I find myself in a unique situation: I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, and so do my kids. I grew up in a family where child sexual abuse was the norm, and because of my husband this unfortunately played out into my children’s lives until I cut loose and we left. Living in our household might sound like a nightmare, and at times we have got ourselves into a pretty pickle, but mostly we have found our way out again and there have also been distinct advantages to our shared view of the world.As a family we didn’t always know that DID was the common denominator in our confusing lives. Until recently we had all struggled privately with our personal shame and our internal difficulties. Life was a puzzle. I continually failed in my attempts to teach my children to behave in a socially acceptable manner. Only the explanation of DID and the fact that we have ‘parts’ shone a light on my bemusement. Until then, the good parts had tried harder to be angelic, thereby developing OCD, and the parts who behaved in unacceptable ways just continued on in those unacceptable ways. It was a bit like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, who when she was good was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid. It was when I began to understand that my kids had ‘parts’, as I do, that it began to make sense.

What I realised was that people with DID can be genuinely unaware of aspects of their behaviour. My kids seemed at times to act in bizarre ways, and they were just as confused as I was by their behaviour and its impact on others and their circumstances. The nature of the separations between their ‘alters’, their ‘parts’, their ‘personalities’ or (as I prefer sometimes to put it) their ‘lumps of experience’, meant that they were unaware of and therefore unable to control some of the things they were doing that I was asking them to change. I had been talking to the wrong parts – asking the well-behaved parts to buck up their ideas when they knew nothing about it. It was like blaming the wrong sibling for who started the fight.

But seeing this phenomenon in my kids’ lives helped me to see and understand what was happening in my own life too. I had bumbled along for many years being puzzled by others’ reactions to me – I thought other people just had a tendency to act oddly towards me. But then I made the connection between this anomaly in my own experience of the world, and the look on my kids’ faces when they were faced with some of their ‘uncharacteristic’ behaviour. I began to figure out that people’s odd behaviour towards me was probably as a result of something that one of my ‘parts’ had done. In helping my kids to see why people were behaving towards them the way they were, I was able to start figuring out why I provoked strange reactions from people as well.

This segregation of awareness meant that my kids often were not being naughty or lying; they genuinely didn’t know that they had done something unacceptable, and they were disoriented by the reactions their behaviours provoked. They didn’t know about their other personalities, and although it felt dangerous to tell them, together we began a journey of discovery.

I realised that, like my kids, I too was phobic of my parts – the information and knowledge they carry, and the feelings they hold. After all, that is why they are there: to shield us from knowledge and experiences too awful to bear. Instinctively I realised that I needed to accept my kids’ other ‘parts’, and only by experiencing the safety of my love could they begin to explore and get to know these hidden aspects of themselves. At the same time I was on a journey of trying to gain control over what was happening in my own life and in order to be able to help my kids face the pain of their past, I knew I had to have the courage to face my own.

Accepting that parts exist was the primary, essential step to take before any of us could make any progress. We had all spent our lives rejecting these parts, not wanting to know about them, or the trauma that they had suffered. We had to create in our household an atmosphere of acceptance and truth – the opposite of what we had all endured in the abuse previously. Acceptance was the prerequisite to being able to tackle some of the parts’ behaviour. Eventually, because my kids’ parts felt accepted and began to realise that they were not alone and that I wanted to help, they no longer felt the need quite so urgently to state their views or claim their ‘rights’ in so extreme a manner.

Previously there had been a downward spiral of rejection. Parts hadn’t felt accepted or wanted, so they would take over when we weren’t looking and cause us a whole host of shameful difficulties. In turn this led to us rejecting and despising them further. Acceptance started an upward spiral towards hope and healing. We had to come to terms with the fact that parts act and react out of limited knowledge and experience – they don’t see the whole picture. I began to realise that some of their unacceptable behaviour was perfectly logical to that particular part, given their narrowed perception and grasp of the situation. What had seemed to me an overreaction was in fact understandable in the light of their dissociated traumatic experiences.

But accepting doesn’t mean condoning. Their behaviour was often still problematic, and accepting the parts didn’t mean that they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. To accept their right to exist and have a say is not the same as agreeing that the way they do things is the right way. It was hard to have to make my kids face up to the fact that some of their ways of coping with the world would have to be overturned if there was to be any hope of improving their behaviour in general and the way the world responded to them in particular. It would have been a lot easier to say that they have DID so the world will just have to put up with them and adapt. And that was an option, but only if we wanted to live as victims for the rest of our lives. I wanted more for them and for myself, and each child in turn asked me to help them to overcome these difficulties. And so our adventure began.

I had to let them know about their destructive or aggressive parts. I had to let them know about their angry parts. But not in a condemning, rejecting manner, and this was a huge challenge in the end for me. I needed to demonstrate understanding and acceptance towards their parts, and so in turn I had to develop it for myself and my parts as well. This wasn’t easy at all, but it has ended up having a huge influence on my own personal progress. That is why I believe that, despite our difficulties as a family, there have been and continue to be advantages in this unique position I find myself in.

I could see that my kids’ parts had every right to be angry, because I knew some of the things that had happened to them and knew that their anger was justifiable. I loved my kids’ angry parts in the same way that I would have loved them had they expressed that anger at the time, not taking it personally but feeling it with them and supporting them in it. But a key for us was me helping them to see the difference between the past and the present. Their angry parts in particular still had feelings from the past, and they needed help experiencing and expressing and acknowledging those feelings. My role was to help them find acceptable, and usually less destructive ways, of doing this. They still have a right to be angry about what happened to them back then, and we can talk about it and work through those justifiable feelings together.

But my kids’ parts needed help figuring out which feelings are from the past and which are from the present. When my daughter flew into a rage, I had to work really hard to come alongside her and help her to cope with those feelings now, in a way that I had been unavailable to do so back then. I had to work against all my false guilt feelings of having failed her and let her down back then – in other words, I too had to distinguish between my feelings of past and present too. Sometimes she would rage at me, and we had to work it through together for her to express her anger without hurting me for what was then by staying grounded somehow in the now. We didn’t and we don’t always get it right. But I try to help her by acknowledging that they are huge and frightening feelings for her to have, and I help her to face them, in the knowledge that I am probably not the one who has caused them in the present.

And I realised that for myself too, as all people with parts, what we so often need is someone who will help us to work out where our feelings are coming from, whether it’s from something in the here-and-now, or something from the there-and-then. We need someone brave enough not to run away from our overwhelming feelings and someone solid enough not to react to our over-reactions from the past because of their own emotional baggage. We need someone who can hold and contain our feelings, rather than taking offence if we are temporarily misdirecting our feelings at them. We need someone who won’t get tangled up with their own feelings, someone who is confident in their own integrity and commitment to us. And as far as my kids go, for a lot of the time that person has to be me. I need to tell them that their anger is accepted and appropriate, whilst helping them see that mostly it comes from a long time ago. It’s not always easy.

Sometimes my daughter explodes from the intense abandonment she felt as a baby, when I had left her in the care of her father. In the here-and-now it is triggered by me starting a job that involves night-shifts and at the age of 17 she is catapulted back all those years. It is a tightrope to walk, between having her know that I understand and empathise with her feelings of abandonment now, but that they are feelings of abandonment from then, and that I am not abandoning her now. I have to help her tiny, baby parts understand that however much I let her cling to me tonight, it won’t rescue them from the neglect she experienced back then. The temptation to try to help her avoid those painful triggers is huge, but avoidance doesn’t help anyone in the long run. I cannot fix her past, however much I long to. What I have to do is to help her come to terms with what happened, give her permission to feel and express those emotions, and move forward to a place of knowing that it is not happening now.

This has stirred up feelings for me too. I have had to work hard to stop my false guilt from confusing the situation further. I was not there to protect my baby, and that is traumatic for me now too. I want to undo that fact and be rescued from the hurt that that knowledge causes me. In this instance, denial could be a friend to us both. I could spend the rest of my life trying to protect my 17-year-old baby from the abandonment back then. Her baby parts could cling to me forever and never let me go, in the hope of never having to feel that. But we learned fairly quickly that allowing the pain from the past to keep us trapped like this is no way to live. We have to regain control of our lives by moving through the pain, not becoming its slave.

Dealing with my kids’ parts has made me start to deal with my own. I have had to accept that I have angry parts myself, however much that doesn’t fit with what I want to be. But I can acknowledge that those angry parts had a very necessary role in helping me survive, just as they were for my kids. I have had to figure out how to communicate and work with those angry parts of myself, just as I have with my kids’ angry parts. I am having to learn to show the same degree of empathy, respect and acceptance to my own parts as I try to towards my kids’ parts. That’s the hardest part.

But one thing I have really learned from this whole process is that I can be there for my kids. They just need me to offer them a supportive relationship that challenges them on the one hand while accepting them on the other. Sometimes their parts hate me and react horrendously to me, and that is hard. But I keep standing with them, and I keep challenging them.

That takes a certain amount of confidence, knowing that I want what is best for them and I know that giving in to them, allowing them to wallow or to avoid won’t help them in the long-run. And that’s what I want myself, and I believe it’s what many of us with DID want too. We don’t want people to rescue us or ‘fix’ us. We just want people to stick with us, to be there, to bear witness, to help us express our feelings appropriately, and to challenge our negative behaviours.

Empathy is sometimes about guessing and putting into words how you think it would feel. This gives us the springboard we need to be able to work out and express what it is we actually feel. I’ve got it wrong a thousand times with my kids, but they don’t mind because they know that I am trying to be there for them. Sometimes they react at the time, and sometimes I react too, but I still don’t believe that making mistakes is fatal.

Often people are afraid of saying or doing anything at all for fear of hurting us, when we have already been terribly damaged, and we are seen to be fragile. But saying nothing is worse – we interpret that as criticism, rejection or abandonment. The monsters from the past are left there in the hidden places.

As survivors, we are afraid of facing the painful stuff, and I am just as afraid as my kids are. But when I’m brave enough to say something like, “Is it like this?” to them, even if I’m not completely right, they don’t feel so alone and they somehow suck out from me the strength to face it. The worst thing I can do with my kids, and the worst thing I think anyone can do with survivors, is to walk on eggshells. Trying to avoid triggers will only lead to you being pulled into ever tighter tangles in order to try to avoid pain from the past. We do need to know that people in the present care about us and don’t want to hurt us. But if you really want to help us, you need to be confident that you are not the original source of our pain, and help us face what has come from the past. That process is what sets us free to relate to the present and enjoy life.

DID is about never having been allowed to form an integrated identity. As I have been able to provide the support for that to happen in my kids’ lives, I have been privileged to watch from my unique vantage points as my beautiful children have begun to shake off the shackles from the past and stand up and enjoy the world they were born to enjoy. They are all amazing people with whom I love spending my life, and that in itself gives me a reason to continue my own adventures.

(c) PODS 2011