My mother is a great woman. She raised me on her own, as a single, self-employed lesbian parent, running Queensland’s first gay and lesbian newspaper in the nineties, when it wasn’t okay to be a lesbian and it certainly wasn’t okay to be a single lesbian parent.
Nowadays, she is self-employed, owns and maintains her own home in the gorgeous mountains and has a far more active social life than I do. She is also my best friend.
On top of all of that, my mother suffers from severe mental illness.
If you have seen Shutter Island, Secret Window or more recently Split, you might better know this as its former name, multiple personality disorder. However, those movies do not accurately portray what it is like to live with DID (to the best of my knowledge, my mother is not a homicidal serial killer) or what it is like being related to someone living with DIDs.
My mother is a fully functioning adult. She also has more personalities or ‘alters’ than I could identify to you. Some of these alters I can recognise when they present themselves. Sometimes the way she switches from one alter to another is so minute that even her closest friends and family would never notice. Around me she has a protective, mother alter. It has only been in recent years that I have seen and been able to identify when her other alters emerge.
We have a very open relationship and my mother has never hidden her mental illness from me. We talk about what her mental illness means to each of us and how it affects us and she is very open about the treatment she is getting, which for the most part is regular appointments with her psychiatrist. Like anyone suffering with mental illness, she has good days and bad days. Sometimes the bad days turn into bad months and she has previously been admitted to a mental health hospital to help her through. These admissions were her choice and were never something that she was forced into.
One of the most common side effects of DIDs is loss of time. By that I mean my mother and I often have conversations that she would later swear black and blue didn’t happen. One of her alters might introduce herself using a nickname that she hates and she will have no recollection of this conversation. Sometimes, we will make plans that she looks forward to and then she will switch to another of her alters who will cancel those plans – not because she isn’t looking forward to them or because she doesn’t want to spend time with me, but because the anxiety of committing to those plans or leaving the house will be too much for that alter. For her, it is a constant push pull inside her head to make each of her alters happy, which is impossible. It’s like trying to make seven different people, who all want different things from you, happy at the same time.
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My mother has an overarching personality and unlike what you see represented in movies, she is aware of a number of her alters. But not all of them. In some instances, an alter will take over and her overarching personality will be co-conscious of what is happening. Other times, her overarching personality will not be present and she will have no memory of what her alter has done.
Unlike in United States of Tara my mother’s alters do not all have names or factors which differentiate them from her other alters. Some of her alters are female, others are male and one is an animal. Some are fully formed alters which hold years of her life and everything that happened during those years, while others hold nothing more than a traumatic event.
DIDs, is a trauma related illness. It is not an illness a person is born with, but it is life-long after its onset. The act of dissociating is a way to compartmentalise traumatic experiences. It is a self-preservation method. This is why a person can experience memory loss or ‘lose time’, because an alter holds those traumatic experiences or memories. Holding those traumatic memories is often the reason a person dissociated and an alter came into existence in the first place.
Once dissociation happens, it becomes the brain’s response mechanism to trauma, which is how new alters continue to be created. As time passes, new alters emerge to deal with different traumas or fulfil necessary roles. They can emerge at any time. or example, the ‘mother’ alter emerged when my mother was pregnant, to raise me. This is the personality that is most present when my mother and I spend time together. In other instances, certain alters may not present themselves for years at a time and then suddenly reveal themselves and the memories they hold.
DIDs is not an illness for which there is a sudden ‘cure’. Trauma counselling can help and in some instances an integration of personalities can occur which effectively pieces the various alters together so a person becomes a ‘whole’ individual. But often drawing trauma out from certain alters who are holding it can be difficult, if not impossible and cannot be done until the individual and its alter is ready to deal with that trauma.
The reality is that living with DIDs is not easy. Being a fully functioning member of society while suffering with DIDs is that much more difficult, because of the challenges which losing time and memories and ‘lost’ triggering traumatic experiences presents.
Having a parent with mental illness can be physically and emotionally draining and it is important to look after yourself, first and foremost. On the other hand, it is also greatly rewarding being able to identify and embrace mental illness and being able to see first-hand that having a mental illness does not have to stop you from achieving any goals you set yourself. In my experience, it has helped to develop my own self-awareness and learn effective ways to deal with stress and anxiety, as well as support friends and colleagues who are suffering from anxiety or mental health issues.
My mother is the strongest woman I know and has taught me that it doesn’t matter what life throws at you, you can overcome anything.
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