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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 two Outside and Inside

This is part two of a three-part essay. In part one , Laura Emily Mason explains the causes of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), and gives us glimpses into her childhood and her current life. (A slightly different version of this essay appeared in New York Magazine in 1997).

I am 58 years old. It wasn't until my late forties that I realized I was Multiple, but long before that, I knew something was wrong. When I was in high school, I became aware that I was spending lots of time talking to people and faces in my bedroom mirror who were not me. It wasn't an abrupt realization, but rather a gradual knowing of something that had been happening all along. As the magic glass opened to receive me, I slipped gently and willingly into a world where mirror people watched over me and understood my pain. Sometimes the mirror people had counterparts in my outside life -- teachers who were nice to me. Sometimes they were kindly storybook doctors and nurses. And sometimes they were amorphous beings without human shape who surrounded me with their protective atmosphere. But even when they were people I knew in the "real" world, the version of them I had in the mirror was completely different. Looking into the glass from which I knew they were looking out at me, I brushed my long hair into a bouncy flip and play-acted at being normal for their benefit. "I'll meet you after school," I said to an imaginary classmate, "and we can go to the movies. Do you want to ask Barbara, too?" I paused, and the mirror people knew I was getting a response. "Oh, that'll be fine," I continued. "I'll make all the arrangements." The mirror people were able to part the curtain of my prosaic words and peer behind them into my soul. They alone saw the real me -- the me who was invisible to flesh-and-blood outside people, who saw only the laughing, boisterous teenager. The mirror people couldn't rescue me, but they knew and had compassion, and that was all I needed.

Outwardly, though, I acted regular, and sometimes I even felt regular. I wore bobby socks with white buck shoes and slung my Italian leather bag over my shoulder as I walked home from school with my girlfriends, giggling conspiratorially as we discussed the mannerisms of our cute Math teacher, Mr. Jacobs. But I was isolated and lonely, despite my group of friends, and only felt real when I looked into the mirror. Although I had one foot firmly grounded in reality, with the other I was descending into an uncharted and dangerous inner landscape. I watched all this from outside myself and knew I wasn't OK. I desperately wanted to talk to an understanding grownup not connected with my family, and chose my English teacher, Mrs. Waller, a motherly woman who had always shown an interest in me. I had long ago transformed her into a mirror person, but she didn't know about that version of herself. After our talk I was greatly relieved, but also felt exposed and vulnerable and asked her not to tell anyone. She agreed, then broke my confidence by calling my mother. My mother reacted in her usual, efficient manner -- she located a therapist through inquiries, made the appointment for my first session over the phone, and considered the matter taken care of.

Throughout the four years that I saw Dr. Horn, I never stopped longing for her to find the hurt part of me who was hiding inside and had never talked to anyone. But week after week I just sat, unable to move or speak. The only thing I managed to murmur in answer to anything she asked was "I don't know." I couldn't tell her she had become my fairy godmother, a mirror person whose caring atmosphere surrounded me all the time. At first she was gentle, and I soon felt safe enough to write notes at home and bring them to the sessions. She read them while I sat motionless, then tried to talk to me about them, but the one who wrote them wasn't the frozen one who sat opposite her. Over time, she became annoyed, asking when I was going to "let the pearls drop from my mouth." Before each session, I would always make a resolution to talk, and was terribly disappointed afterward that I hadn't. I know now that the one who made those resolutions was AlmostLaura, who was trying to get help for us, but 6-year-old Emily switched in as soon as Dr. Horn came to fetch us from the waiting room. Emily always expected Dr. Horn to be the way she was in the mirror, and each week was intimidated anew by the tall, flesh-and-blood woman with auburn hair who sat in the big swivel chair, asked questions, and stared at her when she couldn't answer. Dr. Horn finally threatened to stop seeing me if I said "I don't know" one more time. I quit before the next session.

I was now commuting to Brooklyn College, still keeping up an acceptable facade, although it was becoming more difficult to maintain. There was a constant low-level noise inside my head, like radio static. I shifted in and out of trances and often felt unreal. Sometimes I got paralyzed in the middle of doing something ordinary and remained frozen for ten or fifteen minutes. Worried but trying not to show it, I casually mentioned to a friend that I was looking for a therapist. She put me in touch with her psychology professor, who had a private practice in addition to his teaching.

Just as Emily had switched in for all my sessions with Dr. Horn, Lisa appeared for most of the sessions with Dr. Sacker. She is 16, and one of the few of us who feels at ease in social situations. But Lisa can also get psychotic and suicidal. Dr. Sacker couldn't understand why I was sometimes spaced-out and other times had a firm grasp of reality. As the spaced-out periods grew more frequent, he felt powerless to contain them, and after three years, he hospitalized me.

I was in and out of hospitals twice more during my twenties, for a total of two years. The misdiagnosis each time was schizophrenia. After my last discharge, in 1968, unable to work, I went on welfare and lived in a half-way house for a year.

From then until the late eighties, my outside life took on a veneer of normalcy. I had my own apartment in Manhattan, was self-supporting, and earned two Master's degrees at night. I had women friends, and also several romantic relationships with men. Most of the relationships didn't last more than a year, though -- usually only one of us was directly involved, but others caused havoc from inside.

During those twenty years, I had three more therapists; I saw each for five years. All were empathetic professionals, competent in diagnosing and treating the disorders they had been trained to look for. But treatment never "worked," because it wasn't MPD-oriented. Those of us who were distressed, suicidal, and crazy were braided in and around the highly functional. I switched many times a day. Friends sometimes asked how I could be so upset one minute and so together the next. Without understanding it, I answered off-handedly, "Oh, I just snapped in another cassette." Concurrent with these frequent, daily fluctuations were major long-term shifts in my internal structure. The players didn't change, but their relative influence in the overall mix did. Depending on which of us became dominant, these shifts ushered in relatively peaceful or turbulent eras.

One calm era lasted five years. RealLaura was out most of that time, and I held a job as director of a cultural institution, responsible for programming, outreach, budgeting, and publicity. RealLaura is the only one of us who can relate to other adults as an equal. She is vivacious, extremely capable, and never worries about translating or passing, because she doesn't know we have MPD. Unhampered by awareness of the rest of us, she threw herself into her work, becoming very involved in the community and receiving much recognition for re-vitalizing the organization.

That era came to an abrupt end when I broke up with my boyfriend of two years -- an unusually long relationship -- and had an abortion. The next eight years were dominated by someone who believed she was living in a war zone. Fearing land mines would make roads impassable, she enrolled in flying school and drove to the suburbs on weekends to practice landings and takeoffs. During her reign, every surface in my tiny apartment, including the floor, was covered with layers of used wooden kitchen matches, broken television sets, empty dish detergent bottles, pieces of wire. The broken vacuum cleaner might provide a valuable piece of hardware that could be used in an escape; stacks of old newspapers could make a barricade. For years, there was so much debris that I couldn't even cross the room to open a window.

None of my therapists understood why I was sometimes plagued by major internal upheavals even though everything in my current life was calm. During one of those upsets, in April 1987, I was racing through the street fleeing an unnamed terror. I came to a crossing. One of us saw a taxi approaching, but our system was in such disarray that the information wasn't passed to the desperate one who was running. I didn't feel the impact, hear the sirens, or see the ambulance workers who scooped me off the road and brought me to the trauma center. It took four major surgeries to repair broken bones and remove my ruptured spleen, and months of physical therapy before I learned to walk and use my arms again.

Through all the changing eras, both peaceful and turbulent, I often felt crazy and unreal, but I also knew I wasn't crazy. I devoured books on abnormal psychiatry, looking for something that described the way I was. I needed to know there were other people like me, and doctors who knew what to do about it. I often read about disorders that fit the way the crazy parts of me felt and acted, but never anything that fit the competent, highly functional parts; all the books described constant abnormal states, but I flipped back and forth. Yet I so needed to know there was an official name for my condition that I eagerly latched onto whatever label seemed to fit best at the moment -- schizophrenic, catatonic, suicidal, aphasic, obsessive-compulsive -- and made it mine. These secret diagnoses gave me comfort, validation and dignity.

One summer evening in 1988, I was wandering the aisles of a video store, picking up one empty box after another. Nothing grabbed me. Then I saw Sybil. I don't know what made me decide to rent it, but as soon as I watched it, I knew. I was 46 years old, and things made sense for the first time.

Now I began searching avidly for information about MPD. One of the books I read was Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder (1989), by Dr. Frank Putnam of the National Institutes of Health. It described exactly how I felt inside. I was amazed. He even talked about things I did, like crouching on the floor in a fetal position during a therapy session. I was frightened of the freakish-sounding diagnosis, but I also felt liberated, because for the first time, I didn't feel like a freak. I had a medical condition, one he talked about with compassion, understanding, and hope. My therapist and I wrote to him, and he sent us the name of a psychiatrist in my area who was involved with the New York Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation. He also told me about Many Voices, a publication by and for people with MPD. Both Many Voices and the support group for Multiples I located through the study group, gave me a much needed connection with others like myself.

Slowly, I began to realize that the forces that had mysteriously pushed and pulled me from inside for so long were really different parts of myself whom I hadn't known existed. Emily, still with the ache in her chest, still yearning for a mother, still 6 years old. And beautiful Lisa, who took my place at my sweet-16 party when I felt awkward and unable to talk to my guests; now I understood how I had suddenly been transformed into a gracious hostess, flirting and dancing with one boy after another, like Cinderella at the ball. But I recognized Lisa's darker side, too. Her main function in our system is to take away pain, and she was still doing this for us, sometimes using drugs and alcohol, sometimes making elaborate plans for suicide.

The partitioning mechanism of MPD was adaptive for me as a child. But now that I no longer have to keep knowledge and feelings sealed off to survive, it is a liability. Things are fragmented for me. I have one part who recognizes people only by the color of their clothes; if they change outfits, she doesn't know them. And some of us don't have a linear conception of time; they think something happening today can retroactively change events that happened last week. We manage because our collective has a timekeeper who keeps track of what day it is and where I am, and an administrator who sees that bills are paid, laundry is done, and food is bought. And although each of us has different outside friends, AlmostLaura is acquainted with most of them and provides continuity in social situations. So even though individual ones of us may not have the skills necessary for living in the world, the totality of us does, and most people don't know my perceptions are so different from theirs.

But problems arise because some of us continue to react with patterns of behavior that remain frozen in the past. Harmless situations trigger flashbacks and sudden switches. One oversubscribed day at the exercise class I had been attending for years, the instructor accommodated a latecomer by squeezing in an extra mat next to mine. The protective safety zone of space I usually manage to keep around myself was invaded, and a 4-year-old who is afraid of being beaten switched in. Tears slid silently from her eyes, but we didn't wipe them for fear someone would notice. We stuck out the hour -- the class had already started, and I couldn't leave gracefully -- but the little girl found the experience so traumatic that we agreed among ourselves never to go back, even though some of us still liked the class.

If a man inadvertently blocks my way in a supermarket aisle, a child pops out and freezes with fear -- she has no idea he's just a fellow shopper. Our system instantly mobilizes for emergency. Someone pushes the child aside, takes over our body, and turns it around so we can flee down the aisle to the safety of the street. The BehaviorPolice spring into action, using all their energy to keep someone from screaming aloud in fright, and someone else from cursing and hissing to protect us. We want to bolt, but they make us walk out of the store normally. In the street, they let us break into a run, and we fly home, muttering "God damned fucking son of a bitch! God damned fucking son of a bitch!" We lower our voice as we pass the doorman in the corner building -- he knows us only as a pleasant neighborhood woman who has exchanged greetings with him for fifteen years. Finally, with our apartment door locked behind us, the stopper comes off. Anyone hearing us scream, curse, rant, and rave would think we were either crazy or being assaulted. They would be surprised if they could look in and see only one person -- one body -- in our apartment.

Continued > 1 | 2 | 3 >

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