When the Mind Splits 

Dissociative identity disorder affects millions of people, most of whom are former child abuse victims. Why do some psychologists doubt that the condition even exists?


At first, the fire trucks sounded distant, but then the blaring horns grew louder. Elyse Winter-Volkova became distressed. It was a sunny afternoon in September, and we were seated at the outdoor patio of a small coffee shop a few blocks away from the San Leandro BART station. It was the first time I had met Elyse, a 21-year-old San Leandro woman, and we had been talking for nearly two hours — about her childhood; her unconditionally supportive mother; her partner, Ben; her struggles in college; her goal of becoming a psychologist; and the tattoos she hoped to get.

When we began our conversation, Elyse was warm and friendly, at times goofy and giggly, immediately talkative, and happy and eager to share stories of her life.

Then the fire trucks came.

"Oh god," she said, as the sirens intensified. She turned her head in the direction of the noise, trying to figure out if the emergency vehicles were headed our way. "Where is it? Oh wait, there it is. Ahh, do not turn down here. God!"

Elyse buried her head in her hands on the table. A moment later, the deafeningly loud fire trucks came speeding down our block. Finally, after about ten seconds, the sirens faded into the distance.

"I'm sorry," I said, awkwardly breaking our silence as she lifted her head from her arms.

She looked irritated and angry and stared at me with a disarmingly cold glare. "It's not like you control it," she quipped, before gesturing to herself and saying, "Mae."

"Mae, hi," I replied.

"Loud noises are a huge trigger," she said.

One more loud fire truck sped by. But this time, she didn't bury her head or even flinch. Mae was unfazed.

At that point in our conversation, I already knew that Elyse suffers from dissociative identity disorder, the condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder. The alarming sound of the sirens had caused Mae — one of Elyse's main "alters," the term she uses to describe her different identities or personalities — to take control of her body. In her "system" — meaning her collective group of alters — Mae is the "protector." That means Mae often comes out when Elyse or any other alter feels threatened or upset.

In fact, shortly before the sirens sounded, Elyse was describing Mae in detail to me while discussing how important it is to her that the people in her life treat each alter with respect. When people are dismissive of her system or her disorder, Mae comes forward, she said.

"Mae will kick their ass," Elyse joked. "Because she's like, we deserve respect. ... We deserve basic human compassion, you know?"

When the Mind Splits from Bert Johnson on Vimeo.

After the switch, I finished the rest of our conversation with Mae, who has a slightly deeper voice than Elyse and a more sarcastic and dry sense of humor. Mae doesn't smile often. But she echoed Elyse's comments about the importance of people accepting her, albeit a bit more directly: "Respect is important," Mae said. "We're people and we deserve it. And if anyone doesn't respect even one alter, they're in trouble with me."

I met Elyse a few weeks after she sent me an email, stating that she has was trying to find a journalist to help her raise awareness about dissociative identity disorder, or DID (pronounced D-I-D), a misunderstood and stigmatized condition that is far more common than most people realize. Elyse was officially diagnosed with DID two years ago at Stanford University Medical Center, but she said she has had the condition for much longer.

"The majority of the public knows little to no correct information about DID, and even those in the professional field of psychology debate whether or not this disorder is even real," Elyse wrote to me over the summer. "But it is. It is very, very real, and so I am working hard to spread awareness."

Research has increasingly demonstrated that DID is a trauma-based disorder that typically emerges among people who have experienced childhood sexual or physical abuse. Dissociation occurs when people mentally detach themselves from their surroundings, a common coping mechanism for a child victim of abuse. When the abuse continues over a period of time, that dissociation can become extreme and lead the victim to develop distinct, dissociated parts of himself or herself that exist to withstand the abuse.

Experts on DID say that roughly 1 percent of the population suffers from the condition, making it as common as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Yet despite this prevalence, the condition remains under-researched and highly controversial, with some psychologists continuing to express doubts about the legitimacy of the disorder.

The result, DID researchers and advocates say, is that victims of trauma can be revictimized by a mental healthcare system that is deeply and unjustifiably skeptical of them. In some cases, sufferers may be misdiagnosed and given treatment and medications that only do more harm. And few therapists are properly educated about the disease.

In the same way that society can be quick to blame rape survivors or assume they are lying, people with DID, who have been victimized in the most unimaginable ways, are also regularly dismissed as fakers and subsequently fail to get the support they need to overcome their traumas. And this struggle is only further exacerbated by deeply ingrained stigmas about mental illness as well as sensationalized stereotypes in film and television, which often portray people with "multiple personalities" or "split personalities" as violent psychopaths.

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