MDIA2003_19 MDIA2003_19_P2 Wed11.30 (2019)

Caught on camera: Changing the conversation about Multiple Personality Disorders

by Anja Flamer-Caldera

Young people with Dissociative Identity Disorder and other multiplicity conditions are taking to YouTube to show the world what their lives are really like.

Aside from their portrayals in stylised Hollywood horror films, Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, and the medley of mental health conditions involving multiple personalities remain practically untouched by public conversation. Even with mental health discourse becoming drastically more liberal and inclusive over the years, people with DID are still challenging the disconnect between themselves and the broader public.

A recent burst of young people living with multiplicity have been doing just that by posting videos on YouTube that capture their experiences on camera, in an attempt to explain away the stereotypes about them.

At first glance, 27-year-old Jess from the UK seems like any young woman. Sitting and chatting in front of a camera in her room, Jess tells us about her plan for this week’s video. It’s not an unboxing video, a clothing haul, or rant about how they got her coffee order wrong at Starbucks.

“One of the most requested things that we have is to see the very marvelled “switching” caught on camera. Well, today’s video captures just that.”

Jess lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and her video captures a switch between herself, the host, and one of her alters called Jamie, a 27-year old male doctor. According to Jess, switching can happen “from any part, to any part” and can take from anywhere between a few seconds to a number of hours.

“They’re really uncomfortable,” says Jess. “The hours of long switching are very uncomfortable.”

This is because Jess, like many others with DID, feels her sense of identity fading away as the “switchy feeling” takes over and the dissociation occurs out of her control – a difficult concept to grasp for those without it.

“That switchy feeling feels kind of like somebody has turned the volume down on Jess and is turning the volume up on Jamie simultaneously,” she explains. “I find we tend to rub our head, eyebrows and eyes when the switchy feeling is present.”

Jess goes on to explain how she managed to capture this “mythical switch” that some call it, and says there are positive and negative triggers that she is aware of.

“To encourage the switch and speed things up, I attempted to use positive triggers. Things that would encourage Jamie to come forward. As Jamie loves learning, I put on a medical programme and began to watch.”

Sure enough, as Jess sits on the couch playing with her dog, it happens. There is no physical change, no sudden movement or dramatic puff of smoke. The only way you can tell is when she starts speaking, her accent and tone are now different to match Jamie’s identity.

“Let me guess, not as exciting as you thought? Not as noticeable maybe? As DID is a defence mechanism, for us, our switches are relatively unnoticeable. Unless you’re very close to us and you know exactly what you’re looking for, it can be incredibly difficult to tell.”

With the popularity of YouTube still on the rise, it comes as no surprise that Jess’ YouTube channel, MultiplicityAndMe, is a platform dedicated to presenting herself to the world, and in particular, “eradicating the stigma” about her condition. Jess is one of a number of young people with DID who have chosen to use YouTube to break down the social barriers between themselves and the broader public, including channels such as DissociaDID and Multiple Life.

What people often miss, and what these YouTubers are aiming to shed light on, is the human aspect of DID, something that support network creator and equality advocate Sarah K Reece has fought for their whole career.

“It is really difficult to build a more human perspective in a setting that has been so hostile. where the cost is just so high to people,” Sarah says, talking about how most people with DID aren’t able to be ‘out’ about their condition like these young people on YouTube, for fear of discrimination.

“So far I’ve only come across two people who are out about their multiplicity at work, and employed outside the mental health sector. So for people who are out, or who’ve been outed, employment rates are horrifically low.”

Sarah lives with DID themselves, and knows first-hand of the struggles of living with a vastly misunderstood and dehumanised mental health condition. By founding the organisation The Dissociative Initiative, Sarah used their experiences with DID to reach out to others going through similar struggles, knowing that making connections within their community was an important way of reclaiming their condition.

“Part of the challenge I had was that when I was at a point of wanting to really engage and make sense of it [their diagnosis], the framework of DID didn’t fit me very well,” Sarah explains. “So, part of what I wanted to do was to be really inclusive, to not be talking about just one aspect of people’s experiences.”

Sarah K Reece’s website – The Dissociative Initiative

Despite what many would perceive as a brave choice to talk about one’s vulnerabilities on the internet, a number of commenters have left quite harsh criticisms under these YouTube videos capturing DID switches. The sceptics claim that the switches are fake, acted or edited, with some even saying that it’s just a snag for media attention.

Dr Warwick Middleton is a psychiatrist from Brisbane, and has been studying Dissociative Identity Disorder and multiplicity conditions for over 20 years. He feels that it is actually quite unlikely that these filmed DID switches are fake.

“It needs to be pointed out that DID, or MPD, has been part of the DSM official classification of mental illnesses in a detailed form for the last 40 years,” Dr Middleton explains, because YouTube viewers aren’t the ones who rules on the legitimacy of someone’s DID experiences. “If you’re aware of it, you can see the switches happening.”

Dr Middleton feels that people are always using social media platforms to get themselves out there, be it with good or bad intentions.

“People use the internet to talk about anything, so DID is going to be part of it,” he says. “[People join] groups to become terrorists, people go on groups to find religion, it’s an incredible, convoluted land of anything on the internet.”

But he also agrees that the young YouTubers with DID who are out there sharing their stories are helping to normalise the conversation about it, saying “anything that’s sensible and grounded, and respectful, is usually a step in the positive direction.”

Sarah K Reece also praises the young YouTubers who have decided to combat the dehumanisation of people with DID and multiplicity in such an open and relatable way.

“Visual communication often bypasses all kinds of language and cultural barriers,” they say, “…and it’s not a universal language, it’s got its own culture, and communication.”

“The personal stuff shifts the story. It helps to reclaim a sense of self in the world.”