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When the Mind Splits

Dissociative identity disorder affects millions of people, most of whom are former child abuse victims. Why do some psychologists doubt that the condition even exists?

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But critics say the doubts that some clinicians have about DID only make it harder for victims to come forward and get the help they need to survive.


Elyse realized she was different when she was in second grade. She was born in Banta, a tiny, unincorporated town in San Joaquin County about seventeen miles south of Stockton, and split her childhood between San Joaquin County and San Leandro.

"As a little kid growing up, I thought it was just normal for people to have other people in their heads who took over — that was all I knew," recalled Elyse, who today has bleached blonde hair, colorful tattoos on her neck and chest, and a number of face piercings.

When her friends role-played at school, she figured that they, too, had other personalities inside of them that were coming out. "When they were pretending to be other people, I actually thought they were other people, because that's what I was experiencing," she said. But in elementary school, friends told her it was strange that she would use different names — like Mae — and that's when she started to grasp that her situation was different.

Elyse said that she is certain now that she has had DID since she was a young child, and that she developed the condition as a way to cope with the extremely severe sexual abuse she suffered over many years. She and her mother, Renee Bergman, who she lives with today in San Leandro, both told me that Elyse, starting at a very young age, experienced repeated physical and sexual abuse by two family members. For years, the two family members molested and raped her frequently and one of them subjected her to intense verbal and psychological abuse, Elyse said. The Express has agreed to not identify the two family members who allegedly abused Elyse because Elyse and Renee said they're not ready to tell some other members of their family about the specifics of what happened.

Elyse did not tell Renee about the abuse until about two years ago. They both said that for many years, Elyse's DID helped her conceal the abuse from the people closest to her, including her mother.

When Elyse talked about her childhood, she interchangeably referred to herself in the first and third person, with both singular and plural pronouns. That's because, as Elyse explained it, the person she is the majority of the time today is not the same person she was for most of her life. Elyse, she said, is currently the "host" of her system, meaning that Elyse is the alter who spends the most time "out" or "fronting" — essentially the one in control of her body. But it wasn't always that way. For most of her childhood and teenage years, Blue was the host, not Elyse, she said. (Her family considered Blue a nickname and mostly called her by her birth name, Brittany. But she does not use that name now, and plans to legally change her name to Elyse soon).

Elyse recalled that her DID began causing serious problems for her at around age thirteen or fourteen when she started to suffer from periods of distressing memory loss. That is, certain alters would come out, but then when Blue, the host, returned, she would have no memory of what happened when other alters were in control. That became especially problematic when alters would behave badly — for example, by getting in fights with friends, which Blue would not remember the next day.

At one point in high school, Blue lost more than a full day, and when she came to, her computer was open to a page about dissociative identity disorder. Elyse now thinks that one of her other alters was trying to pressure Blue into acknowledging the disorder and to embrace the inner alters.

"I wanted to be normal so bad, but it's like you're not normal, dear," Elyse said. "If it's not convenient for your traumatized mind to know that you have DID, it's going to seal it off."

Eventually, Blue came to terms with DID and started speaking openly about it to some of her close friends, and at age nineteen, about two years ago, she decided to tell her mother about the disorder — and the unconscionable abuse she had experienced as a child.

In all of our interviews, Elyse was the most emotional when recounting how immediately supportive her mother was. "It was a lot to process, but she was, from the get-go, very understanding, very accepting. And I consider myself so lucky for that ... because a lot of people don't have even one parent or one person in their life who is accepting."

Renee, her 55-year-old mother, recalled the pain of learning about the extreme abuse her daughter had suffered: "It just puts you into a shock. It's almost like all thoughts leave your head and you don't even know what to think or feel and you just can't wrap your head around it." She didn't know anything about dissociative disorders at the time, but Renee said she never doubted her daughter.

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