What the heck IS this? (start here)

My first therapist explained what MPD/DID is the best way I’ve ever heard it, so I’ll just repeat it here.

MPD stands for multiple personality disorder. DID (the newfangled term) stands for dissociative identity disorder. So let’s start with dissociation.

Dissociation means when your mind and body are working separately. For example, when you “space out” while driving and realize you’ve driven for a while without being conscious of it, that’s dissociation. It happens in normal people every day.

In very small children (usually under 10, but it can start in children up to 12), when something happens that is so terrible that their minds can’t deal with it, one defense mechanism is to dissociate. In this case it is a normal childhood reaction to an abnormal situation.

They tell me that most people remember things pretty much all along from when they’re pretty small up until they get pretty old, like this:

Maybe they’re fuzzy on things at either end, but if you asked them about something that happened when they were, say, six, they could tell you.

But what if, when you were six, you were attacked by a rabid dog and almost killed? (I’m just pulling this out of the air as an example) Such an unusual horrible occurrence, especially if the dog was known to be safe and friendly, could cause dissociation, like so:

See that part of the line that is pulled out? That’s the rabid dog attack. To keep the child from going insane from terror, he or she removes the memory from the normal timeline and puts it somewhere else. This allows the child to survive and grow up.

(BTW, all children don’t do this, and the ability to do this seems to be genetically based and associated with high intelligence and creativity. What happens to children in these situations who can’t dissociate, I don’t know, but I tend to think they end up worse off.)

A child who does this will not remember the dog attack when asked about it, and if the dog didn’t leave any marks, might not even believe that the dog attacked when told about it! It’s like the memory was literally lifted out of the child’s memory timeline.

But the memory never goes away.

What happens the next time the child sees a dog, especially one which is barking, showing teeth, jumping up, or in any way acting aggressively?

The part of the child that holds the terrifying dog memory kicks in to deal with the dog, who is seen as another potential threat, and the child will react in the same way they did in order to survive the horrifying rabid dog attack, whether it means screaming, running, fighting, or freezing in place (a common reaction to fear in children). These reactions are very similar to what you see in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since this is a dissociative response, however, the child may not remember having this reaction to the dog once the dog is gone.

Since a dog is a fairly common thing to see, over time this dog-memory-part of the child becomes used over and over, taking on a life of its own, with its own memories of repeated dog encounters, its own history, and eventually its own way of thinking and reacting to life.

This is how a “personality” (generally called an “alter”) is made.

If this was the only traumatic thing that happened to a person, and everyone knew the child had been attacked as a child by a dog, of course people would be understanding and eventually the child would get help about this without any stigma attached.

But suppose the trauma was repeated sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect. Suppose it was your parents, or a sibling, or a relative, or close family friend who did it. Suppose you were told you or your siblings or your pet would be killed if you told anyone. Suppose you were hit or shamed or blamed when you did tell, or told it never happened. Suppose the people who did it said that you were lying or crazy, and everyone believed them instead of you.

By the time you reached adulthood, your memory might be more like this:

Many times, people with traumatic-based MPD/DID have no memory of any trauma or abuse. As you can see, though, they don’t have much memory of anything else, either, because so many things trigger the move into one of their other alters’ memory files.

Memory problems are just one symptom of MPD/DID. Because every one of these memory-holding alters are reliving the terror of the traumatic memory, including a physical fight/flight response, people with MPD/DID often have physical problems like high blood pressure, stomach and intestinal problems, and headaches. Depression, anxiety, nightmares and sexual problems are also often common in those with MPD/DID.

Most people cite their mid-thirties as a time when these symptoms of chronic adrenaline overload and ever-worsening memory problems overwhelm their ability to cope. Also, this time is where many people who are later diagnosed with MPD/DID first begin to become aware of their abuse histories, either through flashbacks, nightmares, or suddenly remembering an event they never knew happened. Occasionally a sibling or relative will mention the abuse which brings back memories of an event.

The first reaction of just about everyone I’ve met with MPD/DID is to disbelieve what they’re remembering. If you consider that most child abuse happens at the hands of people the person loves and trusts, this isn’t surprising. Not to mention that alters often go to great lengths to keep the “front person” from knowing about the abuse in the first place, out of a misplaced idea that the person is still a child and can’t handle the truth.

So that’s the basics. If you have a question let me know, I’m making up a FAQ of questions I’ve heard along the way.



  1. Those graphics are terrific! That is the best visual explanation I’ve seen to explain DID.



  2. Fabulous. I don’t have DID, but I do have complex PTSD with dissociative features, and have spent a lot of time doubting my memories, inklings etc. Reading this and certain questions on your FAQ have really reassured me, so thank you. Would you mind if I quoted a few things (obviously attributed back here to you)? Either way, thank you – you’ve done a great job here 🙂

    Best wishes


    • Sure 🙂

      And thanks. I never know if my way of seeing things is anywhere near anyone else’s reality, so it’s good to hear at least someone can relate.

  3. […] author also provides one of the best explanations of dissociation that I’ve seen so far, and therein is a paragraph that is key to my current […]

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