9 Things I Learned About Supporting a Loved One With Dissociative Identity Disorder
A guide to building healthy relationships with DID/OSDD systems
Each of us has our own scars and battles. Unfortunately, some people have to face disastrous events at a very young age. Events that are perceived as overwhelming in the eyes of little children might cause their brain to develop a new, different personality (“alter”) which is able to better cope with the situation. That is how dissociative identity disorder is formed. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), is a mental disorder characterized by “a) the presence of two or more distinct personality states or an experience of possession and b) recurrent episodes of amnesia.” WebMD states that “As many as 99% of individuals who develop dissociative disorders have recognized personal histories of recurring, overpowering, and often life-threatening disturbances or traumas at a sensitive developmental stage of childhood (usually before age 6).” Otherwise specified dissociative disorder (OSDD) is similar to DID, the most common subtypes being DID without amnesia or with less distinction between alters.
I discovered that a close friend of mine had DID 5 years ago. Due to my lack of knowledge on the disorder at the time, I wasn’t very supportive and just wanted things to go back to normal. But as time progressed, I looked up resources, found support groups and have enjoyed learning from lived-experience stories everyday. If you have a close one who experiences DID, it can be quite disorienting at first, but over time, it can help open your perception and become more tolerant of differences. I applaud you for trying your best to support them. Showing trust and willingness to learn, practicing open communication are good ways to support others with various mental issues, especially with DID. Here are some tips to support a loved one with DID:
1) Do your research
Rid yourself of the common myths surrounding DID is a good first step to supporting your loved one. Many media content has portrayed people with DID as unstable and violent, going through. They also spread false myths such as DID causing obvious, extreme changes between different personality states. In fact, there are very few documented criminal cases linked to this disorder. People with DID are no more likely to commit acts of violence than the general population, but have a higher risk of being re-traumatized throughout their lives, due to their history of being abused. Since the disorder is a coping mechanism to prevent the individual from further trauma, many DID systems hide their condition to avoid danger. It’s important to find resources from credible sites, such as The Mighty, WebMD, etc. or YouTube educational videos from system vloggers. Taking the time to armor yourself with knowledge really shows your commitment to supporting your loved one, as well as your faith in their healing.
2) Find supportive communities
As I hadn’t met anyone with this DID when my friend’s alter came out, I felt confused and nervous about how I could support them. It was a real eye-opening experience when I joined a support group on Facebook, open to both people with DID/OSDD and their supporters. Through reading their stories of struggles, of healing, or just everyday funny anecdotes, I was familiarized with the terminology as well as how diverse systems can be. The members are very open-minded and compassionate, always ready to lend a shoulder. If I only learnt about DID through research articles, my view of the condition might be too technical to see the beauty of this community. There are web forums, Facebook groups, Reddit threads, to name a few examples.
3) Be mindful about their symptoms
DID is a complex disorder with various symptoms that can present differently in each person. It’s important to ask about their own experience with somatic sensations while switching, dissociation, amnesia, etc. as well as symptoms of any comorbid disorders they may have. According to DID Research, it’s commonly associated with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, etc.
4) Create a safe space
Each alter can have different interests, needs, opinions and attitudes than your loved ones’. While you might want to spend more time with the person you know and love, listening to their alters and treating them with respect can really facilitate system communication, avoid conflicts, thus help with the recovery process. The alters were created to help your close one survive to this day, so give them the love they deserve. Do not play favorites or always inquire who is out, it can be hard to tell when they are experiencing dissociation or co-conning (many personality states sharing consciousness at the same time). Not every alter will be friendly or courteous towards you, it’s important to give them time and be open-minded, as trust doesn’t come easy with those who have a traumatic past.
5) Embrace open communication
For any collectives, it’s not always easy to maintain harmony among everyone. Engaging in active listening as well as healthy conflict resolution can be helpful, as some alters can be highly defensive, emotional or trusting, depending on their history or role in the system. Respecting their boundaries and being attentive to their words is the bottom line for building good rapport with each alter.
6) Care for the minors
Littles (kid alters) are a common type of alters, representing the lost innocence of those who went through a difficult childhood. Littles usually share the same interests or level of knowledge as “outside” children (but that’s not always the case). Teenage alters are also common. That’s why even though they are in the body of an adult, it’s imperative that they be cared for with as much love and protection as you would care for any minor. If you are in a physical relationship with a system, never disregard consent and do anything inappropriate when a little or teenager is around. Just keep in mind that if it isn’t safe for “outside” minors, it isn’t safe for them.
7) Support them through therapy
If you’ve ever been doubted or dismissed by a medical professional, you might have experienced intense disappointment or felt like you were overdramatic with your health issues. Unfortunately, many systems are shunned by therapists, as they don’t believe DID or OSDD are real, they hold harmful myths towards these disorders, and try to integrate the alters into one personality. Look for signs of distress during the therapeutic process in your loved one and frequently check in on their progress with them. However, it’s important to keep their privacy in mind to maintain healthy relationships with the whole system.
8) Don’t forget about yourself
They say don’t pour from an empty cup, and in my opinion, that’s one of the most essential things to remember while supporting anyone. You deserve alone time and healthy boundaries to recharge and work on your own wellbeing. Trying too hard to be there for your loved one’s system might be counter-productive, as burnout leaves you irritable and exhausted. Furthermore, systems should take responsibility for the consequences of the actions of any members, DID is not an excuse for abusive behavior.
9) Spread awareness
The DSM-5 estimates the prevalence of DID at 1.5% (2013), which makes the disorder comparable to bulimia nervosa in young females, major depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, more common than autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Yet many people still hold misconceptions about DID being rare or unreal. I’ve seen many systems struggling to find supportive friends and partners. You can do small things to lessen the stigma surrounding it, such as speaking up when false myths are brought up, share informative articles or simply being an empathetic presence in your mental health community.
This article was written by Finley Nguyen. Finley is a queer mental health and LGBTQ+ advocate, verified listener and intern graduate with honors on 7 Cups of Tea. They started their listening journey in 2017, having lived experience with grief and supporting loved ones with various mental disorders, including dissociative identity disorder and psychosis. They aspire to be a good ally for members of marginalized groups, and to make others on 7 Cups feel safe and heard.