Meet My Multiple MEs
New York magazine|August 16 - 29, 2021
Decades after Hollywood sensationalized the diagnosis, some people with dissociative identity disorder are presenting their selves on YouTube to rapturous fans.
Lizzie Feidelson

WYN FELT HER REALITY BEGIN TO SHIFT soon after she joined the Army in 2011 at the age of 20. While in basic training, she had bouts of amnesia, during which she forgot having met people she knew. Other times, she found herself suddenly acting outgoing or flirtatious for reasons she couldn’t explain. She had experienced trauma in her childhood—something she still prefers not to talk about— and struggled with symptoms of PTSD throughout her life, including depression and anxiety. But this felt different.

“I was falling apart,” she told me. Sometimes she felt “like someone else.” She would look in the mirror and feel “disconnected” from the face she saw there, she said. One day, a sergeant found Wyn sobbing in her car in a parking lot, preparing to attempt suicide.

After a short hospital stay, Wyn received a medical discharge and, determined to get better, moved back home to the midwestern state where she had grown up. She married a nurse named Andrew whom she had met in the Army. She went to therapy and tried medication and EMDR (a form of psychotherapy that aims to desensitize patients to traumatic memories), but her symptoms didn’t improve. Six years later, despite being on “ungodly amounts of Xanax,” Wyn said, she still woke up some mornings unable to speak or leave her bed.

In 2017, Wyn began seeing a therapist she had met through group therapy for childhood trauma. The therapist suggested she undergo a psychological exam called the MID, one of three guides developed in recent decades to aid in the clinical diagnosis of dissociative disorders. Dissociation is a psychological phenomenon that all people experience—when you space out while driving home from work, you are to some degree dissociated from reality. But in extreme situations, typically in the aftermath of traumatic events, dissociation can become pathological. Soon after Wyn took the exam, her therapist diagnosed her with dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder, the most serious and controversial disorder on the dissociative spectrum.

By this point, Wyn had started to admit to herself that she’d long had “thoughts and emotions” that felt like they were coming from someone else. As a kid, her panic attacks had sometimes felt like “bumps” of feeling from another person’s mind. In her late teens, she sometimes dressed as a man and introduced herself at drag shows as Daniel. But as Daniel, Wyn didn’t feel more like the person she was meant to be. Wyn felt like Daniel “was someone else entirely.”

Wyn is articulate, earnest, and upbeat, with pale skin and reddish-brown hair (she changes hairstyles frequently). She is the kind of person who cracks self-deprecating jokes about how much she loves anime. She knew how it sounded when she described being out of her own body, inhabited by others. She also knew she wasn’t faking how she felt. Once, she was in her car on the way to class when she had a distinct sensation that there was an older female presence inside her who had taken control of the wheel and was using Wyn’s hands to drive. Wyn found the experience so terrifying that she texted a friend for help.

The day after she took the MID, Wyn went to see M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 film Split, a thriller about a murderer with multiple personalities, on its opening night. Wyn watched the movie horrified, as though it were telling her, “You’re a monster. You’ll never have a family.”

Later that week, “desperate for reassurance,” she went on YouTube and searched “multiple personality disorder.” She found channels run by young people with DID, including one called MultiplicityAndMe featuring a bubbly 25-year-old named Jess, who was from Wales and had blonde bangs, a supportive husband, and a stable job in the health-care industry. Since 2012, Jess had been posting educational videos that doubled as windows into daily life with the disorder. Instead of repressing her “alters,” Jess treated them as just another part of her, and her followers seemed to love her for it. She now has more than 200,000 subscribers.

Wyn found more DID channels. Many vloggers proudly referred to themselves as “systems” of personalities and to their birth name as that of the system “host,” challenging the notion that any of their alters was more real than any other. Jess had four alters, all male, named Jake, Jamie, Ed, and Ollie. Together they managed which of them “fronted” at any given time, sharing airtime on her channel and answering their own Q&As. The systems in these videos pushed back on the idea that having DID made them bad parents or violent or that they were faking it all together. Instead of seeing their alters as fuzzy, scary presences, the hosts said, they had gotten to know them, and hosts and alters could communicate with one another easily. Many vloggers used they/them pronouns—in a plural sense.

When I first saw the channels, the videos seemed at once astonishing and mundane, then still more astonishing for being so mundane. One vlogger filmed herself organizing a hotel room for easy access to her boarding pass if she were dissociating when it was time to head to the airport. When Wyn first saw them, the channels gave her hope.

OF COURSE, DID IS CATNIP FOR YouTube. Vloggers have long found an audience by leaning into niche identities—imagine encountering someone who says they have 15. “If you’re not used to it, DID can be very striking when you see it,” even for clinicians, said David Spiegel, a Stanford research professor who is a leader in studying dissociation. The channels appeal to people like Wyn who have been diagnosed and are looking for validation and support, but plenty of viewers come simply because they are fascinated.

Ever since the film The Three Faces of Eve was released in 1957, an exaggerated and often inaccurate depiction of dissociative identity disorder has been the norm in Hollywood. From 2009’s United States of Tara and 2015’s Mr. Robot to an upcoming Marvel series, it is usually figured as alternately freakish and alluring, with the stereotypical patient (think Sally Field as Sybil) being a bright, attractive white woman with unpredictable urges that imply sexual vulnerability and a dark past. Most people think of DID as a plot twist, not as a medical condition that affects real people.

DID is not a debunked condition, nor is it widely contested by the medical Establishment, like chronic Lyme disease. Some studies suggest that between 0.01 and one percent of the population may have some form of DID; of those, only a fraction have a dramatic presentation of their systems. (In the 1980s, DID researcher Richard Kluft estimated that roughly 5 percent of people with DID displayed their symptoms with dramatic “switching” between personalities.) The disorder is thought to form in childhood as a response to repeated trauma, commonly sexual abuse but also war, medical procedures, and natural disaster.

Getting the right kind of treatment is both difficult and crucial. Some symptoms of DID—like hearing voices or displaying rapid shifts in mood and affect—are often misinterpreted as symptoms of schizophrenia or psychosis, especially in non-white people. It can take years of failed treatments to get a correct diagnosis. Studies have found that people with DID are likely to experience abusive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse. According to one study, a 70percent of people with DID had attempted suicide.

Someone who has yet to be diagnosed may not recognize their internal landscape as being composed of a cast of alternate identities; instead, the person will describe “a persistent quality of feeling like ‘not me,’” said Amy Dierberger, a psychologist who treats people with DID. Patients may say they feel as if they have different “parts, parts inside, aspects, facets, ways of being, voices, multiples, selves, ages of me,” according to one common treatment guideline. Sometimes these parts or voices argue, converse, comfort, or urge a person to commit suicide. Another frequent symptom is “losing time”: Patients realize they have made purchases or gone places they don’t remember. Clinicians now understand that all of a DID patient’s parts put together constitute a single personality. “There are different senses of self with different attributes, but there aren’t lots of people in one body,” explained Richard J. Loewenstein, another expert in dissociation. “You’re all aspects of a single human being and a single mind.”

The condition is both “incredible” and requires treatment that is “very non-exciting,” Dierberger said. Talk therapy with a professional trained in dissociation is considered the gold standard. While a person’s dissociative tendencies may never fully resolve, over time, therapists believe, if a patient tries to deliberately connect with other parts of the self in therapy and works through traumatic memories with each one, the sense of being made up of separate people may start to fade. Eventually, some or all parts may begin to “fuse” into a cohesive sense of self. “Everything we do,” said Loewenstein, “is unification.” Underlying the treatment is a fundamental medical understanding that experiencing multiple personalities in a single body is a symptom of mental illness.

THE PERIOD AFTER Wyn’s diagnosis was rocky. Although her husband was supportive, Wyn said, the situation was sobering for them both. She continued weekly therapy, feeling that she and her therapist now “had a direction.” “I was like, All right, what’s up, we’re going to fuse everybody!” she recalled. Her therapist cautioned that this would likely take a while. In the meantime, Wyn decided she would start her own video channel.

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