This article was originally published on EverydayHealth.com by Denise Mann.
When Michelle Stevens, PhD, talks about dissociative identity disorder (DID), she brings a unique perspective to the table.
“I’m a psychologist, and I have it,” Dr. Stevens says. “I know DID from the inside out and the outside in.”
Stevens, 46, who practices in Pasadena, California, and serves as a consultant on the TV show Bates Motel, seemingly has it all today — a loving spouse and son, a thriving psychotherapy practice, and a memoir, Scared Selfless, slated for release in 2016. But her life wasn’t always this picture-perfect.
“I had severe depression throughout childhood and adolescence and tried to [kill myself] twice, which is what brought me into the mental health world,” she says.
It took many years, much therapy, and several hospitalizations before she was able to remember the trauma she’d suffered as a youngster and for doctors to accurately diagnose and begin to treat the DID when she was 32.
“Part of DID is that you don’t remember you were abused,” Stevens says. “I had no idea what I went through until I had graduated college and started having flashbacks.”
Who Gets DID?
Exactly what causes dissociative identity disorder is not fully understood, but up to one percent of the population may develop it, often in response to severe childhood trauma, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Like Stevens, people living with DID are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and even suicidal.
A person living with DID may have anywhere from 2 to 100 alternate identities, NAMI states. The average number is 10, and Stevens had about seven. Typically, these so-called alters develop to help the core personality cope with trauma, and what Stevens went through was nothing short of horrific. She was sexually victimized from age 8 through 14 in a child sex ring and developed an alter to help her cope with the rapes while they were happening.
“Not all alters have names or speak in different accents,” explains Elaine Beckwith, a psychologist and chief administrator at the Sanctuary Ranch in Okeechobee, Florida, a program that treats victims of sex trafficking. “Some are merely extensions of the core personality.”
Stevens’s personalities often emerged seamlessly. “I would repeatedly say, ‘I hate eggs and could never eat them,’ and then one morning order an omelet for breakfast,” she says.
After the Diagnosis, Healing
Having a dissociative identity disorder makes it hard to earn a living and maintain relationships. “My wife’s a saint,” Stevens says of her partner. They’ve been together 20 years and have a 9-year-old son. “She had always joked that I had multiple personalities, and she was right.”
Part of what often gets in the way of relationships and careers is that the alters are often at odds. “These are different people who have different agendas and different ways of protecting the core personality,” Stevens explains.
For her, treatment involved a lot of therapy, she says: “You need talk therapy to deal with trauma and to work out your trust issues.”
As Beckwith explains, “healing starts when the person begins to feel safe and the other personalities come out.”
And the can be lengthy, says Aaron Pinkhasov, MD, chairman of the department of behavioral health at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York. “We may need medication to help with anxiety and depression and allow these individuals to feel safe enough to open up,” Dr. Pinkhasov says. “It is important not to re-traumatize them, and it can take a long time.”
But recovery is possible.
“Once I realized I had DID,” Stevens says, “I began to heal.”