#EmergingProud throughTrauma and Abuse
I had my first ‘official’ episode of mental ‘illness’ in early 2014. I had spent 30+years in the insurance industry, most of which were in busy, highly paid, senior roles. Sometimes things had been stressful, but I felt at this point like my life, relationships and finances were in a good place, so I felt happy enough.
Then, from nowhere, I felt total exhaustion, like I had burned out of energy, so I took a week off work sick. As I started to relax into my week off and empty my mind of daily work issues, I noticed that I was seemingly losing chunks of time from my day. I couldn’t remember what I had been doing, where I had been, or conversations I had had. I took another week off work as this unexplained amnesia was obviously worrying me.
I started to look back over my life to see if I could establish any sort of pattern. Everyone used to joke that I had a terrible memory for recalling events from the past, things that everyone else would see as significant. Like being told by a friend that she’d been raped – it had just disappeared from my mind. The only periods of amnesia I could definitely point to were the times when I was very drunk, where I would have memory blackouts and wonder the next day what I had done the night before. However, I had given up alcohol the previous year, so it could not be related to that. I recounted events, including those that had not involved alcohol, and found that I had huge chunks of memory missing.
The next things that happened were so distressing that I lost all ability to cope with life on my own without 24 hour support. The blackouts continued, but I started to find out, through evidence of text conversations, or my partner recording me talking, that there was another side to me – an alter personality, in fact two. One I identified as a bolshy but naïve and immature female, who I named Sandy, and the other a protective male, who I named Joe. I developed severe anxiety. I also developed Obsessive Thinking, a form of OCD where imagined thoughts become real. As I saw myself as broken and bad, my imagination ran wild! I saw my mind as driving me mad. I was a complete mess, in tears most of the time, not sleeping other than having terrible nightmares, and at a loss for how to continue with life.
After researching, I believed that I was suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID is a severe and complex psychological condition caused by childhood trauma.
My Dissociative Friend
When I find I can take no more
my mind opens up a protective door
that I step through to keep me sane
and help me play his vicious game
A friend I create to take the pain
takes my place again and again
And though deep down I know it’s me
when she is there I cannot see
or feel, or speak, or cry, or bleed
She is the only friend I need
Without her I know I’d have to die
to escape the man I can’t deny
THE CRITERIA FOR DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER IN THE DSM-5 IS:
- Two or more distinct identities or personality states are present, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment and self.
(According to the DSM-5, personality states may be seen as an “experience of possession.” These states “involve(s) marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in affect, behaviour, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning.”
- Amnesia must occur, defined as gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information and/or traumatic events. (The criteria for DID newly recognises that amnesia doesn’t just occur for traumatic events but, rather, everyday events, too.)
- The person must be distressed by the disorder or have trouble functioning in one or more major life areas because of the disorder.
- The disturbance is not part of normal cultural or religious practices.
- The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (such as blackouts or chaotic behaviour during alcohol intoxication) or a general medical condition (such as complex seizures).
I seemed to be at the worst end of the scale but, as DID is a little known or understood reaction to trauma, I had trouble getting people to believe me, even people in the mental health profession. I went on long-term sick from work, my partner took compassionate leave, and ultimately had to leave his job, to care for me. It was dangerous for me to be left alone, as I did not know what triggered me switching, or what I did when I was in these alter personalities. I went to my GP. She did not understand. I got referred for 5 different psychiatrist assessments, having to go through my story each time. They diagnosed me with various things, even though my symptoms exactly matched the diagnosis for DID. What I told them was not always believed and this was extremely distressing, making me feel so much worse. At one stage I was even signed off and told there was nothing they could do to help me! I attempted to get sectioned as I was that desperate, but they did not take me in, as I had not attempted suicide. I felt suicidal but because I was (as one report described me) ‘well-groomed and coherent’, they did not think me bad enough. It takes, on average, 7 years for people to achieve the correct diagnosis when struggling with DID symptoms. In mental health services, what I needed to help me heal, or at least manage my condition, was long-term help from a psychologist but, although this was promised to me after each assessment, it was not forthcoming and months went by. DID was taking over and destroying my life. I made a complaint to the CEO of the local mental health trust and it was only then, after a year of trying, that I got the help from a psychologist that I needed.
I am a problem-solver. Whilst I was waiting for professional help, I wanted to get to the bottom of what was happening to me. I was desperate to get ‘better’. I researched and read self-help manuals. I read stories from other people with DID and it helped me to identify with that and realise I was not alone. I got to understand DID inside out and I started to do some of the things that were suggested: to establish contact with my alters, find out what their purpose was and what they represented about me, and to start bringing my fractured mind and personality together.
In meditation to try and connect, I started to recover childhood, as well as more recent, memories. My childhood had been a difficult one: an alcoholic but loving father who ‘abandoned’ me when I was 5, poverty, an emotionally stunted mother, a psychotic step-father, domestic violence, difficult teenage years, etc. I thought I had dealt successfully with my past by blocking it out and moving on, making something of my life. My younger sister had always claimed that the step-father we lived with from my age 7 to age 11, sexually abused us. My relationship with her was strained, as I did not believe this, had little sympathy, and felt that she used this as an excuse for what I saw as any failures in life. Whilst I recalled the blackness of that period with him, the fear I felt around his unpredictability in terms of disciplining us and him frequently hurting my mum through violent attacks, plus his odd behaviour when it came to nudity and bathing, I did not recall any sexual abuse. UNTIL THEN.
I started to understand that I had had my alters, Sandy and Joe, since I was a child. My mind had created them to escape the abuse and to protect me from people around me that, at the time, were hurting me very badly (it wasn’t just my step-father who abused me). Sandy took my place for the abuse and Joe was responsible for the angry outbursts I had when I was younger, which had turned into panic attacks in more recent years. Instead of seeing my alters as the problem, I saw them as a gift, but a gift that I needed to help me survive my childhood and one that I could now cope without.
My sister and I had told no-one about this sexual abuse before and she had ended up dealing with things in her own way, sadly isolating from me and our family. However, I was able to corroborate the memories I was now getting with my sister’s own memories of events, so this told me they were real. It also brought us closer together again.
I finally started to get the help I needed through the NHS and I saw a great psychologist for weekly sessions over 9 months. By the time I started to see her (a year after my first symptoms) I had developed a huge insight into my own illness and so our focus was on establishing what triggered my dissociative episodes. Anxiety around men, particularly men I saw as having some sort of power over me, like bosses at work, or men who were very confident and demanding, and feeling like I was put in a position of having to please a man, was one trigger. This is when Sandy would appear, as she did with my abusers when I was young. Another was when I felt challenged, threatened or criticised. The time with my step-father had made me into a perfectionist because getting anything wrong or not doing any work well enough would trigger his violent outbursts. I therefore handled personal criticism very badly. This is when Joe would appear.
I saw through all of this how I had developed into the person my main abuser, my step-father, had wanted me to be. I was emotionally dysfunctional. Nothing I did felt sincere or heartfelt. I had little real passion or compassion. I didn’t see myself as a nice person, although everyone thought I was because I had learned as a child how to please others. I saw clearly for the first time how my time with him, and the abuse I suffered, had created so much of how my life had turned out, including what I chose to do as my job and how I behaved in my relationship with myself, others and the world around me.
Maintaining My Self-worth
It’s important that I please you
important that you see
that I’m a good compliant woman
so that you will deign to like me
It’s important that you notice
my attractiveness and wit
intelligence and maturity
and that I am sexy with it
For without your endorsement
my worth amounts to nowt
I therefore sell my soul to you
so my self-worth can out
I worked with the psychologist, creating scenarios for me to practice in real life, but in a protective environment, gradually increasing exposure to what would normally be the problems that triggered me dissociating and switching. I also had work to do on relationship boundaries and to release suppressed emotion, recognising that it was OK to be vulnerable and to feel and express emotion, that sometimes I would be hurt and that it was OK to admit I couldn’t cope and seek support.
I also continued meditating and re-connecting with my alters and my scary memories, recognising that I was now safe from what I then feared. I convinced my alters (who I came to see as individual spirits sent to help me when I was a child) that there was no need for us to be separate and that it was safe to integrate. I became stronger and stronger and my problems started to disappear. I have not had a dissociative episode now for 3 years. I have found myself in stressful or upsetting situations since, but I have learnt how to deal with them.
Despite my employers being very supportive for a long time, I eventually lost my job. During that period, I lost my relationship with my daughter, which I have since thankfully regained. I lost my house and the financial security I had put such importance in. I lost my sanity for a good while.
I am, however, grateful for this troubled journey. In the process of all of this, I found myself. With it, I found my emotion, my compassion, my love for those close to me, particularly my partner, Ash, who supported me through my dark times. I found out who my true friends are (not so many but some surprising ones), those who believed what I was saying and stood by me. I have become closer with my sister. I have completely transformed myself as a person and now feel like who I am and how I behave flows naturally from me. I was freed from the confines of the personality that my abuser had created and could finally, at age 48, start to live my life as it should have been.
I wanted to use my experience and new-found knowledge to help others and found that I had a particular compassion for young people suffering from trauma and emotional distress. I networked with others in mental health circles. I found out what gaps existed in local provision and I wanted to put something in place to fill those gaps. I invested what I had left of my savings and used this opportunity to create a social enterprise to help young people with counselling for emotional distress and, although this could not financially support me, I feel very happy that it has helped many young people cope better with the problems in their lives. I am very hopeful that their course in life will have altered through this intervention and they will not go on to develop worse outcomes, like I did.
I find it difficult to work within any sort of system now, especially in commercial business, because most jobs don’t allow for people to be authentic; after years of not being true to myself, I find it hard to pretend any different. I have also found it difficult getting a job because of the fear from employers of any person with a mental health history. I am grateful to the Missing Kind charity for employing me when no others would. This has brought me into contact with Katie and the wonderful work she is doing through the #Emerging Proud movement.
Ultimately, I feel as if I have come through so much and this has given me a sense of the strength and resilience I did not know that I had. I also know that everything that has happened to me has happened for a reason and has made me into the person I am; a person I am much happier being. That I can go forward using my experiences to help others, which is what my aim in life now is. My experience tells me that we can all become who we ought to have always been, that we need to keep going, despite any hardships and struggles to get to that point.
Whilst going through the pain of this process, I also found my passion for writing, which I used as part of my healing and which I hope will be what I do with my longer term future. I have written a lot of poetry, some short stories and have started a novel with my partner Ash. I am in the process of seeking the best way to publish my writing for the least financial outlay (any help or tips most appreciated 😊). I have found a belief in myself and my writing and I hope that what I write will help people going through similar struggles.
I am extremely excited to be supporting Katie with the work involved in putting together the #Emerging Proud Book Series, and for some of my poetry to feature in these books.
And I hope that, by reading my story and finding the right support, other people going through similar, will find the peace they deserve.