What is Multiple Personality Disorder?

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An example of dissociation that occurs to many of us on a regular basis is driving to work and “looking up” not remembering how we got to where we are or making turns without even thinking about what we are doing, and then we “magically” appear at work.

During this lack of awareness of what you are doing, you are dissociating. You have disconnected from yourself and your surroundings and are on autopilot. Don’t worry, this is normal! However, in multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder, dissociation is taken to a whole new level and is often used as a defense mechanism against trauma.

Multiple Personality Disorder

Multiple personality disorder (now called DID) is associated with severe abuse such as ritualistic sexual or physical abuse, insistent neglect and severe emotional abuse. Many who have been severely abused use dissociation to mentally get away from the abuse. They may imagine they are somewhere else doing something else or that they are someone else.

For example, imagine you are outside on a scorching summer day and are feeling as if you may melt like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. You close your eyes and visualize you are playing in the snow and find yourself feeling a little cooler. This mentally “going someplace else” helps the person who is being abused to “get away” and not feel what is happening to them so intensely.

This experience makes me think about “Jenny” in the movie Forest Gump when her father is yelling for her and she is afraid of him and closes her eyes praying “Dear God, Make me a bird, so I can fly far far away.” The individual being abused may also feel as if they are outside of their own bodies possibly floating and watching what is happening to them as if it were happening to someone else. This out of body experience is called depersonalization.

Furthermore, they may feel as if they are in a dream state and things are not real or the world is foggy and far away which is called derealization. The above examples of dissociation illustrate how this process of developing DID can begin to occur.

Although a reaction to abuse is the prevailing psychological theory about how the condition develops, other possible causes include the person being insufficiently nurtured as a child.

Multiple Personality Disorder: Forming Alternate Identities

Typically, after years of using extreme dissociation such as depersonalization and derealization as a defense mechanism against trauma, the individual may find themselves with alternate identities or personalities. Each personality can literally have a different eyesight, blood pressure, race, gender, and age as well as different styles of communicating, dress, demeanor, name, attitude, and voice tone.These personalities can also be non-human.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM IV) states that at least two or more alternate identities must be present for a diagnosis to be made. Furthermore, at least two personalities have to take control of the individual on a regular basis. Other diagnostic criteria include:

  • The individual will have trouble recalling personal information.

  • The host personality or the one typically associated with the person’s real name, is usually unaware of the other personalities and therefore won’t know what happened when a different personality was in charge of the body so to speak. Therefore, they may find clothes they don’t remember buying, unfamiliar people claiming to know them, people telling them they did things they don’t remember doing along with a host of other similar experiences.

Co-current Diagnosis

This disorder often occurs co-currently with depression, mood swings, suicidal tendencies, sleep disorders, anxiety problems including panic attacks, phobias and flashbacks, alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive and ritualistic behaviors, psychotic symptoms including auditory and visual hallucinations and eating disorders. Many of these other problems will bring the person into treatment. Initially they may present with 2 to 4 personalities but with continued treatment up to 13 or 15 alternate identities may reveal themselves.


NFL Player Hershel Walker has identified himself as having MPD and talks about his experiences. Hollywood has depicted this disorder in various movies such as The Color of Night, Primal Fear and Sybil. Beware, Color of Night is rated R due to sexual content and violence. Primal Fear is rated R having some violence and sexual content. Sybil is a much older movie and is unrated but based on a real life story. If interested, these movies may shed some light on the disorder.

NB:The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.


WebMD, Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MDon September 16, 2009

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM IV Revised, 2nd Edition

National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder)

Medicinenet.com, Dissociative Identity Disorder Author: Roxanne Dryden-Edwards MD, Editor: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD