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On Being A Proper Multiple
source: Sara Lambert
When most people think about what it means to be multiple, they go immediately to the “classic” cases of early MPD documentation – multiples like Sybil and Eve White/Black, who demonstrated extremely pronounced changes between their different personalities, accompanied by profound dissociative amnesia. For example, upon switching, they would insist on being called another name and make little or no secret of being a separate entity from the former inhabitant of the body. Their posture, speech patterns, and mannerisms would radically change. They would often have no memory of what other selves had been doing in their absence and, once they left, they would be out of the information loop until their next appearance. Unfortunately, because this highly dramatic, fascinating, and film image of MPD has embedded itself in our popular culture, more subtle variations on the diagnosis often go unnoticed or misdiagnosed by therapists, and many multiples are missing out on the treatment they need. The following subheadings are all generalizations or outright fictions which commonly cause multiples to question the truth of their diagnosis.
MPD IS VERY RARE: Conservative estimates of the proliferation of MPD state that one person in every hundred is multiple. This is far from “rare.” The lingering false belief that multiplicity is scarce is due to three facts.
SYBIL IS THE TYPICAL MULTIPLE: Perhaps the case which causes the most problems for multiples is that of Sybil. She is an icon of multiplicity. Most of the current diagnostic criteria for MPD can be found in her story. Even so, many multiples fear they are not “proper multiples” because they’re not like Sybil. For example, they do not simply walk into their therapist’s office and announce themselves as a different personality. They do not lose big chunks of time, waking up in a different city, not knowing how they got there. A comprehensive study of the differences between Sybil and modern-day multiples has yet to be done. This article is not the place to go into such depth, but there are a few basic points which can be made.
My consistent experience as a researcher and supporter to many other multiples is that the typical picture of modern MPD is one of subtlety, secretiveness, and intense post-traumatic stress which complicate and mask the multiplicity.
ALTERS TAKE OVER THE BODY WHEN THEY COME OUT: Most of the time, multiples do not switch completely or overtly. Rather, they commonly experience internal switches where selves influence their feelings and actions rather than coming “out” to take possession of the body. This creates sensations like hearing words coming out of your mouth that don’t belong to you, seeing the world as if you are taller or shorter, having someone else’s feelings and thoughts overlapping your own, and so on. There is little external indication of multiplicity. Your voice doesn’t change. You don’t suddenly announce that you are Sue instead of Harriet. Often, this “behind-the-scenes” action is a matter of safety. Many feel being entirely present in the world is dangerous. They worry that their abusers will somehow be able to sense their presence and come to get them. More generally, others fear being seen because, in the past, that always led to being abused. As a result, their other selves tend to operate from a safe distance, behind the primary person.
A MULTIPLE LOSES TIME WHEN HER OTHER SELVES ARE PRESENT: A number of multiples do not lose any sense of an observing self, even when their other selves completely emerge. They always have present, at some level, their “host” (also known as the primary person, body person or the person who has the MPD.) This person may sit back and watch what the new self is doing. Some therapists call this co-consciousness and state that it is “less multiple” than the experience of those who have blank spells when their other selves emerge. I disagree with this, for three reasons.
ALTER SELVES ARE ALWAYS DISTINCT: Contrary to popular perception and the wishes of therapists, not all selves have names, nor does a multiple or her system always know who is speaking at any given time. For some multiples, dissociation exists on many layers inside the system. Certain selves may be extremely dissociative or multiple. Others may exist on a sliding chronological scale – in other words, one day they are five years old, the next day they are eight. Some systems have a centralized memory bank which different selves can access at different times, and which can shut down completely when required, locking everyone out. In such a system, a person may remember something one day but not the next. Also, the memory bank may hold not only memories but information about the different selves – for example, a self may be unaware at times of her own identity, because for some reason she has been cut off from the memory bank. In terms of naming, it is common for multiples to give names their other selves for the first time after the selves have come forward to tell their story and be identified. Prior to this, inner selves have had no need for an individual name, or have felt that to be named would be to expose themselves to risk.
MULTIPLES HEAR VOICES IN THEIR HEAD: A number of multiples do not hear voices at all. Instead, they experience “loud thoughts” or thoughts/feelings that they know are not their own.
STRANGE THINGS IN THE CLOSET: A major feature of MPD folklore is the mysterious appearance of items in the closets of multiples. Many of us joke about the shoes that don’t fit, the 10 pots of butter we have in our fridge. But many of us never experience this phenomenon and can identify the origin of every item in our household, even if we don’t necessarily approve of their presence. This is not evidence of non-multiplicity. It can actually be evidence of a number of things – being too poor to spend indiscriminately, having good selves-control, being organized, one self alone being responsible for the money, or having a continuous observer-self, whose awareness of, for example, what’s already in the fridge or the painful reality that feet do not change size along with a change of selves, can help regulate spending.
MULTIPLES CALL THEMSELVES “WE”: Use of the plural self-indicator seems to be something that happens after the multiple has accepted her diagnosis, and often develops simply for the sake of convenience, or as a way of making it clear that the primary person does not admit responsibility for what is being said or done, although it may become increasingly comfortable or habitual over time. Some multiples feel they ought to train themselves to say “we” even though it is strange, after a lifetime of saying “I”, and even though it feels like dangerous exposure of the internal reality.
MULTIPLES HAVE A GENIUS IQ: Unfortunately, multiples are not necessarily any more intelligent than other non-traumatized singleton people. It is true that multiples may have more acquired skills than others, because their different selves have pursued different interests – and multiples do have extra physical and mental energy to help them with these pursuits. It is also true that multiples may be more open-minded than other people, because their self-system contains so many different perspectives; paradoxically, however, individual selves in the system are usually very close-minded and deny the beliefs of others both inside and out of the system.
It must be made clear that the diagnostic criteria for MPD are quite specific. To be a multiple, a person must have two or more alter selves who have their own ideas about themselves and their world. This is more than merely having different aspects to your personality or even different inner parts. Alters are “someone else”. They can take over the person’s behavior and/or body, during which time the person loses time and/or a complete sense of her personal identity. However, I believe one of the most important things to remember about MPD is that it is personality-based – a way of being, rather than a structured state. The form of multiplicity for each person reflects the uniqueness of their personality and, because of this, there are as many rich, complex and different expressions of multiplicity as there are multiples. Meeting the three diagnostic criteria makes someone multiple – the rest is just style.
Originally published in Team Spirit
Reprinted With Permission
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