Dissociative Identity Disorder: Real or Myth?

Better known as multiple personality disorder, or identity dissociative disorder,  dissociative Identity disorder (DID) is a complex condition characterized by the presence of two or more personalities in one person.

Anyone remember the movie “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde”? In this story, the main character has two completely different personalities that act independently of each other.  Who could forget Sally Field’s portrayal of Sybil in the movie based on the best-selling book of the same name?

For years this condition captivated the imagination of physicians and researchers alike, and to this day, we ask…is it really a condition or simply a myth?

The answer is not as easy as it may seem.  There have been reported incidents where people fake having dissociative identity disorder to either manipulate others or to get emotional support.

Recently we heard that Debbie Nathan’s book “Sybil Exposed” claims that the real Sybil, Shirley Ardell Mason, did not have DID. In fact, the book states that her psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur, knew of the fraud.  A letter written by Mason in 1958 stated that she faked having DID for “attention and excitement”.

Real or myth? 

But to say that DID is a myth is like saying that if someone is wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia, then schizophrenia must be a myth as well.

DID is still a poorly understood condition, and has often been confused with bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia. The opposite is also true, where there have been instances of individuals wrongly diagnosed with DID when they had entirely different conditions.

DID has been a challenge to diagnose, and many mental professionals do not believe that it is a real disorder.

However, I am convinced that DID does exist and it is real condition that merits more attention and research.

In theory, DID is actually a severe form of dissociation.  Most of us dissociate when we, for example, daydream during a boring lecture.  An identity dissociative disorder  can be described as dissociation in its most extreme.

These individuals are not aware that these personalities are interpreted as figments of their imagination by others.  To them, these “entities” are very real and complex. Trying to play logic with them, or asking them to ‘snap out of it’ will lead you nowhere.

What is it like to have DID

Many patients have said that it is like losing time out of your life. One minute you are in the bathroom, combing your hair, and then the next you find yourself waiting for the train, with little memory of what happened in between or how you got there.

It is as if you are in the operating room and once the propofol puts you to sleep, other people take over your body and do what they want with it.

You spend every day having strangers who come up to you and address you by different names, and swear that they know you.  But you know nothing about them.

You live inside a labyrinth of the mind, full of secrets and mysterious people, where the past and the present coexist. You are aware that something is not right, you know about these other “people” living with you, and yet you feel completely powerless to do anything about it. And you might feel that there is no escape.

What causes DID?

Usually, an dissociative identity disorder is a result of extreme and prolonged sexual, physical, and emotional abuse usually during early childhood (typically  before the age of 5; before the age when the mind consolidates the concept of reality and fantasy).

Unable to resort to fighting or fleeing, the brain tries to save you from the traumatic experience by letting you ‘escape’ somewhere else within your mind, where your life is still yours.  In essence, you feel as if you are able to live free of the pain and hurt, and safe from the abuse.

The memories of the traumatic events become more fragmented, and only contained  in different parts of the mind from where they develop into mental entities.

Some studies have suggested that the neural networks that contain these memories become more isolated after repeated traumatic events, and thus, over time, the mental entities take on a personality of their own.

Therapy and reintegration

As mentioned earlier, it can take many years to cure  an identity dissociative disorder . In some cases, up to 10 or even 20 years.

But with proper therapy, the personalities gradually merge together in a process called “reintegration”.

The person begins to remember the events that occurred during those ‘lost moments in time’. The process can be overwhelming and terrifying, so it usually happens slowly and over the course of many months or years.

There can be a sudden loss of friends, since many will know you by a different name or personality, and will want you to be that person that they once knew.

Over time, many of these friends will gradually disappear.

Did the story of Sybil do more harm than good to true victims of this disorder?

Unfortunately, yes. Being that DID is such a rare condition, having its most famous case labeled as a fraud doesn’t help true victims of this disorder. In fact, it makes them a bigger target of ridicule.

Please remember, dissociative identity disorder is real and is an extremely debilitating disorder; being well-informed and open-minded to DID will help create further awareness and understanding of the true nature of this reversible disease.

Further reading:



American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (Text Revision). Arlington, VA, USA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. 2005-2006; 526–529.

Gillig, P. M. “Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Controversial Diagnosis”. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) 2009; (3): 24–29.

Ginzburg, K.; Somer, E.; Tamarkin, G.; Kramer, L.  “Clandestine Psychopathology: Unrecognized Dissociative Disorders in Inpatient Psychiatry”. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2010; 198 (5): 378–381.

Mental Health: Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)”.Webmd.com. [Retrieved 2012-01-20]: http://www.webmd.com/content/article/118/112901.htm 

Nathan, Debbie (2011). Sybil Exposed. New York: Free Press. 2011: 288.



Author: Alejandro Adrian LeMon, Ph.D., LMHC

A little about me... I'm a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida and the founder of Psychology One. I am also a former college instructor of sociology and I have worked at several not-for-profit agencies & EAP organizations. I currently live with my fiancee and our three cats.

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  1. Wow. I didn’t realize DID was such a serious disorder. Thanks for the explanation. Really good blog entry.

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  2. This inrtodcues a pleasingly rational point of view.

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  3. I’ am 28 now i survived and have concered DID, it is true it took me 17 years to overcome this i knew not who i was till i was 20 did it on my own the hardest thing i have ever done.. Spread the reality that breads awareness. Thanks

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    • Christopher, thank you so much for your candor and for sharing your experiences with us! I’m sorry to hear that it took so long but you made it. Thank you again for your honest feedback.

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  4. Major enthusiast of your website, a ton of your posts have really helped me out. Looking forward to upgrades!

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  5. I need to say thanks a whole lot for the work you have made in writing this post. I am hoping the same top work by you in the future too.

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  6. This is great point of view! I think the media is also to blame for DID being perceived as a myth, from movies such a Psycho and Primal Fear. I am currently in grade 12 and i am making a documentray on Multiple Personality Disorder. What other factors do you think have lead people to believe it is a myth?

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    • Hi Monique, and thank you for response. I think it is really exciting that you are doing a documentary on this condition. To answer your question, this is a disease that is very difficulty to diangnose correctly, and there have been many people that have been incorrectly “label” with DID when in fact they don’t have it.

      There have also been several cases of people faking this condition in order to manipulate others (this being an entirely different condition).

      Hope this helps. Feel free to ask more questions.

      Is this a high school project? Good luck with it!

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