Stop Calling My Survival A Disorder

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I never really know which articles about Dissociative Identity (DI, as I like to call it) to recommend because they all start from the premise of calling it a disorder.

Just as with any other mental health issue, this is horribly insulting of course. But people don’t even know that. That’s how internalised it is in our culture to see emotions and neurodiversity as illnesses.

Another insulting term in relation to Complex Trauma is “maladaptive”. It means to say that the way you managed to survive the abuse in childhood was successful, but now, as an adult, you had better stop being traumatised, because it keeps you from being a “functional” tool, err, member of society. That “mal-” (Latin for bad or unwell) is a glaring judgement, replicating the criticism of abusive parents quite well.

What I find strange is that up till now I haven’t found another person with DI who minds the disorder term. In fact, I’ve been shocked at most people in DI-specific groups and forums talking about being medicated by their psychiatrists alongside or even instead of getting talking therapy. All of this is being reported in a way as though they had absolutely no choice in this. 

The latter is probably not surprising, as survivors of childhood abuse tend to stay stuck in a mindset of learned helplessness, meaning that they feel generally powerless and not in control of their life. 

For me, it seems like a cruel irony that the so-called “maladaptive” survival technique of not being integrated into social life – which is very much killing me at this point, due to the resulting isolation and loneliness – also protects me from being abused by the mental health system. Even before I knew anything about my mental health issues or that I had been abused, I thought that medicating emotions sounded like something from those dystopian films which traumatised me as a child and adolescent.

I always had my own head, even though they stole my voice. It is very disturbing to see just how much wider society, government, and the health system resemble abusive parents. A survivor of Complex Trauma is doomed to relive their trauma all of the time due to triggers and flashbacks. But the abusive tendencies and similarities in oppression between any institutions of power have not just been noticed and analysed by me. Usually, it’s just the trauma awareness that’s missing from the picture.

A child who is repeatedly abused, starting in infancy, develops DI because their different personality parts never grow together. The common description of being “split” is wrong – all children are born with a fragmented personality (or different emotional states) that grows together to form a stable structure, given stable and safe circumstances. Abuse keeps this from happening. Instead, the fragmentation of the different parts is cemented through dissociative walls. 

To dissociate means to disconnect from your emotions and sensations. As a result, you also disconnect from your surroundings. It is a natural survival technique to endure trauma, especially when fight or flight are not an option (as is the case for infants). So dissociative walls between the different personality parts mean that the conscious part of the child can continue to attach to the parents and “function” as they are expected to, despite the abuse. The child is not aware of the abuse, because the painful emotions and sensations are stored away in a different personality part, which is disconnected from consciousness.

As awful as this is – because it means that the abusive parents can continue their abuse – it also is the only way to survive for the child. Without dissociation, the full blow of the unbearable psychological and physical pain would kill them. 

For most survivors, the recovery feels just as or even worse than the original abuse, because therapy erodes and deconstructs their dissociative walls. The abuse happened in the past, but it is only now that they are feeling it. Without ever having learned how to regulate their emotions and very often with little or no emotional support other than that of their counsellor, it is no wonder that they take to substance abuse, self-harm, or sometimes, suicide, to stop feeling the pain. This is proof that the dissociation of the child in the face of abuse really is their only way to survive.

Society failed to save me from my abusive family. They continue to fail me and other survivors by running an abusive mental health system. They continue to fail children who are being abused by not being trauma-informed and not doing more to prevent and recognise abuse.

I think the least they could do is to acknowledge my tremendous achievement of still being alive and to stop calling that achievement a “disorder”. Dissociative Identity Achievement would be much more fitting. So let’s call it DIA.

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Laura is originally from the north of Germany. She developed a Dissociative Identity as a result of childhood emotional neglect and abuse. Her greatest achievements were to survive, leave her family, become aware of her complex Trauma, and to start therapy. Her survivor's mission is to raise awareness about her conditions and how trauma is interlinked with other social oppression (such as speciesism, misogyny, racism, ableism, etc). She writes about these topics on her personal blog FemVegTrauma and weaves them into her art. She is also a poet, singer, historical linguist, archaeologist, and lover of nature.