Dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is a condition in which a person has two or more distinct personality states or identities. The person may or may not be aware of these different personalities, called alters. Different alters take control at different times, and the person may have memory loss during these times.
People with dissociative identity disorder (DID) may have as few as two alters or they may have 100. The average number is ten. Alters may be male or female and they may be all different ages. Sometimes alters are animals. Alters may have different physical characteristics- for example, some may be right handed while other are left handed, or some may need glasses while others do not.
Most, if not all, people with DID were severely abused as young children. Alters developed as a way of coping with the abuse. When the child could not cope with something, they developed an alter, another part of their mind, to deal with it. It is an ingenious coping skill.
As an adult, this coping skill can cause problems. As mentioned earlier, there can be periods of memory loss. People may find themselves in strange places without knowing how they got there. They may find items in their home with no memory of buying them. They may run into people who know them with no memory of ever meeting these people.
People with DID are frequently depressed. They may be suicidal at time and may self-mutilate. They frequently seek psychiatric help, but are often misdiagnosed. In fact, they are often "in the mental health system" for up to seven years before getting an accurate diagnosis.
DID is a controversial diagnosis. Although it is in the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual issued by the American Psychiatric Association and used to diagnose mental illness, some psychiatrists and counselors don't believe it exists. This further hinders people with the condition from getting the help that they need.
Treatment for DID is also controversial. Some believe that integration of all parts into one is the only treatment. Others believe that the goal of treatment should be communication and cooperation between all parts. Regardless of the final goal of treatment, communication and cooperation is certainly the starting point.
Different parts usually hold different memories of the abuse. As they come forward and share these memories, it can be a traumatic time for the host personality. Depression may initially increase and hospitalization may be required. Medication may be used to treat depression or anxiety, but there is no medication that treats DID itself.
It is important to note that, with treatment, people with DID are highly functional. The prognosis for people with DID is good.