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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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Soon after Blue told Renee about the abuse, they got an official diagnosis from a Stanford psychologist, which confirmed what they both already knew and provided them with formal documentation, which has been helpful for insurance purposes and doctors' appointments. Everywhere she goes, Renee carries a letter in her purse from Stanford that references her daughter's diagnosis, which she showed me on one of my visits to their house on a quiet street in San Leandro.

Renee said she has worked hard to accept her daughter and her alters, who started coming out more regularly after Blue opened up about her DID. When I asked Renee to recall when Elyse took over for Blue as the "host" role in the system, she struggled to find the words. Blue was going through a rough time and she started to disappear, Renee explained.

"Elyse came out, and Elyse kept staying out," Renee recalled. It was the first time she had met Elyse. At the time, she began to ask Elyse where Blue was, and Elyse would tell her: "She is still hurting. She is on the inside." After weeks of being gone, Blue finally reappeared — very briefly. At that time, Elyse was in the hospital at Stanford for a very bad migraine and Renee's mother, sister, and niece were also there for support.

"[Blue] said hello to each one of us. And I just started crying, because I hadn't seen her. She's my child. She's the one I raised, the one I knew," Renee recalled, in tears. "And she said, 'Oh mom, don't be upset.' She said: 'I love all of you, and I'm going to go back inside now.'"

Renee paused. "And I've never seen her again."

For Elyse, living with dissociative identity disorder today is very different than what it was when she was younger. For the most part, she doesn't suffer temporary amnesia anymore, and she said she and her alters can communicate fairly well with each other.

Citing an analogy she learned from a friend with DID that she met through Tumblr, she explained life with DID this way: It's like her body is a car, and the alter that is "out" is in the driver's seat. Another alter may be sitting in the front passenger seat, and thus can see, hear, and later remember pretty much everything that is happening. Some may be in the backseat where it's a bit more blurry. And some may be in the trunk where they can't see or hear anything.

When she was young and experiencing frequent periods of amnesia, Blue was in the trunk, she explained. But today, she's developed a more refined system of "co-consciousness," meaning different alters are essentially present at the same time.

Ben Medina, Elyse's twenty-year-old partner who has been dating her since March, told me that when he is with her, it's as if he's talking to one person, but that person is standing in front of a two-way mirror where many other people — who he cannot see, but who can see him — are watching and are present.

This means there's a lot of chatter in Elyse's mind at once, which can lead her to become temporarily distracted mid-conversation. When I talked to Elyse, she would interrupt herself at times to laugh at or point out something that Mae or another alter had just told her. Alters also communicate with each other in more abstract ways, she said, such as by sharing images, thoughts, or feelings.

Different alters will vote on or discuss major decisions that affect the whole body, Elyse said. For example, they all agreed on the words of her back tattoo, which reads, "Taking back what's mine, one inch at a time," a message about reclaiming her body from her abusers. (Not all the alters, however, wanted bleached blonde hair, but enough of them supported the idea, she said).

Elyse said she now has eight "main alters," including herself, who appear regularly, though she said there are many more inside her. There's Mae, the 25-year-old protector; Jazz, a 24-year-old "fabulously gay" man who has a cockney accent; Nevan, a 25-year-old bisexual male scholar; Candy, a loud teenager; Ophelia, a 22-year-old model, who is also British; Ellie, a four-year-old girl; and Castiel/Gaz, a "gender-fluid" alter — meaning sometimes male, sometimes female, who also fulfills a protector role.

As for her last name, Elyse does not use Brittany's birth name, Bergman, but rather goes by Winter-Volkova, a combination of the last name that Elyse had before she was host (Winter) and Mae's last name (Volkova). She calls her whole system the Hydracorn System — Hydra is a reference to the monster in Greek mythology with many heads and the "corn" is a reference to unicorns, which some of the younger alters in her system wanted included in the name.

She generally can't control which alter is out when — each one comes out in response to certain triggers. When one alter goes back inside, it feels a bit like the moment right before you fall asleep, Elyse explained. And "if you're on the inside coming out, it's sort of just like a shock, bam, okay, I'm here. What's up?" she said.

Every time I met with her, Elyse was out, except twice when Mae came forward — both times in response to certain negative triggers (once when the fire truck sirens blared, and a second time on a different day, when Renee delivered some bad news to her about a sick friend).

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