Until she was 40 years old, Melanie Goodwin had no memory of her life before the age of 16. Then, a family tragedy triggered a cataclysmic psychological change. Suddenly she was aware of other identities inside her, and the barriers between them were crumbling. The different identities belonged to her, Melanie felt, but ‘her’ at different ages, from three years’ old to 16 and on into adulthood.
These ages were not random. Amid the confusing, terrifying mingling of different voices in one consciousness came memories of child abuse, the first episode occurring when she was three, the last when she was 16. “I have no proof,” she notes. “I have to go with what I believe happened, and my reality.”
Melanie has what used to be called multiple personality disorder, which is now more commonly referred to as dissociative identity disorder (DID). The change in name reflects an understanding that it’s more than just changes in personality that are involved. Memories, behaviours, attitudes, perceived age – all can switch together.
“We” – she generally refers to herself as ‘we’ – “had lots of adult parts. Development should be seamless… But because we didn’t grow up naturally, we would update ourselves… Finally, there were nine different adult parts, each managing a stage of our abuse-free adult life.”
Living with DID can be “hell”, she says. It is a breakdown of an aspect of everyday existence that the rest of us take for granted – our sense that we are one individual self. For Melanie, the abrupt awareness of her many different identities warring inside her was overwhelming. How could she possibly find a way to accommodate them all?
Split into parts
Melanie is talking from a sofa in a quiet consulting room at the Pottergate Centre for Dissociation and Trauma in Norwich, UK. The centre is run by Remy Aquarone, an analytical psychotherapist and a former director of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.
Over a 30-year career, Aquarone has worked with hundreds of people with a dissociative disorder. In most cases, he says, they have a history of childhood abuse, generally starting before the age of five.
In an attempt to cope with the traumatic experiences, the theory goes, the child ‘dissociates’ – it splits itself into parts. One part endures the abuse and contains the horrific emotional and physical impacts; another part exists afterwards. Or, there might be one part that endures the abuse, another that gets the body back to its bedroom, and another that goes down to breakfast in the morning. If the abuse goes on over years, and also if different scenarios and perpetrators are involved, many different parts may splinter off.
It’s the dissociation that allows the child to keep going. In fact, “it’s the ultimate adaption system. It’s using your unconscious cognition to adapt your way of thinking and behaviour in order to be more safe,” Aquarone says.
Melanie describes it this way: “If you’re in a totally impossible situation, you dissociate to stay alive. Trauma can freeze you in time. And because the trauma is ongoing over years, there are lots of little freezings happening all over the place.”
Not everyone who endures childhood abuse – or any other form of ongoing major trauma – develops a dissociative disorder. Based on his work, Aquarone says there’s another critical factor involved: the absence of a normal, healthy attachment to an adult.
In the field of developmental psychology, ‘attachment’ has a specific meaning: it’s a bond that forms between an infant and a care-giver who supports and looks after that child, emotionally and practically, while also helping that child to learn about and manage his or her responses. Without that bond – prevented by bereavement, neglect or abuse – a child undergoing a trauma is left to fend for itself.