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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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Elise said she wants to integrate so that she can have more consistency in her relationships and at her job (she works at a nonprofit that raises awareness about trauma and dissociation). And she wants her day-to-day life to improve. It's still difficult to navigate the wide range of triggers that affect her, she said, and she sometimes struggles in everyday conversations due to the noise in her head.

She said that she respects that integration is not everyone's goal, but added, "I would like to come back together as much as possible. ... I view it more as a blending together. You don't necessarily lose anything. It's just in a different shape."

Elise noted that the struggle of integration is, in a way, a very extreme version of the challenges that most people face when trying to reconcile internal conflicts, such as the simultaneous feelings of love and hate you might have for someone in your life.

"It's kind of like what every human has to do if they're trying to be a more conscious person," she said. "There are probably very few people on earth who know exactly who they are."

Evidence that Elyse Winter-Volkova is embracing her DID — and has already found a level of peaceful cohabitation — is everywhere in her life. Elyse showed me different possessions and clothes in her bedroom that belong to different alters, including Mae's leather jacket (which Elyse got Mae for her birthday), stuffed animals and toys for Ellie (the four-year old), art supplies for Jazz (the 24-year-old man), and a cosmetology kit for Ophelia (the 22-year-old model). She celebrates her "main eight" with a constellation of pink post-it notes on the wall above her bed describing each alter.

Elyse's mother and partner are also highly respectful of each alter and have developed distinct relationships with many of them. In fact, Ben met Jazz before Elyse and is now dating both of them. He also said he views all of the alters as his friends. After I had coffee with Ben and Elyse, it was obvious to me that the two are incredibly close and that Ben is relentlessly supportive of Elyse and open-minded about her condition.

Renee said she enjoys spending time with different alters and buys gifts for specific ones. "I consider all of her alters as my child." And she said one of the reasons she is most proud of her daughter is that she is paving the way for others with DID to come forward and speak openly — by showing people that there's no reason to be afraid of the disorder.

Renee also said she is constantly intrigued by her daughter's DID when it comes to some of the extreme differences between alters — some have unique allergies, skills, voices, and more. "We always hear that the brain is powerful. ... I've seen it firsthand. I'm amazed every day."

Elyse hopes to continue to spread positive messages about DID as she gets older. She is now slowly working toward a psychology degree, taking classes at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill and Chabot College in Hayward. Someday, she would like to conduct research on DID in order to better understand the inner workings of complex systems like hers.

And eventually, Elyse said she would also like to help address some of the root causes of DID — by helping survivors of physical and sexual abuse, perhaps by running a shelter for people who have suffered trauma. Victims often have nowhere to turn to escape abuse and no one to help them through the struggle, she said.

After all, many trauma survivors may not have a Mae to protect them.

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