work in the evening. I guess it makes life easier than it might otherwise be. Sometimes though, I'm not that tuned in to the parts that are at the back of the bus, and this has been more so the case lately. I don't know if it's me that puts the screen up or them, but I can sense them there without being able to communicate with them.

It's like there are three levels at which alters can be: one is right at the front, with me or instead of me. The second level is not out front, but near me (in the passenger section of the bus but near the front): where I can sense their presence and sometimes hear them or communicate internally with them. The third level is more far away and separate (right at the back of the bus, or maybe even upstairs on a double decker) and I may not be aware of the parts at all when they are here. Sometimes I can sense them stirring even back there though.

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