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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Myself Divided

Living with Multiple Personalities

Laura Emily Mason

Part one Outside and Inside

(A slightly different version of this essay appeared in New York Magazine in 1997)

It's a typical day at work. I chair a meeting, write a report, give a software demo. In between, I trade pleasantries with co-workers waiting for the copy machine, answer my e-mail, and phone a local restaurant to make reservations for twenty -- a luncheon next week for a colleague who is leaving. Five o'clock. With relief, I exchange the intimacy of the office for the privacy of the crowded street. I always walk the three miles home, and as I head up Broadway, I begin to feel the familiar internal shift. Those inside me are waking up. I give them free play while my body travels onward.

In the safety of my apartment, I take off my outside clothes and put on a comfortable, oversized T-shirt. Along with the clothes, I shed my outside skin and mind. Now I don't have to think in words or wear a grown-up expression, and all those inside me can finally be themselves. Just as waves turn the ocean inside out and rearrange the water, different ones of us cycle in and out in an ebb and flow that is sometimes gentle, sometimes turbulent. A child colors with Crayola markers that a teenager bought her the day before. The child moves aside to make way for the administrator, who reconciles the bank statement. A moment later the dead baby takes over and lies paralyzed on the floor, staring unseeing at the ceiling. She remains that way for a while, but no one gets upset -- it's her turn. The constant, easy switching continues. The live baby stops in her crawl, engrossed by a speck of dust. The cooker prepares meals for three days and packages each separately -- we all have different likes and dislikes. A terrified one screams aloud, a wounded one moans, a grieving one wails. Cooking and screaming often go on simultaneously, as more than one of us can be out at a given time. Someone talks to someone else, then pauses to listen to the response, which I cannot hear, as I don't yet know everyone in me. "You little Shit! Leave me alone!" Pause. "I told you, I didn't do that." I have no idea what this is about, but I feel no anxiety, pain or fear, despite the ominous words.

In many ways, I am an ordinary person. You have probably seen me in the public library, or eating pasta at the table next to you in a restaurant. You would never know, from my behavior or appearance, that I have Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). But if you did, it shouldn't alarm you. I don't do bizarre things in public. I'm not dangerous. And like most Multiples, I go to great lengths to conceal my multiplicity, partly for practical reasons like earning a living, partly because I crave connections and don't want to be seen as a freak.

The free-flowing time at home, which I euphemistically call putter-time, enables my system to come into balance and replenish the enormous amount of energy expended outside, where I have to maintain a non-stop translator as my interface to the world. It's the most essential part of my day, and I try to make sure it is uninterrupted. But sometimes the phone rings. Then we come to a short stop, and everything freezes while System Control decides whether to answer. If the decision is yes, I hastily put everyone on hold and manage a barely audible "Hello." Invariably, the person calling asks "Did I wake you?" or "Are you sick?" But by the time the preliminary how-are-you's are dispensed with, I have usually gotten enough of the interface in place to talk in a more normal manner. If the caller is one of my Multiple friends, whom I've met through a support group, I sometimes welcome it. While I don't let any of the children or babies talk, I do talk about them -- what they thought and felt and did, the current problems they're having. My friends listen understandingly and share their own similar experiences with me. I come away from the call feeling validated and refreshed. But with non-Multiple callers, we have to hide all our internal concerns. It is a strain to keep the interface in place and talk about things that have no meaning for those on hold who are waiting impatiently to return, and I try to limit the conversation.

Sometimes I go to the theater with a friend, or baby-sit for my young nephews after work. On those occasions, the shortened putter-time we have when we get home is stressful, because those waiting to come out know there might not be enough time for them and are restless underneath. Their restlessness is felt by the one who is out, so even though she's getting her turn, it isn't satisfying for her. Putter-time needs to run its course in an unhurried way for everyone to go back inside peacefully. Then, no matter who is out when we go to sleep, the administrator wakes in the morning to get us ready for work and everyone inside remains calm during the day. But if putter-time is short-changed, no one is stowed away properly and our delicate balance is completely disrupted. We wake the next morning unsettled, have a bad day at work, and come home worse. Because it takes two or three days of quality putter-time to recover from one evening at the movies with a friend, I don't go out often, and my life is severely limited.

* * *

MPD, also known as DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), is sometimes portrayed as a rare condition, and sometimes as the current, in-vogue diagnosis. There are mental health professionals who question its existence, and others who acknowledge it, but believe it is therapists themselves who create it by suggesting to their patients that they have separate parts. Most, however, feel it is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, the difference being that the trauma which causes MPD usually begins in childhood and continues for many years. Although MPD was documented as early as the 1880's, little was known about it when I was in high school and college in the fifties and sixties. Two books -- The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Sybil (1973) -- and their associated movies brought MPD to the public's attention. At the time, audiences considered the condition an oddity, and were intrigued mostly because of the bizarre symptoms: sudden switching from one personality to another, amnesia for things another self did, "waking up" bewildered in a strange place. But today, media coverage of the problems of Vietnam veterans, rape and incest victims, and victims of political terrorism and torture has made the public more aware of the long-term effects of physical and emotional trauma.

* * *

In some respects, I had an unremarkable childhood. I was raised in a two-parent family with one younger brother, and played stoop-ball and hop-scotch with all the other kids on our tree-lined street in Brooklyn. At the local public elementary school, my report cards were filled with "Satisfactory" or "Outstanding" in academic subjects, but I sometimes received "Unsatisfactory" in conduct; though I was quiet at home, in school I talked non-stop, laughed uncontrollably, and waved my hand wildly when I raised it, hoping for praise and recognition.

Before they met at a foreign language club in 1941, both my parents had had brief marriages which ended in divorce. Though my father was a government clerk with only a high-school diploma, my college-educated mother was captivated by him because he went to concerts and museums, studied languages, and played chess. They married within a few months. But even before my birth a year later, my mother came to know my father's rages. Anything set him off -- the apartment was too hot, she flavored the stew with ketchup, a neighbor's radio was too loud.

She had been looking forward to motherhood, but he took possession of me the moment I was born and shut her out. With fierce love, he set out to give me all the skills I would need to survive in the world. Baby talk was forbidden. No coo-coo-ing, clucking sounds, or anything that wasn't a perfectly enunciated word in a well-constructed sentence. He himself spoke to me only in Spanish, so I would learn another language. He trained me not to cry by not responding, and sent my mother out of the apartment when she wanted to soothe me. If she gave me a bath in warm water, he immediately plunged me into a basin of ice water -- to close my pores so I wouldn't get ill -- and held me down despite my shrieks. My mother's self-esteem had been badly shaken by her divorce, and she resolved to stay married this time, despite her unhappiness. She survived by cutting off her feelings at home and pouring her energy into her teaching career, leaving my upbringing to my father. A dedicated and effective educator, she worked toward her doctorate at night and eventually became a school principal.

In the parlance of the day, people didn't call my father abusive; they said he was "strict." He molded me to his vision of preparedness with the patience and tenacity of a horticulturist shaping a bonsai tree, knowing it would take years to twist it into crippled perfection, and nursing it through its torture. He read me books -- Goldilocks y los Tres Osos, A Child's History of the World. Worried that he and my mother might die, he taught me touch typing and Gregg stenography when I was 8, so I would be able to support myself. At 10, he insisted that I sit on the beach without a bathing suit top, to absorb the sun's healthful rays. I had tiny breast buds and was mortally embarrassed, but I didn't dare protest.

At best, my father was a benevolent despot. At worst, he was brutal. He made me prepare myself for his beatings when I did something that displeased him, ordering me to "take off your glasses and come here." I always complied. In winter, he put me to bed with the window wide open, for fresh air. Following his orders, I lay on my right side facing the wall, to prevent communication with my brother, who was on his left side facing the opposite wall. My father placed a blanket over me and told me to keep my feet under it all night. I always did, but could never get warm. When morning came, he lifted the cover, felt my icy feet, and was sure I had disobeyed. I submitted to his blows in silence; the less I said, the sooner this part of the morning routine would be over, and the sooner I could get ready for school.

My father's rages were the backdrop of my family's existence, but my mother, my brother, and I never mentioned them. When I watched my father bunch my brother into a football and kick him down the hall in fury, I didn't feel solidarity with him -- only relief that it wasn't me. All the members of my family lived isolated lives, taking what private respite we could in the calm intervals. Sometimes, when I was very young and still had hope of comfort, I did seek it from my mother. But lacking emotional support herself -- though my father wasn't physically abusive to her, she was not spared his tirades -- she had none to offer me. When I whined and tried to cling, she hit me with a wooden hanger and banished me with "Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is mud!" I felt disgusting, like a worm you poke with a stick. My father, at least, never tired of me.

* * *


Author's note: MPD has sometimes been called a disorder of pronouns. Several non-Multiples who read drafts of this article asked who the "I" was. The article was written by Laura Emily Mason, the writer in us, with input from several others, mainly AlmostLaura, who has the most co-consciousness. "I" sometimes refers to the totality of us, and sometimes to one of us in particular. When it is someone in particular, it is most often Almost Laura.

"The longing was so great, it opened a big hole in my chest..." When a child is abused, it is usually at the hands of someone on whom she depends for food, shelter and love. In order to survive emotionally, she must find a way of coping with the trauma without compromising her belief in the goodness of that person. While she has little control over her external environment, she can escape it by becoming divided internally. Some of her parts, or personalities, hold all awareness of the abuse, as well as the fear, anger and humiliation that go with it. Other parts, free of the disturbing knowledge and feelings, lead seemingly normal lives; they go to school, play with friends, and even interact with her abuser as if nothing were the matter. The personality who is out at any given moment may have no idea that others share her body.

It isn't always easy to spot abused children, especially if there are no visible marks. But even when they do leave clues, as I did in kindergarten, adults often don't recognize them. I colored and pasted, played games, and was generally indistinguishable from the other children. Except for one minute each day, I was totally unaware of my pain. That minute came at ten o'clock, after free play, when the teacher gathered the class together for group singing. Something about her sitting at the piano, looking so kindly at the class arranged in a semi-circle around her, woke up the part inside who longed for someone to care about me. The longing was so great, it opened a big hole in my chest and made my insides hurt unbearably. I couldn't sit and sing with such a big hole. So every morning at ten, for that entire year, I tiptoed up to Mrs. McCullough's piano stool and whispered hopefully in her ear, "I have a stomachache." And every morning, hands still on the keyboard, she leaned her head toward me and said gently, "Just sit down and try not to think about it, and it'll go away." The stab of disappointment always took me by surprise. She didn't see the hole in me. Or if she did, it wasn't important enough to be real. So I obediently returned to my seat with my stomachache, which I didn't know enough to call a heartache. Then, just as my insides hurt so much I thought they would break open, the pain went away, and I began to sing with the rest of the children. Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream...

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