This post is part of the month long series Same Situation, Different Faces. Normal posting resumes in April.
When doing research about DID in media and societal perception, I came across a number of sites with the misconception and romanticizing of DID as “spiritual possession”. As a Pagan site, I would like to mention this isn’t to say that possessions do not happen (they certainly aren’t frequent, of course) – just that Dissociative Identity Disorder is, frankly, not an expression of possession.
Dissociative Identity Disorder can be commonly romanticized by the belief that it is a supernatural function of the brain – just another way to show the bottomless depth of the human mind. Even in Split, the therapist of main character, Kevin, was trying to pitch DID as this amazing phenomena that can and should be unlocked…while clearly ignoring and sidestepping the continual toddler-hood/childhood abuse, neglect and horror that creates it. This is literally the logic of some corrupt university that reaaaally wants to create reputation-boosting “progress”, regardless of meddling nonsense such as “sensitivity”, “ethics” and “sanctity /protection of life”. This kind of thinking doesn’t acknowledge DID as a trauma disorder but as a “fascinating” mental construct that sounds straight out of movie.
This is pretty pervasive thinking. For example, in some places online, there are those who say they have endogenic systems, meaning they have a system of alters (alternate personalities) that are not borne from trauma but simply natural occurrence. This is fairly impossible because all disorders on the dissociative spectrum (Dissociative Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Dissociative Fugue) are basically mental defense mechanisms that go into overdrive, forcing the brain to rewire, forget or completely distance itself from the occurrence of trauma to survive the experience and resume whatever normalcy possible. All systems are traumagenic, derived from trauma. Either the person claiming “endogenic” either has zero recollection of their traumatic experience or crafted everything up from watching too much Red vs Blue and Steven’s Universe.
There are also those who believe in “system hopping”, the idea where an alter can go from one system to another like a ghost. This is intensely false. A dissociative system is unique to the person who has it, crafted by the trauma that made them. Various alters can not jump from one system to another. Simply can not happen. It’s like waking up with someone else’s hair growing out your head, excruciatingly not likely.
All these examples, they usually fall along the lines of what would be classified as the “supernatural”, the metaphysical, basically. It completely ignores the creation of trauma disorders – which is extended exposure to traumatic experience at a very young age, before 6-9 years old. Actually, it is a common trope in pop culture to show psychological problems as supernatural occurrences that either improves the human experience by creating super abilities or diminishes them by making the person an absolute monster. This is no different for DID. Actually, DID is used as a very common trope in media, regardless of whether it depicted as a super power or monstrous affliction.
As an aside, DID is also used commonly as an excuse in court by various people who want to duck their crime and the penalties it comes with via the Insanity plea. To say “It wasn’t me! It was my alter Susan!” Thing is, whenever someone says they’re too mental to stand trial, a psychologist verifies that – and usually finds the person very, very lucid. (Recent example: Dylan Roof. Said he snapped, got tested, found that he was very sane – just very, very racist and hateful – now facing the death penalty for consciously acting out a fantasy borne on Stormfront and 4chan in hopes to incite a “race war”) The thing about DID, you can be an Oscar-award winning actress/actor – there are a lot of other more little details that makes the disorder what it is because it is a disorder of hiding itself that the average person does not see. This is part of why the insanity plea works only 1% of the time and is a pain for lawyers when brought up.
Not to mention, depending by state, the Insanity plea does not promise the avoidance of prison or prison time. For some states, it could mean a person will be in a mental facility until sane enough to carry out their time. Altogether, being in a mental facility is not the same as being on vacation. Even if a person carried out the entirety of their sentence in a mental hospital, they are there involuntarily. So they will most likely have to take meds they disagree with, go through treatments they won’t like (such as electric-convulsive therapy) and have to stay there until a doctor deems them sane to leave…which can easily tack on days – just be annoyed from a normal circumstance, there you go, days added. If the person is not perky happy or completely zombified, they can wind up staying longer than anticipated, involuntarily taking meds and treatments. At least in prison, you can reason with the courts to get out early, not so for involuntary stays.
Back to the subject at hand, it is fine to believe oneself as a vessel for communicating with entities and spirits, there are several faiths and religions that includes this, generally described as shamanism. Dissociative Identity Disorder is not this at all. To engage in shamanism, while it varies by culture, tribe and their unique histories, it does not involve experiencing vast childhood trauma/abuse/neglect. It would be safe to say that no one would want to be a shaman if that were the case. Shamanism is an expression of ancestor reverence and interaction which is learned through practice, apprenticeship, study and in-depth cultural information. This is not inherently traumatic at all.
The disorder is not an act of possession, either. There is a concept in circles that have very cursory knowledge of things of possession and other acts of the occult that if the mind is under enough stress, it makes the person more susceptible to being possessed. This isn’t possession, this is a misunderstanding of the effects of trauma. Further more, the “demon” possessing the person usually seems pretty reoccurring to handle particular events, which is not exactly common in actual possession occurrences. However, if there is an utter lack of knowledge about the reality and validity of dissociative disorders and the effects of trauma, it makes sense the person with the disorder would feel “possessed” and others around them with a keen eye would assume it was also an act of possession, when, in reality, it is a psychologically induced response to intense ongoing trauma at a very young age.
A big reason why DID is seen with such “oh, this is the supernatural” perspective, is because of the lack of general understanding of how the disorder is even created. It looks supernatural at a glance because it certainly sounds unusual, the idea that one person could mentally become several. Then you have the fact that DID is still hotly debated in the psych community on whether it exists or not (it does, there is extensive data now). And because the disorder mainly tries to hide itself by making the person with it blend with the environments and societies they’re in, this means most people do not see DID in the regular world like they see it in film and media (no person with DID changes clothes multiple times a day and with the speed of a popstar on a world tour), so it sounds like a concoction of clever imagination and fantasy.
Then you have the name changes and the history of that alone. DID used to also be called Schizophrenia because Schizophrenia literally translates to “split mind”. However, Schizophrenia is different from Dissociative Identity Disorder, given one is a disorder of psychosis and the other is a disorder of dissociation. As time went on, DID went under a name change to classify its difference from Schizophrenia: Multiple Personality Disorder. In the 1980s, upon further research, Multiple Personality Disorder was renamed Dissocative Identity Disorder, to emphasize the dissociative basis of the disorder.
All in all, Dissociative Identity Disorder (as well as other disorders on the dissociative spectrum) is not an act of the supernatural, the mystical nor the metaphysical. It is not shamanism, it is not possession. It is a mental defense mechanism to help protect the brain from the realities of horrifying situations at a young age. It’s not an act of wonder, it an act of mental self-defense that is permanent and widely misunderstood.