By Adrian Fletcher, Psy.D.
It was April of 2017, and I found myself lying in a residential treatment facility where the only solace was a purple comforter. I couldn’t seem to get enough medication or Teddy Grahams to numb out the reality that I was currently facing. What I did not know at the time, though, was that this experience was going to be the catalyst to my recovery and to saving my life.
In 2012, while I was undergoing eye movement and desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my therapist casually mentioned the possibility of me having dissociative identity disorder (DID). This condition is determined by the presence of at least two distinct and separate personality states, each with its own memories and behaviors, within an individual.
The identities, often referred to as alters in a system, typically form as a coping mechanism after extreme trauma and take control of a person’s thoughts and behavior. DID — what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used to refer to as multiple personality disorder — has a long history of misrepresentation and doubt in the media and medical field.
At the time, I was not at all ready to face the reality of what this diagnosis meant. I quit working with that therapist and began my quest again with a different therapist to continue my healing from PTSD. In my treatment with the new provider, the DID diagnosis never resurfaced. Looking back, I understand that I was not appropriately assessed by this therapist, and they missed my DID symptoms.
During treatment, I experienced a triggering event which was the start of a slow, but complete, unravel. I became extremely suicidal and made attempts at my own life. With encouragement from my husband, I admitted myself to a psychiatric inpatient hospital. Initially, my care team told me I was experiencing major depressive disorder with psychotic features.
What my treatment team and I didn’t know at the time was that I was experiencing rapid switching amongst the alters of my DID system. When I was released from this inpatient stay, I was certainly not recovered, and I was, if anything, more traumatized.
I then ventured out of state to a residential treatment facility with the purple comforter. The program consisted of 12 step groups and occasional art and dance therapy. During this stage of treatment, I began to slowly rebuild my life with the help of my husband, friends, therapist and colleagues. As I made progress and returned to independent living, I was very confused about what I had just experienced. I was filled with shame and mad at myself for getting so “sick.”
Shortly after I began to rebuild my life, and my outpatient psychotherapy practice, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Within five months of learning of her diagnosis, she passed away. We had just reconnected after not speaking for several years. I was heartbroken.
After my mother’s death, my drinking escalated. I was depressed, anxious, lost, confused, grief stricken and feeling abandoned. My marriage was strained. I was angry, and again, I became extremely hopeless.
I went back to therapy and decided to quit drinking; that was when disturbing memories of my childhood came flooding to the surface.
I began to recall memories and images about being sexually abused by my father and him trafficking me to other men. The memories disrupted my sleep, my appetite, my friendships and my marriage. I felt alone, scared, confused and depressed. It was during this time that my DID began to surface in more visible ways. Various alters began showing up in therapy and in conversations with my husband, and they would share what had happened to them.
These 22 alters, we soon learned, had distinct names, genders, likes, dislikes, cognitive abilities, skill sets and preferences for food, people, activities, etc. Some alters struggled with specific disordered behavior such as disordered eating, substance abuse, self-injury, attachment and learning difficulties.
I was officially diagnosed with DID. My husband and I were both relieved and terrified. He felt validated in what he had been observing for years but did not have a language for. I asked myself what this was going to mean for our marriage, for my future and for my career. I felt alone and embarrassed — consumed with worry about others finding out. I also struggled with denial. I would tell myself things like, “this couldn’t have happened,” “I must be making this up,” etc. But my body and my brain would remind me through flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, physical discomfort, jitteriness and guardedness around hugs and physical touch. I wanted to distance myself from everyone around me.
But I decided that my mission was to recover so that I could give back; to teach providers and the public that DID is highly misunderstood, is often underdiagnosed / misdiagnosed and that it is not what it looks like in the movies.
I took my recovery seriously. I read everything I could to understand what was happening to me. I began to attune to my alters and their needs by journaling, listening, doing artwork and finding communities, such as An Infinite Mind (AIM), an International Organization for those living with DID who need support, referrals for treatment and education about the condition. As I met other people with similar experiences, the symptoms I experienced for years began to make sense.
Therapy and the commitment to the healing journey were exhausting, expensive, lonely and cumbersome. But I am grateful to be alive and to have advocated for myself and my DID system. I am proud of the work that I have put in to recover and to raise awareness.
I am now on a quest to offer guidance and support through speaking, consultation, education and public advocacy from both the perspective of someone living with DID and the perspective of a treatment provider who has worked in the mental health field for two decades.
Doing this is my definition of turning pain into purpose. For far too long, the stigma of DID has kept people hidden and silent. Just like I was, people living with the condition are hesitant to share their stories; they are afraid of being judged, laughed at or invalidated. Tragically, misinformation and misrepresentation of this disorder leads people to believe that those living with DID are dangerous, uneducated, unwell, inept or simply lying. I want to change this narrative and perception; in fact, I see DID as a brilliant coping strategy for surviving the unsurvivable.
Coming forward as a professional with lived experience of DID has given me the freedom to show others that they can embrace who they are and accept all parts of themselves, their past traumas and alters included. I hope that my work to increase awareness can help others feel less alone — and maybe save lives.
Adrian A. Fletcher, Psy.D., M.A. is a trafficking survivor, psychologist, speaker, consultant and author with lived and professional experience of dissociative identity disorder (DID). She and her alters are the proud authors of “One Soul, Multiple Expressions: POEMS BY THE PARTS” and hosts of a podcast, “Braving the Way with Dr. Fletch.” You can learn more about Dr. Fletcher at www.drfletch.com
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