The term “dissociation” is a hot topic amongst those who study the brain. An example of dissociation that most of us can relate to is when you’re reading or scrolling through social media and you realize that your mind is elsewhere, that you haven’t actually absorbed the information in front of you. Some researchers have termed these momentary and fleeting moments “normative dissociation”. 

However, when dissociation begins to disrupt or interrupt the integration of behavior, memory, identity, consciousness, and more, so much so that a person loses recollection of random times in their day-to-day life, this might be a sign of a dissociation disorder. While some skeptics argue that these disorders are related to fantasy proneness and suggestibility, research supports dissociation as a psychobiological state that functions as a protective response to traumatic or overwhelming experiences

While there are three main dissociative disorders, the focus of this episode of Playing with Marbles is on dissociative identity disorder, or DID for short. DID is characterized by a person having two or more distinct identities as well as difficulties with remembering personal information, learned knowledge, or important parts of their childhood. Importantly, there is neurobiological evidence supporting DID as an extreme form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by exposure to severe and chronic trauma in childhood. One study investigating the link between different symptoms of DID and the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is important for memory, learning and emotion, found that those with DID who experience the symptom of dissociative amnesia (that is, issues with recalling information about yourself or events and people around) have reduced hippocampal volumes. This study also demonstrated an association between emotional neglect in childhood and reduced hippocampal volumes, suggesting an interplay of these factors in the severity of dissociation.

In this episode, our guest Nicole walks us through their experience with DID and introduces us to their different “parts” that they’ve named “Kay” and “Stripe”. You will hear about Kay, who acts child-like and plays with their cat, and Stripe, who, when they take over, causes Nicole to behave alarmingly and have lapses in memory. Shari Botwin, LCSW and Trauma Therapist, explains that, in many DID cases, these different parts can take on different personalities that embody the roles of a perpetrator, enabler or protector, they can have different genders, and even come from different age groups. Despite this, the switching from one part to another can still be subtle which can make DID hard to detect at times. Both Shari and Nicole present us with an uplifting perspective on DID that dissociating into different parts is the brain’s creative and protective way to survive in a situation that one might not have made it through was it not for this splitting into different parts. 

Shari Botwin's new book, Stolen Childhoods: Thriving After Abuse comes out May 7.

Fast Facts

Dissociative identity disorder affects up to 1.5% of the global population and is often diagnosed later in life.Dissociative identity disorder is typically associated with severe childhood trauma and abuse. Because of the way it presents, people with DID are often misdiagnosed with other disorders, like borderline personality disorder.Psychotherapy is the most prominent treatment for dissociative disorders. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication may help treat some of the mental health-related symptoms associated with DID, but there is no medication that specifically treats this disorder.

Support

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone.

If you are in immediate danger of harming yourself or others, call 9-1-1, or head to your nearest emergency room. You can also call or text 9-8-8 to reach the Suicide Crisis Helpline. Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Young people can chat anytime with Kids Help Phone by calling 1-800-668-6868. Services are available in English and French.

Wellness Together Canada provides one-on-one counselling, self-guided courses and programs, and peer support and coaching. Youth can contact this service by calling 1-888-668-6810 or texting WELLNESS to 686868. Adults can contact this service by calling 1-866-585-0445 or texting WELLNESS to 741741. You can also find credible articles and information on their website. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association can help you find resources, programs, or support for yourself or others. Find a CMHA branch in your area here

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health provides Mental Health 101 tutorials and online courses on their website. 

Multiplied By One provides a vast list of support, resources, and information for those who struggle with dissociative identity disorder, or those who are interested in learning more about the condition.