Films and television shows such as Split and United States of Tara have introduced audiences to characters with dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. But people are perhaps less familiar with real-world patients who have this rare psychological condition and the unique challenges they face.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that "involve problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior, and sense of self." People with dissociative identity disorder develop one or more distinctive personalities that are separate from their usual identity. These different identities can even take control of a person's behavior. Many people with the disorder have previously undergone significant physical or emotional trauma.
Those with dissociative identity disorder often can't remember events carried out by another personality. Patients often harbor thoughts of self-harm as they try to cope with the competing voices in their head.
Famous people with dissociative identity disorder include Chris Costner Sizemore, whose story inspired the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve, and football player Herschel Walker. In this list, Sizemore, Walker, and lesser-known people with dissociative identity disorder share in their own words what it's like to live with the condition.
Chris Costner Sizemore, the inspiration behind the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve, had 22 distinct personalities. Sizemore said each of them carried out actions she couldn't remember when she returned to her normal state:
It began when I was 2 years old, although I really didn't know I was different then... It wasn't until I began at school, when I talked about the other little girls seeing things, that I realized I was different... Everyone thought I was lying... Of course, they had seen my body commit the act. When I said the other little girls did it, they would laugh at me. Children are astute about these kinds of things, and after a while, I stopped talking about it. I became a loner.
Sizemore didn't receive any psychiatric treatment until she was 24. She described achieving a final integration when all her personalities merged into one:
One of the hardest things to adjust to was the silence and being alone... There was no presence. I grieved for [the other personalities]. I thought I had [done away with] them so that I could live. It took me about a year to realize that they were a part of me and it was all right. I had to learn to accept myself.
Former professional football player Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 and went on to play in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants. Throughout his career, he experienced DID and eventually wrote a book about the condition, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Walker told ABC News that during his years of playing football, he didn't know he had DID. Some of his personalities were aggressive, leading to episodes he mostly doesn't remember. But in his book, he does recall an incident in which he drove angrily to harm a friend. The event caused him to seek help:
Every few seconds, I’d hear a voice telling me, “No, Herschel, that’s wrong. You can’t [end a life] in cold blood over this.” Over that, I’d hear another urging me on: “You’ve got to take care of business. This guy has done you wrong. You can’t get let him get away with that. [Off] him.” Over and over these two voices were shouting with me, each one pleading with me...
Like the pulsing rhythm of a chorus, the two voices kept up a relentless beat. Simultaneously, I felt frightened, exhilarated, at peace, and resigned...
Only through prayer was he able to stop himself, Walker said. And then he realized he needed help:
The Herschel Walker who had driven to that house with [rage] in his heart and mind was not the Herschel Walker I had been for most of life. Something was clearly wrong with me, and I had to figure out what it was.
Melanie Goodwin developed dissociative identity disorder when she was 40. It was triggered by a family situation that led her to remember her childhood - a time she'd forgotten up until then. She told Mosaic her individual personalities were like frozen parts of her psyche. Each was associated with an event, allowing Goodwin to dissociate herself from it (she refers to all her personalities as "we"):
Development should be seamless... But because we didn't grow up naturally, we would update ourselves... Finally, there were nine different adult parts, each managing a stage of our [pain-free] adult life. If you're in a totally impossible situation, you dissociate to stay alive. Trauma can freeze you in time. And because [it] is ongoing over years, there are lots of little freezings happening all over the place.
Goodwin was so disconnected from her feelings that even her wedding day wasn't particularly joyous. "I know I got married," she said. "But I watched and observed it, rather than being fully engaged.”
She also has no sense of the chronological order of her life's events. “As babies, you get born, and you have a timeline that goes through your whole being," she said. "If you get fragmented, you don’t get that timeline.”
Truddi Chase, who passed in 2010, is unique among those with dissociative identity disorder for her sheer number of selves. She wrote about her 92 distinctive personalities in her 1987 autobiography When Rabbit Howls. However, Chase told the Chicago Tribune she had no plans to integrate them. She, along with psychiatrists, believed the personalities emerged from the trauma she suffered at the hands of her stepfather as a child.
According to Chase, each of her 92 personalities had distinctive traits and behaviors:
They differ in terms of age, background, [gender], intelligence, wants, needs, attitudes, backgrounds. The youngest one is Lamb Chop, a little girl who is 5 or 6. Then there are Catherine and Elvira, who are both 28 but are completely different. Elvira believes a sense of humor can get you through anything; Catherine believes the way you get through things is by putting on a wonderful facade and keeping your sarcasm under a cloak. Ean, the Irishman, is a poet and a philosopher. He has been called a literary genius and claims to be more than 1,000 years old. Don't ask us where he comes from. We don’t know. And Ten-Four is a sharp businesswoman.