Trauma Related Dissociation: A Response to M. Night Shyamalan’s Latest Thriller, “Split”
Tovah Means, MS, LMFT
I recently viewed the trailer of Shyamalan’s new movie, “Split.” Based on the trailer, the premise of the movie and its main character distort the truth about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which was once known as Multiple Personality Disorder. DID is a legitimate, painful and severe traumatic stress response. However, I believe that the movie’s depiction of its character with DID and dissociative responses is not accurate and unfortunately adds to the confusion, judgment, and shame around experiencing the kinds of trauma that create dissociative experiences.
Trauma survivors have automatic, hard-wired neurological responses to trauma. They carry significant shame about their traumatic experiences, in spite of the fact that these experiences were no fault of their own. Television and films that portray characters with dissociative issues or a related diagnosis (Anyone remember Sybil, United States of Tara, etc.), often portray them as scary, unreal, exaggerated and sometimes dangerous. This stigma makes treatment harder and increases vulnerability to engaging in treatment because people plagued by persistent dissociation feel like they need to hide these issues. They do not feel like support is available in the larger cultural context, as well. Frequently, I have had to defend the existence of trauma related dissociation in its many forms. This speaks to the denial that exists in our society about how badly people are abused and how they respond to their traumatic experiences.
We all experience dissociation in our every day lives, and in that way it is very common. It can be the experience of drifting off, daydreaming, loosing track of time, loosing objects and forgetting where they are, or forgetting what we just said. Our brains do not track every piece of information all the time and we have the ability to go into an “automatic mode,” like when driving.
Dissociation starts to become problematic when it interferes with major aspects of our every day life, such as, relationships, work, child rearing, remembering important details, emotional responding, making sense of our experiences and connecting the dots. This is where trauma related dissociation comes in. It is helpful to think about dissociation along a continuum, with more common forms of dissociation on one end, and more severe forms on the other. I want to spend a minute talking about what trauma related dissociation is and what it is not:
- Trauma related dissociation is a normal response to experiencing something too overwhelming or too horrifying to process in the moment, while it is happening. All humans are wired to be able to “check out,” leave the room, cut off certain feelings, senses, and pieces of the story. This is incredibly normal and adaptive. If an experience is too terrible, we have to minimize it or make it as unreal as possible until it is safe to bring up again.
- Some people experience trauma at a young age, with great frequency, in various terrible ways, and by people who are supposed to be caring for them. This is the biggest dissociative challenge of all because this person has to dissociate many things throughout time to be able to stay in a relationship with the person that is causing them harm. This can last for months, years, or their whole life.
- The longer the abuse lasts, the degree of its severity, and the availability of good people around who can care and listen, largely determine how severe the traumatic dissociation will be and how long it will persist into adulthood. What was once adaptive for survival becomes problematic as adults.
- There is a great deal of shame, confusion, and pain living in the world as an adult with persistent dissociative problems. The monsters of the past are not living in the real world anymore, and yet the body and brain are stuck in being lost in the past, while at the same time only remembering bits and pieces of what happened.
- The experience above is described as feeling like an alien, feeling detached, feeling numb or muted, having big emotions about one thing but no emotions about another. It is a nagging sense that things are missing, such as feelings, sensations, memories, or chunks of time. It takes emotional safety and a lot of loving kindness to bring those thoughts, feelings, and memories back; which eventually allows a person to remember their story with more completeness, and allows them to be present more often than being dissociated.
- Having normal, problematic, or severe dissociative issues does NOT equal being scary, having separate personalities, or being a cultural freak. It is true that some people become abusers after they are abused, especially if there are no interventions at a young age, but many do not. In fact the opposite is true, many survivors of abuse vow to never harm as a result of the way they were treated. They have a greater sensitivity to humanity, and look “normal” just like the rest of us. We take for granted the profound struggle that people like this face, and also how common it is to find ourselves somewhere on the dissociative spectrum.
Dissociation is about hiding from the self and hiding from the world to protect ourselves in times of great pain and fear, when no other options exist. It is adaptive, and it is about our strength as human beings, strength that allows us to endure the unendurable, the unspeakable, and the horrific. It is about resilience, finding anything good to get us through, and enduring. These capacities should be honored, celebrated, and acknowledged.
I will not be seeing “Split”, but if you do, please remember that what you are seeing has nothing to do with the real struggles of people who get broken into pieces and yet survive anyways, and then continue to fight as adults to overcome their trauma related dissociation.