Once known as Multiple Personality Disorder, and known casually by some as “split personality”, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a condition characterised by more than one distinct personality in the same physical body. The disorder is one of the most misunderstood and mischararacterised of all psychiatric conditions. This article looks at how to write believable and non-cliched characters who have Dissociative Identity Disorder.
People who have DID don’t change personalities whimsically. It usually only happens in response to intense stress or emotional pressure. When it does, however, it can be frightening and confusing for the people who see it. A person who has “switched” personalities might indeed seem to be an entirely different person, with different facial expressions, a different gait, different body language and an entirely different way of talking. Their vibe might feel entirely different, and not just in the sense of a change of mood.
Like many of the conditions in this book, DID is believed to have origins in early childhood abuse. The currently prevailing theory is that particularly intense early childhood trauma can cause the mind to dissociate. If this is severe enough, this dissociation can lead to one part of the mind becoming almost quarantined from the others, as if to protect the whole.
For example, a child might receive such intense physical abuse that their personality splits into a regular child’s personality (or primary identity) and a second, much harder and meaner one, who comes about as an adaptation to the abuse. What this can lead to is a situation where the second personality comes out in stressful situations as if trying to “defend” the primary personality from further trauma and abuse. That second personality might be willing to make decisions and take measures that the first cannot countenance.
Characteristic of this condition is the inability for one persona to remember things that have been said to another persona. Because the various personas are complete personalities with their own set of memories, things that are understood by one persona are not necessarily understood by others. People with DID can also lose track of time very easily, on account of that time that passes for one personality doesn’t necessarily also pass for another.
If the protagonist of your story encounters a character with DID, their first clue might be observing signs of depression in that other character. People with DID commonly also have depression, partially on account of the difficulty of living with the condition, and partially as a result of early childhood trauma and abuse. Other conditions are commonly comorbid with DID, especially the other conditions that are believed to have origins in heavy childhood trauma, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia and bulimia.
Your protagonist might find it baffling how that the character with DID sometimes doesn’t remember what’s said to them. Even more baffling is that the character with DID will often react with anger if it is put to them that a certain subject had already been talked about. Your protagonist might conclude that the character with DID is on drugs of some kind, and they might feel like they have good reason to draw such a conclusion.
In other ways, your protagonist might have to tread carefully. The heavy childhood abuse that usually precedes the development of DID can make a character with the condition hard to deal with for reasons not directly related to it. For example, they might be paranoid, suspicious, vicious etc. before the effects of DID are accounted for. This might mean that your protagonist mistakes the separate personalities of a person with DID as them being dishonest. Your protagonist might feel that the character with DID is only pretending not to remember things.
If the protagonist of your story has DID themselves, then telling a story about them automatically becomes a challenge because it isn’t clear who is speaking in the first person and who is speaking in the third. Assuming that there’s a primary personality and a secondary one, the primary one might be the one that is written about in the first person. It’s possible to do both, but care has to be taken not to sound like you are retelling the story of Jekyll and Hyde.
Your protagonist’s encounters with other characters could become extremely difficult if the protagonist has this condition. They might find themselves confronted with repeated accusations of being two different people – an accusation which is, understandably, not simple to deal with. Neither are accusations of being on drugs, or being a bastard, or lying, or just being fucked-up – all things that a protagonist with DID might have to deal with from other characters.
DID is not schizophrenia, but it shares many things in common with schizophrenia. DID is believed to be the single most strongly correlated psychiatric condition with severe early childhood abuse and neglect, with schizophrenia closely behind. So a person with DID might have deep understanding of how schizophrenics think and operate, and may have gone through some parts of the schizophrenia spectrum themselves.
It’s worth noting here that attempting to get off a criminal charge by claiming that one has DID and that one’s alternate personality did the crime has virtually zero chance of success, and that even if it did succeed the consequences would probably entail involuntary psychiatric care every bit as unpleasant as going to prison. Juries and judges are wise to such simple tricks and it won’t succeed outside of an extraordinary setting.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.