What does it mean to have Dissociative Identity Disorder?

For many people, understanding and coping with overwhelming emotions or memories can be really challenging. Maybe you've felt like you're not really yourself, or you know someone who seems to drift away from reality at times. While everyone’s mind wanders now and then, sometimes the experience of disconnection is more complicated. This is known as dissociation, and, for many people, this can be a way of coping with challenging emotions or memories.

This can help if:

  • you’re experiencing dissociation symptoms

  • you think you might have DID

  • you’re looking for support options for DID

  • you want to understand what dissociation and DID is

  • you know someone living with DID.

young person walking away from an open door down a paved foothpath.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a sensation of being disconnected from your thoughts, body, feelings, memories or even your identity. It's something that many people experience – and it can feel different for everyone.

Dissociation can be a pretty confusing and scary experience. But it’s important to know that you're not alone and that support is available.

Why do people dissociate?

Lots of things can cause people to dissociate. For example, someone might dissociate if they’re feeling super-stressed, or if they’ve been triggered by a traumatic event, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse or childhood neglect.

When this happens and a person feels overwhelmed or experiences trauma, their mind may use dissociation as a way for them to cope and feel safe. Knowing why our minds do this can help us to make sense of these experiences. The symptoms of dissociation can be felt both during and following the event or series of events.

Keep in mind that not everyone who experiences dissociation has a disorder. Dissociative symptoms can be common in a range of other disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder (BPD).

What is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

Dissociative Identity Disorder, also referred to as DID, is a specific type of dissociation. It’s when someone experiences more than one personality or identity that becomes disruptive to their life. You might have heard of multiple personality disorder, which is what DID used to be called. These different identities may have their own unique memories, behaviours and even names, which are often referred to as ‘alters’, ‘parts’ or ‘personalities’. When a person switches to a different personality, they often later can't remember what they did or said when they were in that personality state. 

DID usually develops as a way of coping with trauma experienced in childhood to help the person feel safe. 

What are some common Dissociative Identity Disorder symptoms?

While DID affects everyone differently, the main symptoms include: 

  • having two or more distinctly different personality or identity states

  • experiencing major gaps in memory, or amnesia, about everyday or traumatic events, including things like forgetting important memories, relationships or aspects of your identity.

People can also have other symptoms, such as hearing voices or experiencing co-consciousnesses. (This is when more than one personality is present at any one time.) 

A person with DID may also experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues, which is why it can sometimes be challenging to diagnose this disorder.

What Dissociative Identity Disorder treatments are available?

The good news is that many people living with the disorder can lead full and meaningful lives, thanks to a range of treatments and helpful strategies that are available for managing symptoms. A mental health professional can help you to better understand what’s causing the symptoms and work towards a state called ‘resolution’, which is where the different personalities can exist together without causing too much disruption to your life. A mental health practitioner can also help you to develop strategies to better control switching between personality states. 

Everyone’s treatment and management approach will look different, so it’s important to find a mental health professional with experience in dissociation and trauma-informed care who understands DID and its symptoms.

Is there a Dissociative Identity Disorder test I can do?

Because the symptoms of DID can overlap with other types of disorders and mental health conditions, it can sometimes be tricky to get a diagnosis. This is where a mental health professional can help, using specialised tests and frameworks to help determine whether or not you have DID and what treatment options could work for you.

I think I have DID. What should I do first?

One of the most important things you can do if you think you have Dissociative Identity Disorder is to connect with a mental health professional to find out what’s going on.

Experiencing a dissociative episode can feel lonely and scary, so it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Seek support and share your journey with others who may be going through similar experiences. 

You can start by talking to someone you trust. Or, if you prefer to talk to someone anonymously, check out the ReachOut Online Community or book a free, text-based chat with a peer worker using ReachOut PeerChat.

What are other types of dissociative disorders? 

There are a number of other dissociative disorders.

Depersonalisation-derealisation disorder

Depersonalisation-derealisation disorder is when someone experiences a sense of disconnection from their own life, thoughts, emotions and actions. Other symptoms can include trouble with concentration and memory, a sensation of being mentally distant, a perception that time is passing differently, or even a feeling of unfamiliarity with one's own body, like the sense that one’s hands are changing in size.

Dissociative amnesia

Sometimes, when something really upsetting happens, a person might have trouble remembering all the details of that event – kind of like having a foggy memory that’s different from ordinary forgetting. People can sometimes forget specific moments from an event or the entire event, or, in some instances, they might even forget who they are.

Specified and Unspecified dissociative disorders

Some dissociative disorders don't fit into the other categories. These might include experiencing trance states, feeling really disconnected for a short time after a super-stressful or scary event (e.g. a car accident), or experiencing changes to one’s identity as a result of something like brainwashing or recruitment into a cult. 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms of dissociation, talking to a mental health professional or a doctor can help you to make sense of it and get support.

Will I dissociate forever?

Dissociation can be scary, and it's natural to worry about experiencing it over the long term. That’s why it’s good to know that many people living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, or another dissociative disorder, lead happy and fulfilling lives thanks to the various treatment and management options that are available. 

If you think you might be experiencing dissociation and want to talk to someone about it, you can book a chat with one of our peer workers who can provide a safe space for you to share your story and help you to explore different support options. 

  • Check out our page on mental health professionals for more information on who to talk to.

  • Share your story, or hear from others, through the ReachOut Online Community.

  • Read about some strategies you can use now to manage feelings of anxiety and stress.