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A Documentary Explores Dissociative Identity Disorder

Gracia Lam
Mar 22 2021

Jane Brody

Twenty-eight-year-old Marshay refers to herself as “the Little One” and says she feels as if she was born six years ago. Her mother knows something really bad must have happened to her when she was very young, although she doesn’t know what happened. When she asks her daughter why she thinks she’s still a small child, Marshay answers, “I don’t remember anything. I don’t want to grow up. I want to stay little.”

Marshay’s brain periodically seeks a safe haven, a persona where she feels immune to some horrific abuse she apparently suffered early in life. She has other identities as well who “come out” when provoked by certain triggering events and she needs these alternate identities to feel safe.

Marshay is one of several people with dissociative identity disorder who are featured in a new documentary called “Busy Inside,”available on public television’s World Channel: America ReFramed. It can be watched free online through April 15. She is among a surprising 1 percent of the population with this psychiatric condition, formerly called multiple personality disorder, which was famously portrayed decades ago in films like “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil.” It mostly affects women.

The new film shows the challenges involved in learning to live with the disorder. Still, most of those affected never seek professional help until and unless their lives become unmanageableKaren Marshall, Marshay’s therapist, a licensed social worker, also has the disorder, and told me that 17 different personalities inhabit her psyche and can emerge from time to time. She suffered severe sexual and physical abuse as a young child at the hands of her mother, and said she experienced tremendous relief when she died “and couldn’t hurt me anymore.” She says her own trauma, and the ways she learned to manage it, has helped her be an effective therapist.

Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist who gave the disorder its modern name, explained, “We develop our identity in childhood, and if you’re abused by someone who is supposed to love and protect you, you try to detach yourself from” that abusive situation. “In extreme forms, you assume other identities. It becomes a disorder.” The hippocampus, a part of the brain that deals with stress, may shrink and cause an extreme sensitivity to stress hormones, he said.

Early in life when the brain can’t handle something, “it puts it in a little box in the brain,” Ms. Marshall said. Then something else it can’t handle goes into another compartment in the brain, and so forth, resulting in some people developing different personalities, any of which can take over for a time.

A woman in the film named Sarah who has seven or eight identities describes her childhood trauma as being in a freezing cold basement with few clothes on and two men grabbing at her while others stood around laughing. “I can see this happening but I can’t stop it,” she recalls. “The monster keeps coming out, obliterating everything.”

In the documentary, Ms. Marshall encourages Marshay to accept herself as an adult woman with many facets, saying reassuringly, “We all have different roles, and we all wear different masks in a way.”

For those with the disorder, when an alternate identity takes over, the person may lose track of time and have no memory of what the other personality did while it was “out.” Ms. Marshall said one woman she treated had an alternate personality who was a shoplifter and when she reverted to her main identity, had no idea how she had acquired all the things in her apartment.

Dissociative identity disorder is both underdiagnosed and often misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety disorder and consequently mistreated, Dr. Spiegel said. Once affected individuals acknowledge that they have a problem, it takes an average of six years for them to learn what is causing their symptoms if they should seek help, Dr. Spiegel said.

Some people with the disorder never do, and somehow manage to live normal lives until and unless something very stressful causes their alternate identities to take over and disrupt their ability to function. For example, Ms. Marshall told me, one person in the film performed well as a company executive for many years until a family trauma so unnerved her that her identities split, very hostile and disabling personalities emerged and she could no longer do her job.

Dr. Spiegel said some people with the disorder “are afraid of treatment or ambivalent about it; they don’t believe I’m here to help them because, based on their history, they see helpers as potentially harming them.”

Alternate identities can also emerge at the same time, as if the person is two people who oppose one another. The identities develop specialized roles, coming out under certain circumstances, Dr. Spiegel said. For example, one identity may “protect” against another that might be aggressive or harmful. The protective identity may think, “I’m going to stay out while so-and-so is around,” he said. As Ms. Marshall explained, people can have one or two identities that act as gatekeepers, keeping the others inside.

In treatment, by identifying and emphasizing the person’s core values and beliefs, the person’s adult identity that enables them to function normally can learn to take over for identities that are distressing or troublemakers, Ms. Marshall said.

Her approach to treatment does not necessarily try to rid people of their alternate identities unless, of course, that’s what they want to accomplish. Rather, she said, they may learn to use their alternates constructively so they can live a normal life as an adult in society.

Also helpful is learning to recognize circumstances that can prompt a distressing identity to emerge and temporarily replace the adult persona. Ms. Marshall said she has learned, “If I’m tired or sick or stressed, I can end up splitting,” and a childlike personality emerges.

As in post-traumatic stress disorder, people with multiple identities can have flashbacks and experience their abuse all over again. Ms. Marshall said, “I don’t watch shows about child abuse.” In treating dissociative identity disorder, she said, “I try to get the ‘Little Ones,’ who were traumatized, to know they’re safe, that they’re not going to be hurt again.”

Dr. Richard P. Kluft, a psychiatrist in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., focuses therapy for the disorder on providing “good, caring, nurturing, comforting support” that helps patients feel safe. “The mind starts to heal in the face of loving care,” he said. Both he and Dr. Spiegel often use hypnosis to facilitate therapy and teach patients how to calm themselves down with self-hypnosis between sessions.

For patients reluctant to leave behind their “rich inner world,” Dr. Kluft says he welcomes all parts of their personality, helping their various identities learn to empathize with and respect one another.

Ms. Marshall said that as people with multiple identities start to get healthier, “they can look at what they’re feeling and experiencing and then make a different choice. They can learn to use their alternates constructively so they can function in society as an adult person,” which Marshay is gradually learning to do.