According to Ross (1997), alters are not “other personalities” but rather like different ego. states of the same single personality. We are all one person, one body, but we function under different states, different mind sets that are separated out by dissociative walls. It is like being compartmentalized. Sometimes there is knowledge, communication, and memory shared between the various parts, and sometimes parts are so “walled off” they are more like a completely separate entity. Still, they are all parts of one whole person. One could also think of it as a mosaic. A mosaic is a piece of artwork created using lots of different, separate pieces, each one integral in the formation of the whole. There are segmented pieces, but together they make one whole picture. Alters are parts of the self segmented off for protection, function, internal support, memory, etc. They are segmented off in childhood because they have to be in order to function. One has to tuck away the abuse memories in order to function in school. One has to escape, for sanity purposes. One child cannot handle it all and keep sanity intact long without the ability to compartmentalize things so that one part of her can go to school, one part of her can comfort, one part can play, one can hold anger, one can hold fear and sadness, one part of her can deal with a mother’s rage, and one part of her can withstand sexual abuse by the father. It’s just too much.
Some people with DID will insist that they and their alters are completely separate beings. Others can tell you they are all part of one body, all part of one person, all aspects of the same person (Ross, 1997). Still, it has been my experience that there also exists disagreement within the system such that some alters including the host may see clearly they are all part of one, whereas other alters have no clue and think they are totally separate.
Some alters believe they are still living in the time of the abuse. Some live in the present. Others live somewhere in between, fluctuating between thinking it’s still past time and being connected to the present time.
I have often been asked how the alters get their names. I think it’s important to note that not all people with DID have names for their alters. Names can be helpful in therapy, though because it is an easy way to refer to a certain part of the system. For example, I can refer to Molly, and my therapist knows exactly what I’m talking about. Without her name, I would have to say something like, “the 4 year old that went to the hospital.” That gets old. Molly actually used to be named “Four”, but as I got to know her, I realized she is more precious than “Four”. She deserved a pretty name, and we chose one for her. Many alters are named as they are created. Still many are named after the fact just to make understanding, internal communication, and the work of therapy easier. Lots of alters are named by their role. From my system, I have some like that. I have The Teacher Me, The Informer, and The Counselor Within. Some are named with descriptors. Examples from my system would be Windy and The Quiet One. The Quiet One doesn’t talk….ever….she listens, she thinks, and she feels, but she never says a word. Windy has always felt like the wind. She seems to blow in and blow out. Sometimes she’s calm, and sometimes she’s like a gale, and she can change directions at anytime. Some of them already have names and we can become aware of those names through intuition, listening internally, etc. Some get their names from nicknames or other names called by people around them. A few of mine have names near or the same as my actual middle name. One is named Doll. My father used to say, “Isn’t she a doll?” when we were around his friends. One of mine is the name I had in French class (Michele). Sometimes alters take the names of friends, other family members, people on TV, etc. Still there are lots of them with no name at all.
According to Ross (1997), most people with DID have a core system of up to about 8 alters that function on a regular basis. There may be other parts to the system that show up on an irregular basis, but usually the working core of the system is about 8. In my case, the working core consists of me (host), The Teacher Me, The Counselor Within, Jesse, Molly, Windy, and Michele. These parts of the system are almost always present to some degree every day. Outside of that I have some that influence the system and play a somewhat regular part though just less frequently. Then I have others for whom one would rarely see.
In his book, Ross (1997) gives a description of the typical types of alters found in most personality systems. One could think of them as like archetypes. Much of the following information comes from his book which is referenced at the end of this post.
Most systems have child parts that carry the bulk of the trauma memories. They can present themselves as scared and untrusting, or they can be “spontaneous, childish, and delightful (pg 146).” I had to quote that part because it is so true and no words could possibly be any better. Some child parts are still living in the past; they feel like they are still there, as if they are “frozen in time”. Other child parts can see that we live in a different time. And then there are some that are just confused, and they sort of straddle the two time zones or weave in and out of both. Sometimes they are aware of things from the here and now, and other times they are stuck in the past yet again. Some child parts can display an array of emotions, while others tend to display only one, or a narrow set of emotions. Some hold many memories, some may only hold one. The age of an alter can be static and remain the same for all time or it can evolve over time such that the alter seems to “grow up.” Child alters tend to relive the traumatic memories through graphic abreactions. They tend to feel as if it were happening right now instead of in the past. I think it is because often the child parts hold the most feelings (emotionally).
When one of my child parts comes to the surface, I will feel this overwhelming sense of being little and vulnerable. I will often feel shy and scared. Sometimes I will cry and not know why. I’m told my posture changes, my eyes change, I look at people differently, my speech and word choice changes somewhat. Molly is often very sad, scared, and clingy. Also when she asks questions, she makes a question out of a sentence. Like instead of saying, “Can you come sit over here?” to our therapist, she will say, “You can sit over here?” Jesse is more of the spontaneous, delightful kind that Dr. Ross referred to. She is more bubbly and though she has some memories that cause her grief, she prefers to toss them aside and play.
There are often observers in the system as well as internal self-helpers. Observers are generally “abstract entities with little or no feeling (p 149).” They simply watch and record. They have no direct stake in the well being of the self, they simply record and retain information for the system. Internal self helpers are exactly that. When I was growing up, I did meet some people along the way that were very kind and supportive to me. I never told them what was going on with me, but they were a source of support for me. I would sometimes fantasize about telling them and about them helping me, so I no longer had to live this way, but I never got brave enough to actually tell. Ok, that’s not totally true. I did tell one person when I was 21, and she was super kind and understanding and helped me to find my first therapist. But other than that, I never told anyone, just fantasized about being saved by these people I considered safe. What I did as a child is to internalize them, so I could carry them with me everywhere I go. For example, if I had a very nice teacher with whom I felt especially safe, I would carry her around with me like an internal companion. I would talk with her and play with her and she would care for me, and love on me, and support me. It made it so I could carry the good feeling I had when I was with her and have that all the time whenever I needed it. All of the people in my life that have been internalized in that way are the ones who in the end make up the part of us we call The Counselor Within. That is an example of an Internal Self Helper.
Another type of alter found in most systems is the protector. Protectors are usually over ten years of age and most often teens. There are three types of protectors. One type is very calm, nurturing, and helpful with good coping skills. This part may also help protect the system by controlling switching, staying out of trouble, and keeping the system out of potentially threatening situations. Another type is the avoider who is skilled at hiding, trancing out, and blocking emotional and physical pain. The last type of protector is the aggressive one. This one carries a lot of anger and expects the worse from those around her. These parts will often show violent behaviors towards objects, self, or others. They may scream out verbally, be defiant, uncooperative, etc. They are usually acting this way to protect the others in the system, and often times when they do things like self-injury, or talk of suicide, they are still claiming to be protecting the others by sparing them a life of unimaginable pain.
There are also alters who act as persecutor. These alters are similar to the aggressive protectors in that they are often violent, but this violence is usually directed inward. They will make suicidal threats and/or attempts. They will engage in self injurious behavior. Sometimes these acts are to punish the host. It’s like huge self-hatred and self-blame. Other times these acts may be also like that of the protector where it is designed to spare the body any more harm and grief. Persecutors can torture the system by throwing others into a memory, giving them flashes of terror from the past, creating painful feelings in the body, making them sick, giving them headaches, tricking them, teasing and taunting them, verbally abusing them, etc. The persecutors can be teens or adults and can also be an internalization of perpetrators in the person’s life in which case they are referred to as introjects. Persecutor parts present themselves as tough, uncaring, and revengeful, but underneath they are usually unhappy, hurt, rejected parts of the self.
Alters can be of various ages, various genders, various races, and of various sexual orientation. They can exist predominantly in the past or the present. They can remain the same, or they can change over time. Some are aware of others in the system and some are not. The goal of therapy is to integrate these parts, but when I say integrate, I am not using it in the same sense it is traditionally used. I mean integration of memory, knowledge, and understanding…..a co-consciousness where everyone in the system knows everyone and nothing is secret or kept from another anymore. All of that is integrated. Some people choose to go on to full integration where all the alters fuse together and become one. Others chose what we call cooperation which is where a person decides to keep the “separateness” yet communication is so fluid among the parts that all are working together and “rowing in the same direction” if you will. Either way brings improved functioning for the person with DID because they no longer experience lost time, moments out of their control, have things unaccounted for, etc.
Ross, Colin A. (1997) Dissociative Identity Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment of Multiple Personality (2nd ed.). New York:Wiley.
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*Originally posted on my former blog (2008)