Living with dissociative identity disorder can be isolating. Media portrayals of the condition are often stigmatizing, making the people who have it seem dangerous or unpredictable. This stigma, combined with the fact that only 2 percent of the population lives with a dissociative identity disorder, can leave many people living with the condition hesitant to seek professional help or open up to loved ones.
When you find out that you have a friend with dissociative identity disorder, your first instinct may be to feel frightened or to question if they’re the person you thought they were. However, these doubts and fears are unfounded. Dissociative identity disorder is a mental health condition with its roots in trauma. The people who have it aren’t inherently threatening and they’re just as deserving and capable of love and compassion as everyone else.
Learning more about this condition can help you understand what your loved one is going through and teach you how to support someone with dissociative identity disorder. Taking the time to educate yourself can help you avoid adding to the trauma that your friend is likely already coping with and increase the likelihood that they will seek professional therapy.
What It’s Like to Live With Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of one or more personalities in the same person, typically referred to as “alters.” These alters are all part of a greater system that makes up the individual. While some of these alters may be aware of each other, others may have no concept of the different personalities and may have completely different sets of beliefs, ideas and maturity levels. In many cases, people have difficulty remembering events that happened while different alters were present. Certain circumstances and feelings may trigger alters to come out.
Alters are thought to be created by a mental process that disconnects a person from their memories, thoughts and sense of identity known as dissociation. Often, the mind experiences dissociation in an attempt to cope with and protect a person from severe physical, sexual or emotional trauma. In many cases of dissociative identity disorder, people experience this trauma in childhood.
Supporting a Friend with Dissociative Identity Disorder
While it can be challenging to know the best way to help someone with dissociative identity disorder, making an effort to understand your friend’s experiences and seek out advice is a great first step.
There are a few key ways you can help someone with dissociative identity disorder:
1. Stay Calm During Switches
In many cases, switching between alters happens very subtly. However, sometimes the change can be more dramatic and disorienting. One moment you’re talking to your friend and in the next moment, it’s as if an entirely different person is inhabiting their body. While this situation may be stressful and surprising, remaining levelheaded and meeting your friend where they are mentally can be enormously helpful. As confusing as witnessing a switch can be for an outsider, it’s often even more upsetting for the person experiencing it directly, especially if they are met with hostility or fear.
2. Learn How to Recognize and Avoid Triggers
For people with dissociative identity disorder, personality shifts are brought on by “triggers,” or external stimuli that cause them to switch between alters. Individuals with this condition may be triggered by anything that elicits a strong emotional response, including certain places, smells, sounds, senses of touch, times of the year or large groups of people. These triggers are highly individual and can vary dramatically depending on the specific trauma that caused a person to develop dissociative identity disorder. Your job is to find out what triggers your friend — either by asking them directly or observing their behavior — and help them avoid those triggers when possible.
3. Take Care of Yourself, Too
Being close to someone with dissociative identity disorder can be emotionally taxing. It can be difficult to stay vigilant of triggers and different alters. Often, people with this condition have been through intensely traumatic experiences, usually in childhood, and hearing about these experiences can be difficult. The best way you can serve your friend is to make sure that you’re tending to your own physical and mental well-being.
How to Talk to Your Friend About Treatment
Professional care can be enormously beneficial to someone with a dissociative identity disorder. With the help of a clinician, individuals with this condition can learn how to cope with and recognize triggers, understand the roots of their trauma and better manage the challenges that come with switching between alters. Unfortunately, because dissociative identity disorder is so heavily stigmatized, many people who have it never seek treatment.
As the friend of someone with dissociative identity disorder, you have the potential to help them seek the care that could dramatically improve their life. If you know your friend lives with this condition but hasn’t sought professional help, these tips can help you have a productive conversation about seeking treatment:
- Choose a time when you’re both free and relaxed. A low-stress environment sets the stage for a better, more productive discussion.
- Let them know that you care about them. It’s crucial that your loved one knows you’re coming from a place of wanting them to feel better.
- Offer to help look for providers. Lending a hand in finding a therapist or treatment center can make the prospect of seeking help less daunting.
- Accompany them to their first appointment. Knowing that you’re there for them may make your friend more likely to seek help.
While professional treatment can benefit anyone with dissociative identity disorder, it’s particularly important when a person also has other co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or substance use disorder. In these cases, a treatment plan that addresses all mental health conditions present is essential to long-term mental health and recovery.
If your friend has co-occurring substance use and other mental health disorders, consider the benefits of treatment at The Recovery Village. With locations across the country and comprehensive care, The Recovery Village has helped thousands of people begin fulfilling lives in recovery. Reach out to a representative today for more information.
C., Iain. “10 Things I Wish People Understood About Living With Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The Mighty. July 26, 2016. Accessed January 18, 2019. NAMI. “Dissociative Disorders.” Accessed January 18, 2019. Jaide, Andee. “How to Support Someone With Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The Mighty. August 3, 2017. Accessed January 18, 2019.
C., Iain. “10 Things I Wish People Understood About Living With Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The Mighty. July 26, 2016. Accessed January 18, 2019.
NAMI. “Dissociative Disorders.” Accessed January 18, 2019.
Jaide, Andee. “How to Support Someone With Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The Mighty. August 3, 2017. Accessed January 18, 2019.