It never ceases to amaze me how insensitively and inaccurately the media portrays Dissociative Identity Disorder. The plots tend to go something like this: someone has committed a heinous crime! Mild mannered Miss Jennifer is so sweet that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Yet, “gasp” somehow the evidence is pointing directly towards her. How could this be? Jennifer loves puppies and cares for sick children. She would never hurt anyone. Big reveal, Jennifer has Dissociative Identity Disorder and she did commit this heinous crime! But she doesn’t remember it. Her evil alternate personality did it without her knowledge, how unfortunate. Now poor, sick, crazy, Jennifer has to pay for her criminally insane behavior. Mystery solved, cue the credits.
This overly simplified view of living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (also referred to as DID) is pretty offensive. I understand that DID is an interesting topic and seemingly makes a good plot device. I can comprehend that a movie or television show is going to portray things in the most dramatic and interesting way they can. They want to give you goosebumps and cause you to exclaim “OMG I can’t believe it!” It’s entertainment, right? So, what’s the harm really?
I am also fully aware that not every media portrayal of mental illness is complete fallacy and melodramatic plot twists. Occasionally a sensitively written script finds its way onto the screen, and I rejoice. More often than not though, what I find is hyper sensationalized nonsense, written to give that wow factor, and not much else. The average viewer can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction in regards to what a real mental health issue looks like. They are unable to even begin to fathom, how a real mental health issue affects the lives of both the diagnosed and their loved ones. All they have to go on is this skewed entertainment-based view, of mental health issues. It may have entertained them, and also possibly gave them vague sensationalized views of a real and continuing problem many people face today. Whether they intend to or not the entertainment industry is adding to the stigmatized views of mental health.
Mental health has a history of being shrouded in secretive whispers, “Great Aunt so and so was touched in the head, be we don’t talk about her.” The information the average individual does come by is not always correct, finding an accurate source is really important. The entertainment industry is certainly not the only place misinformation comes from, but people commonly believe what they have viewed is true. This misinformation usually spreads and perpetuates, leading to a continuous circle of misunderstanding. For many of us living with mental illness, finding support among the general populace is difficult. We are picked on, made fun of, treated like lessor people and occasionally feared. “There’s something wrong with her!” “He doesn’t act right.” “Why can’t you just behave normally?” “Is it safe to have my kids around her?” People say things like this. Employers may decide they don’t want to hire one of those “crazies”. Parents try to use it against each other in custody cases. Peers decide their friends are just too hard to be around or just doing it all for the attention. Blame is passed around too. No one really understands and no one wants to talk about it. But it’s on TV and it makes a great punch line for a joke. Is it any wonder many of us living with a diagnosis will do everything in our power to hide in plain sight? We don’t want to be seen. We sure don’t want people to know we are one of those crazy people.
What the entertainment industry doesn’t seem to comprehend or perhaps even care about, is that living with a mental health condition is part of our daily reality. It is not a mechanism we chose arbitrarily to move our life story into a new more interesting path. We didn’t ask to be afflicted with DID, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts or any mental health issues. These “entertainment” plots spread harmful misinformation to the general public. More importantly, misinformation of this type can lead to more complicated relationships between the family members and loved ones of a person living with a diagnosis. These inaccurate dramatizations frequently paint those of us living with mental illness in such poor light, that loved ones are confused and worry about potential safety issues.
Family members may be left feeling uncomfortable around us and full of unsettling questions. What if they have a psychotic break or become violent? How do I know that they can take care of themselves, the kids, or pets? Can I trust this crazy person? How do I know if they are even aware of reality? What do I do? How do I protect everyone? Unfortunately for all involved, those kinds of questions are not always discussed in a healthy way. Fear and lack of understanding can make the most wonderful people behave irrationally. Accusations are made because of fear based anger. Arguments born out of the misleading information, sometimes cause people to lash out at the person with a mental illness. The stress and difficulty of dealing with a person living with any long-term illness, will take a toll on their family members and loved ones. Now imagine being that caretaker, and having no idea what your loved one’s illness is. Consider for a moment, that all the information you do get came from TV shows and social media sources. Some of the information might be accurate, most of it is probably exaggerated or made up. How do you think you would fair? How do you think your loved one would do? Can you understand how the fallout from these devices and the general misinformation in society as a whole, could destabilize any already tenuous family situation?
As I was growing up “crazy”, I experienced firsthand some of the cruelty in humanity. I started to believe I was a lessor person. I believed I was un-fixable. I was made fun of, taken advantage of, and I think occasionally feared. My relationships were strained by perceived views about my mental health. They didn’t know the facts and neither did I. I frequently tried to find information so that I could help myself heal. But I felt hopeless, no one ever got better on those TV shows. You never see any real successful therapy happening. Medication never seems to help the people on the movie screen. They all just seemed so desperate and alone, like me. They were all un-fixable and doomed to slowly disintegrate into further madness. I was afraid for myself and the people I loved. That was not the life I wanted to live. Even if I did take my medication like a good little girl, would it matter? Even if I did get past my fears, and talk honestly with my therapist, how could I hope to get better? Would I ever truly be able to be myself in front of other people? Or would I have to spend my life hiding my illness and my alternate selves? I have struggled with those questions and dealt with that stigma for as long as I can remember.
Today, I am sharing my stories and experiences to dispel the myths, half-truths, and flat out lies about living with mental illness. I believe communicating our personal truths is vital to the fight against the stigma of being mentally ill. No more Hollywood BS teaching us what a mental health diagnosis is. Let me be abundantly clear, I do not have a deeply evil alternate personality that lays in wait inside me. I do have Frank who is my protective side, and he is not afraid to defend my honor. He isn’t always nice about it but, he isn’t a murderous bastard. I am not going to go off the rails and on some kind of delusional trip. I don’t hurt animals or children. I have bad days and good days just like anyone else. I manage my illness daily. I am self-aware. I know when to ask for extra help. I take my meds and maintain an honest relationship with my doctor, so that I can get the best care for my condition. I am not hiding who I am anymore. I am not a plot device; I am a real person living with DID. I want the world to understand we can be productive and stable even when living with a diagnosis. I now know, I am not un-fixable and neither are you!