Let me just make this clear: you’re probably not crazy, even if it feels that way sometimes. Being at odds with yourself, about changing your career or getting a tattoo, or whether the guy you are texting right now is a narcissistic jerk or the love of your life, doesn’t qualify you as crazy. Even having an animated conversation with yourself, doesn’t count. Talking to ourselves is so common that it’s become a standard gag. At least I don’t answer myself back, we say. But people who talk to themselves scare us just a little, as if they call into question our own well designed veneer. Who are they talking to? Split personality became a source of fascination through vintage Hollywood movies watched at 2am, like “The Three Faces of Eve,” (1957) about a woman with three separate personalities. People who saw Hitchcock’s “Psycho” 20 years ago still get anxious in the shower once in a while; shadowy images capture our imagination. We all have odd moments when we are so internally conflicted that we feel like we are coming unraveled, splitting in two. Is split personality science fiction, or is it real?
It’s real. The good news is that it’s very rare. The proper name for the condition of having multiple personalities is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I’ve seen perhaps two clients who really had distinct alternate personalities, and lots of therapists have never met even one; in fact, therapists continue to talk to themselves about what it means. We don’t know much, but we do know what it’s not.
If you have a sweet, vulnerable side and an angry, sarcastic side, what do you call that? Being complicated. We sometimes hold back unwelcome emotions until we can’t anymore, and when they burst forth, people are startled, and think somebody they don’t know has entered the room. That may be true, but it’s you they don’t entirely know. If a part of you agrees with the religious or political tradition you grew up with, and a part of you is drawn to a different path, one your family would find alarming, what do you call that? Ambivalence. There are moments in our life when we are pulled in two directions, and they are not reconcilable. This condition is poignant and difficult, and we may feel torn, but there is still a single self who suffers.
Dissociative Identity Disorder is a condition in which it feels like two separate people live in the same body. They may have entirely different habits, beliefs, wardrobes, and handwriting. One may not like the other very much. Generally, people with DID have undergone a terrible trauma in their early lives, so severe that to tolerate it, they became emotionally separate, while being physically stuck in place. They have a difficult journey, but they, too, are not crazy, in the commonly used sense of being psychotic, eg schizophrenic, with its paranoid delusions. (Actually, crazy is not a clinical term at all.)
We all contain a multitude of desires and beliefs, and if we are honest, we are not consistent. This can lead to agonizing choices, and struggles to find our true path. But, fortunately, we do have a single editor of the story of our lives. It’s a tough job, and a tantalizing one.