By Lisa Cruz, RN-C MNN
Dissociative Identity Disorder is commonly called Multiple Personality Disorder. The disorder is generally misunderstood and often sensationally or inaccurately depicted in the media. However, did you know numerous studies have shown 1-3% of the general population meets the diagnostic criteria for Dissociative Identity Disorder?
Dissociative disorders occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe. The spectrum begins with normal dissociation and is followed by dissociative amnesia. The more familiar and widely known Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) falls into the middle range of the dissociative disorders spectrum. Lastly, the most complex dissociative disorder is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
One of the most common causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is childhood sexual abuse. When a child experiences a stressful event such as sexual abuse, the fight-or-flight response is activated. Dissociation is a way of escaping psychologically when the child cannot escape physically. The child’s only escape may be to pretend the abuse is happening to someone else or another “part” of themselves. If the sexual abuse is severe and prolonged, the “part” the child repeatedly escapes to may develop its own identity, becoming completely separate from the child’s conscious and accessible memory.
DID is the result of creativity, intelligence, strength and the desire to survive – not a mental weakness or illness. DID can be healed through therapy and the integration of the separate “parts” into a new and whole self. However, if the disorder remains undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, the person cannot be helped or healed.
Trauma survivors may only have symptoms instead of memories. Many people with DID report memories of childhood trauma and obvious symptoms, such as “coming to” in an unfamiliar place or meeting unfamiliar people who know them, but as a different name. However, it is not uncommon for people to not be able to recall memories of their childhood trauma, yet still display the more subtle and harder to recognize symptoms of PTSD and DID. These symptoms can include unexplainable feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, unexplainable feelings of emotional numbness and detachment, mood issues, difficulty concentrating, thought insertion, depersonalization, derealization and more. Since there are no known traumatic memories to attribute the symptoms to though, the person is often misdiagnosed and only treated for surface issues, masking their true needs. When this happens, the opportunity to help bring healing and restoration to the person is missed.
It is especially important for those working with sex trafficking victims to be aware of dissociative disorders. Many trafficking victims have a history of childhood sexual abuse, a leading cause of PTSD and DID. Additionally, studies have shown women in prostitution experience the same level of PTSD as combat veterans. Furthermore, studies have shown that 35% of prostituted people and 80% of exotic dancers experience dissociative disorders. In fact, studies have shown that 5-18% of prostituted people and 35% of exotic dancers meet the diagnostic criteria for DID.
However, the situation is far from hopeless. With proper diagnosis and help, a person can heal from dissociative disorders. In fact, there is a phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Growth. Trauma survivors can even become stronger and create a more meaningful life. They don’t just bounce back—that would be resilience— they actually bounce higher than they ever did before.
About the author: Lisa Cruz has experienced Post-Traumatic Growth after surviving child sex trafficking and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Lisa has been a Registered Nurse for 23 years and is the founder of Nurses Against Trafficking.
This blog post was originally part of our 2016 JuST Conference Speaker Blog Series.