Split: I am Not a Horror Movie
The media are a potent force. It can influence, mislead, change perceptions, and even stir up intense feelings, like fear.
When I think about the media and fear, I think about M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split, a horror flick about a man with twenty-three different personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls. It is a film that strikes me not just for its thrilling content, but for its overwhelming false implications about Dissociative Identity Disorder. I remember the first time I watched the trailer for this movie; it was triggering. I remember how as I watched it, a familiar feeling crept up in me. The feeling didn’t make sense - it struck me as a feeling that wasn’t my own. I don’t remember anything in the few hours following that. Up until the movie came out, there were innocent posts on my Facebook feed, like, “I can’t wait to see Split! I love horror movies and DID is my favorite diagnosis!” and up crept that feeling.
As I said, that feeling is a familiar one, but it isn’t mine- it belongs to one of sixteen personalities living inside me.
I have been diagnosed with a disorder known as DID. Dissociative Identity Disorder is defined by Psychology Today as “a severe condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual”.
DID is rare, but probably not as rare as we think. Most people receive this diagnosis between the ages of 25 and 40, usually after an average of seven other diagnoses that never really “fit.” A diagnostic test exists, but the goal of a person’s system is to hide. It’s difficult to spot, because, for instance, people like me are often “high functioning”. We are literally built to compartmentalize to survive.
Although Split is an example of a movie that inappropriately and inaccurately shows a person living with DID, the media isn’t necessarily always misleading when it comes to demonstrating disorders. I watched all three seasons of The United States of Tara. It’s overdramatized for the sake of entertainment, but overall it is pretty accurate (and funny, too!). Tara Gregson is a mother, a wife, and a student, but her life is anything but normal. She lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder, but not once is she painted as a monster or a terrifying figure. She is not the content of nightmares, nor is she a creature that should be feared- she is simply a human being living with a disorder. Tara Gregson is a character on a television show, but she is also a source of hope to people like me.
At the heart of Dissociative Identity Disorder is dissociation. According to Mental Health America, dissociation is defined as “a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity”. Most people dissociate; it’s normal. But like Tara, I dissociate to the extreme. However, also like Tara, I am in a loving, healthy marriage. I am raising a happy and well-adjusted little girl, I wrote a children’s book about coping, I just finished my bachelor’s degree and graduated with honors in psychology and social violence.
I look normal. My family looks normal. But I don’t have a circle of friends. I don’t go out in public for long periods of time because I’m afraid someone will see a switch in my personality. I go to therapy - a lot. Luckily, I don’t switch sporadically. I switch in response to triggers. A trigger can be a place, a smell, a type of social situation - anything. As unpredictable as it sounds, I know myself and trust my system.
Things like switching and dissociation have left me very ostracized from elementary school into adulthood. Everywhere I went I felt like an alien. If I let people in, they are usually afraid they will say the wrong thing and just cut all contact. People on the outside see small or huge gaps in memory, minor or major changes in my voice or the content of what I say. So, really, I don’t look like I have DID; I just appear as maybe a little flighty. But my scars are well hidden most of the time. They are hard to hide because there are hundreds - but I don’t remember making almost any of those scars. I’ve tried to kill myself on a couple occasions, due to my diagnosis- but I don’t remember it. I would just wake up the next day, feeling totally fine.
On occasion, we might get a texter who claims to have DID. Maybe they even claim a switch during a convo. In short - it doesn’t matter. Whether a texter truly has DID or not is irrelevant. Who you are taking to is a person. Maybe even a part, or an alter (or alternate identity). It doesn’t matter. The person you are talking to is in crisis and needs exactly the same kind of love and compassion you would put into anyone else. Every one of my parts is as real and as whole as the part of me writing this right now - they just all have their own set of strengths, weaknesses, triggers, problems in life, joys in life, and so on. I may not feel normal, and I have to think ahead for situations so I don’t cause a show (for example, it’s a bad idea for me to get on an airplane), but every single part of me is normal and their emotions make sense, given what they went through - even if I can’t fully connect with them. My therapist and husband see this - they just love who is in front of them in that moment.
What I am writing is only scratching the surface of what DID is, but I want to say it all. Only a handful of people know, but today I am “coming out” in hopes it will help someone. If this helps one Crisis Counselor be less afraid of handling a conversation with a seven year old in a twenty-eight-year-old’s body, or one texter feel validated for who they are as an individual part, my mission is accomplished and this was worth it.