Mental Illness in Stories and Real Life


I first started studying multiple personality disorders nearly twenty years ago. I was clerking for a small firm, trying to help a young woman escape a cult. Things happened to her but she wouldn’t remember the details. Occasionally, she’d go to bed, carefully lock all of her doors, wear earplugs, and then wake up the next morning to a disaster mess in her home where many people had come to party and where she’d been serially raped. At first, I was incredulous and thought she was making up details but the more I researched, the more I discovered that her situation was not unique. There are real people who suffer similarly.

What is DID/MPD?

The predominant cause of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is childhood abuse. Psychiatrists believe that a child’s psyche, while in its formative stage, will split and compartmentalize. This is a coping mechanism that allows a child, lacking tools to process terrible abuse, to continue functioning. Learning about it is at once fascinating, disgusting, and from a certain perspective, merciful. The result is that later in life, these compartmentalized portions of the brain start coming out in the form of different personalities. Commonly, the person suffering the mental illness blames loved one they live with for whatever problems they are having and usually, they don’t remember what caused their brain to fracture in the first place … until many sessions of grueling therapy open the door to those memories. Sadly, techniques for this vary and the results are highly debated among professionals and lay people alike. Often, the person with the mental illness is unwilling to visit that traumatic childhood event (without hypnosis) and so they blame any number of other sources to avoid confrontation with whatever painful memory caused their psyche to fracture. Most cases involve women but men can develop DID/MPD as well. At least one case purports to have been caused from trauma to an adult (a PhD exam) but after Sybil was allegedly debunked as a fraudulent case, one has to wonder whether or not the PhD dissertation was really the cause of a splitting psyche or if the PhD candidate simply wanted a medically viable excuse for an extension of time.

Stories Part 1

While movies like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split are entertaining (yet based enough upon reality to ease us into that suspension of disbelief mode), real life experiences are often bizarre enough to write a very engaging, un-sensationalized movie. A few of those have been written as well (Sybil is the most controversial “sort-of” example of this). Frankly, there is a lot to say on the subject and I’m surprised that not many people have taken up arms to educate the world about this more-common-than-you-think illness. Sure, characters like Gollum and the Hulk have similar symptoms and they have brought a certain degree of awareness to mental illnesses and they make interesting cinema but what about stories based upon real life? Why haven’t those engaged the attention of more authors? People who have suffered from MPD have literally lived more than one life at a time. Married to different people in different cities, they disappear for a time and wonder where they’ve been. While one spouse caters to them and tries to love them through the trauma of having forgotten where they’d been for weeks on end, another spouse desperately seeks them out, worried sick and uncertain over what is happening to their spouse. Is that fraudulent bigamy or serial monogomy or not guilty by reason of insanity? While some sufferers of DID speak different languages, claim different genders or ages, and dress dramatically differently, other sufferers are more subtle and less intrusive with day to day life. Story possibilities from real cases are fascinating, exotic, and every bit as sexy as any author could hope for while others may wax a little doldrum.

Impact on Loved Ones

What these reported cases delve into very little however is the impact DID has had upon the families of those who experience the illness. How did the husband feel when his loyal wife developed a personality who wanted to start dating someone else only to rebuff the would-be-lover’s efforts when she was manifesting her core personality? Should he rejoice at the fidelity of her core self or revile the unfaithful personality who disdains him already? How could he do both? If she became unfaithful at any point, what was his proper response as someone with moral expectations of fidelity? What if her core self woke up in the bed of her lover, repulsed at what must have happened and heartbroken over her spouse’s imminent disapproval? Knowing she was mentally ill, should he frankly forgive her or move on with the realization that she’s likely never going to be healed? What if she doesn’t acknowledge her own mental illness and she feels that her husband left her because she was unfaithful but she feels as though she’d been drugged and then raped? How does the spouse feel when he/she gets along with three personalities but not the other two? Some spouses refuse to be intimate with their DID/MPD partner unless the “core” personality is in control – otherwise, they feel as if they are being unfaithful. Is this a legitimate concern or pedanticism? And what do you do when you have children together? What if mom self harms when she’s one personality but doesn’t let that personality out very often? Is it negligent or merciful to allow her unsupervised visitations? When it is difficult for a third party to discern that an individual has MPD in certain situations, is it risky to deny visitation to a spouse who seems unsafe or is denying visitation the only viable option despite how police may respond to a call claiming unreasonable denial of visitation? There are so many intriguing moral questions that revolve around this particular mental illness.

Or, how about this twist: what if the DID partner says she’s never had MPD because her extra personalities never demanded to be named? Is that better because her case is “less severe” or worse because it suggests she’s never been completely aware of the gravity of her illness? When your spouse doesn’t remember hours or days of happenings, do you patiently recount everything that happened multiple times over multiple situations (a la Fifty First Dates) or is it okay if you eventually just refuse to talk any more about it? Undoubtedly family members of Alzheimer’s patients understand the pain of this situation better than anyone and … eventually, most of those people stop visiting the relative because they only repeat the same conversation over and over and never grow in their relationship. We admire people who continue to hold steadfast to their aging family member but some wonder whether or not the effort was ever meaningful for the Alzheimer patient and if it wasn’t meaningful to them, were all of those efforts wasted?

I recently met a man on vacation who was bipolar. His wife had recently left him and he confessed to me that it is difficult to love someone with mental illness. I have a friend with bipolar disorder who told me the same thing. Having seen her manic on a couple occasions, I can understand what she means – and what they both meant. A manic person can’t be reasoned with. They refuse your help. They refuse you professions of love and concern. They say terrible, awful things to you. And when it’s all over, they may not remember whatever bad things they did and they may feel hurt if you express pain from what they’ve done. Some don’t feel accountable for what they’ve done. Others feel accountable and apologize but that does nothing to prevent it from happening again – perhaps daily or frequently for many years.

Stories Part 2

Maybe these real life experiences are¬†too disturbing for people to deeply contemplate and perhaps they make book/movie material too unlovable to sell without very expert treatment but I’m wondering why so few have tried. Perhaps it works to leave the reader/moviegoer fascinated with Sybil’s sixteen personalities or Split’s twenty personalities because it doesn’t feel too depressing – and Split has plenty of action to boot. We can laugh at Gollum when he goes over the edge (and overcomes his precious alter ego) and we can laugh at the Hulk for his lack of intelligence when he’s green so that approach has worked in the past.

But what about sympathizing with the spouse? one who confesses: I felt like I’d lost my best-friend-wife years ago so when she was diagnosed with DID, I didn’t really mourn her illness or the fact that she would likely never get any better. I’d already experienced that loss. I’d already gone through that grieving process. I knew she was gone and might never come back. And when she physically leaves, do we as an audience pity the husband when he doesn’t “sufficiently” mourn her departure or do we feel indignant toward his callousness? What if he himself feels conflicted between apathy and deep despair?

My Experience

Mental illness made its intrusive invasion into my life on multiple occasions, both in the courtroom and in the home. Not knowing what I was dealing with, I handled it poorly for years. However, if I had the chance to live life knowing about the mental illness long before I recognized it, I don’t know that a different approach would have helped much at all. Of course, I’d try something new but when someone is in a manic phase, it doesn’t seem to matter what you do – the situation quickly digresses into a lose/lose scenario until the manic phase passes and then, regardless of how you handled it, you’re to blame for something. Having a diagnosis can help in some ways – it offers some useful tools to approach daily challenges. But after multiple and changing diagnoses, I’ve learned that handling mental illness isn’t a science so much as an art, even when their core personality is lovely and beautiful and praiseworthy in many ways. It consumes your life with ever present demands, ever changing scenarios, and a long list of conundrums you’re never certain how to handle. If you’re not imbued with the natural and artful capacity to nurture someone with mental illness in the right way, you’re in way over your head with challenges. One of my well beloved family members once confessed: “It’s scary not to be able to trust your own mind.” That was a heartbreaking moment for me. I’ll perhaps never be the same after hearing those fateful words. The images with quotes (above) are perhaps different ways of expressing the same sentiment but I particularly like Soren Kierkegaard’s approach: There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true. Some people with mental illness struggle with both ways of being fooled and their loved ones are often brought into that confusion right along with them.

As an author, this sounds like the perfect storm for great stories. Perhaps it is a relatively untapped disability that needs more attention in fiction. Or perhaps writing mental illness into a story is so complicated that it could literally take an entire series to explore the repercussions characters experience from dealing with various mental illnesses … only to fail to compel an audience to stay tuned for the finale. By surprise, I’ve already written a little about mental illness – sometimes personal experiences creep their way into an author’s stories, I’ve been told … and I’ve noticed. When I finished¬†Unproven, I was somewhat alarmed to see evidence of my personal experiences influencing a few character arches. There are even a couple of scenes where a character (or two) goes a little manic. I didn’t treat those scenes with real-to-life detail but they dramatically shaped the story. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I realized how heavily my personal experiences with mental illness seeped their way into the story. Perhaps that made it more compelling. I hope so.


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