I was born in 1958 with moderate scoliosis, which my mother said came from her side of the family. My crooked spine wasn’t my biggest challenge, though. My biggest challenge was being born into a dysfunctional family. The timing of my birth wasn’t in my favor. American society in the 1960s was reluctant to hold parents responsible for how they treated their children.
“Don’t air your dirty laundry,” they’d say. Talking in public about what went on in the family home wasn’t considered nice. It didn’t matter that my parents weren’t nice.
Their constant, multifaceted abuse, often reaching the level of torture, caused me to begin to dissociate, or break off pieces of myself in order not to feel the pain, beginning in my infancy. I did this by working with the shattered bits of my awareness, giving each a place and a purpose. Living with multiple personalities as a result of the loss of my sense of self left me as challenged as if I’d lost my vision or hearing.
I was alone except for the stained-glass intricacy of my elaborate inner world—a world that would eventually be labeled as dissociative identity disorder, or DID.
The abuses began in my infancy and included physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and psychic abuse, and extreme neglect. The psychic abuse stabbed at the core of my being by leaving me disconnected not only from myself and from other people, but from the universe as well. Combined with the other abuses, the psychic abuse disrupted my mind and body’s energetic fields as severely as being hit by a bus disrupts a person’s bones and internal organs. The abuse didn’t stop until I left home in 1978. Twenty years of abuse leaves deep marks and unfortunately for me, when I told others about my parents’ violent arguments, or how my father beat me or my mother refused to feed me, well, it was my word against my parents’.
My family lived in a small town, where my father served on the civil defense team and the volunteer fire department. My mother belonged to the PTA. It was easier to believe that I had a ‘wild imagination’ as my father often claimed, than to believe that such fine members of the community were abusing their child. So I struggled through grade school, where my fear of other people earned me the label of ‘shy’ and my inability to interact with peers left me feeling as if everyone had abandoned me.
As a person with DID, I had a personality for everything. “Sandra” wrote brilliant essays in English class. “Tina” slogged through mountains of house and yard work. ‘Stacy’ struggled through math. “George” endured my father’s beatings. “Marla” found bits of food in the garbage. “Emma” reminded me that there were worlds outside of our family. ‘Sunny’ showed off her drawings. ‘Kitty’ woke up singing each morning, determined to make the world a better place.
Despite my challenges, I tried to be as much like my classmates as possible. Sometimes, in the middle of a game of tag, “Baby” parts screamed for no reason. Sometimes, animal parts, like “Wild Horse” or “Panther” charged around the playground uttering inhuman noises. “Sunny’s” voice could be saying, “I like your outfit,” and “Wolf” could suddenly emerge, ending the sentence with a full-throated howl. My inconsistent personality made it difficult for my peers to relate to me, and challenging for my teachers to believe me when I said my father used his belt on me, though I tried to prove it by showing the bruises on my arms and legs.
Being detached from painful feelings meant that I blocked good feelings, too. I watched, memorizing others’ reactions to discover when and how to respond. I learned that when someone told a joke, others laughed, their lips curling into a smile. I did my best to mimic their responses. Since I felt nothing, I didn’t know that others weren’t acting out memorized patterns. I had no idea that others could spontaneously feel emotions.
My world contained a separate and distinct box for everything. But life doesn’t arrange itself in neat little boxes.
In high school, classmates called me “praying mantis” because I walked hunched over; partly because my back ached from constant beatings and partly due to the hyper-vigilence I’d developed from being constantly alert for danger. As I watched my classmates do fun things, like go to dances, learn sports or play games, I felt like I was looking through a thick pane of glass. They belonged to a world that I had no hope of joining.
It may sound odd, but I’m grateful for my DID because it helped me survive until I left home for good at age twenty. It helped me to see the value of resilience, cleverness and diversity. DID helped me to develop several talents as I pursued “Sandra’s” love of writing, ‘Julia’s’ musical ability and “Sunny’s” artistic talent. I deeply value my husband’s unconditional acceptance, though it took nearly twenty years after we married to find explanations for what he affectionately called my ‘eccentricities’ and to name my DID. Seeing social consciousness of abuse issues evolve gave me a sincere appreciation of how society learns and grows.
I’m thankful most of all that today, when a child says she’s hungry, someone feeds her. When a child says she is beaten, her abuser is confronted. When a child calls out for help, people hear. I feel very blessed to have seen this amazing proof of human compassion and the growth of societal awareness. As I continue to heal, I hope that as I enter into more and more facets of life, I never lose the joy and enthusiasm of my inner children.