I remember when the voices started. We lived in Port Arthur, Texas and I was in second grade. At first, they didn’t talk *to* me, they just talked *about* me. “She walks to her bedroom and switches on the light, then she sits down on the bed to read a book.” They kept up a running commentary on my actions. It was annoying at first, but I don’t remember being scared. I wasn’t old enough to realize that other people didn’t have narrators inside their heads.
When I was in the fourth and fifth grade I was depressed and anxious. I was always afraid and didn’t know why. Sometimes the voices said mean things to me; sometimes they described terrible things that were going to happen to me. I had trouble sleeping and often had my mother up half the night, sitting with me in the bathroom because I was afraid I would be sick. She asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t know.
My parents divorced when I was 13 and I struggled with a much deeper depression. I wasn’t suicidal, but I did hurt myself, and my poor mother didn’t know what to do. I finally told her I wanted to see a psychiatrist; he put me on an antidepressant, and later, when I finally mentioned hearing voices, an antipsychotic as well. Oddly enough, it had little effect on the voices I heard, and I assumed that was because they were inside my head, not outside. Eventually I started feeling less depressed and stopped the medication, but the voices never quite went away.
Through high school, college, marriage, and two children I continued to have episodes of depression and of course the ubiquitous voices. In college I took psychology courses and what I learned scared me. Most people who heard voices were schizophrenic, they said. At that time there weren’t as many antipsychotic drugs available as there are today, and my concept of schizophrenia seemed frightening and hopeless. But hearing voices wasn’t all that was required for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, so I concluded that my voices were caused by something else. I had become friendly with some of them, but at the same time another distressing symptom had developed: I occasionally found myself someplace strange or realized that I had bought something I didn’t remember buying. When this happened my biggest concern was my two children. Had I taken care of them properly while I was “asleep”? Was I mean to them? I learned to ask questions cautiously, and could usually get a basic idea of what had happened.
This continued for more than 15 years. My mood was a roller coaster ride – I had periods of extreme excitement and activity, followed by longer periods of sadness and hopelessness. I came to realize that I probably had bipolar disorder, but it took three more years for me to be diagnosed officially. I knew that bipolar could be associated with psychosis, so I thought maybe that explained the voices.
Finally, when I was 43 years old, an event occurred that showed me the truth about the voices I had heard since childhood. I saw a therapist once a week, and one day she showed me a note that had been left on her office door, signed “Violet.” “Do you remember writing this?” she asked casually. I quickly replied that I didn’t. She explained why she thought the note was from me, but she could tell how uneasy I was with the subject, so we went on to something else.
I tried not to think about it, but it nagged at me. The implication was obvious – those voices I had heard almost all my life came from other personalities in my head! In the past it was called MPD or multiple personality disorder; currently the name is Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID. I tried to deny, to escape the idea that I had this disorder. Maybe they were imaginary friends. Maybe I made them up on purpose. Maybe I was just playing tricks on myself. Maybe…
But none of the “maybes” seemed reasonable. Two months later I found myself in the Trauma Unit of a psychiatric hospital, where DID as well as other consequences of trauma (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) were treated. I had individual therapy 3 times a week, and it didn’t take the psychologist long to determine that I did have multiple personalities, because he talked to them. I was in shock, even though I had known it was a possibility. You could say I had a mini-nervous breakdown, right there in the hospital where it was safe.
Gradually I started to talk to them when I desired, rather than waiting for them to talk to me. I had conferences in my head, where we all sat around a “table” and discussed issues like the trauma I had experienced in the past and the difficulties I had in the present. I learned more about them so I could work with them rather than against them.
Dissociation usually happens when a very traumatic event occurs. If trauma continues for an extended period of time, the personality can fragment over and over again, producing many “alters,” who are often stuck in the age at which they developed. I had a number of alters who were young children, as well as some teenagers and adults. Child alters need reassurance, need to know that they are being heard and that notice has been taken of their pain. I found that most of my extreme emotional behaviors, such as throwing a tantrum when I was angry, came from my children inside.
Dissociative disorder is a controversial diagnosis. Many people, including psychiatrists, believe it does not exist. They think that therapists produce “alters” – as well as false memories of trauma – through leading questions. In my situation, it is a moot issue whether or not my traumatic memories are completely true or not, because those who caused the trauma are now gone. There is no question of confrontation or legal proceedings.
I can´t prove that there are other personalities in my head, but I do know that getting to know my alters has made my life happier and more successful. And the way I see it, that´s the most important criteria of all.