Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Can one inherit Dissociative Disorders ?


Taking the dead to therapy

Taking the dead to therapy

I took my father to therapy last week. He’s been dead since 1995, around 16 years now, but I took him along anyway. I packed up his letters, objects from the different Jacks, and took them along. I laid them out on the floor and picked up each in turn, me and my alters addressing each father that shared that one body of his.

The session was harrowing, challenging. Some of my alters love or were loyal to or identified with one of these Jacks. Other alters in my team, are more than aversive to the other Jacks who shared his body. By the end of the session my team had laughed and cried and raged and we were dizzy, overwhelmed, tired.

My father had many names he referred to himself by… Jackie Paper, Johnny Bedrock, Jackie Williams, Sparkling Arkie, Wild Dog Dingo, The King, Poor Boy. Some of these Jacks seemed to barely recognise ‘me’ as his child or that he was anyone’s father, to other Jacks ‘I’ was a symbol, HIS daughter, to one of the Jacks ‘I’ was confidante and comrade, with one of them ‘I’ felt valued and treated like someone’s real child. As someone who themselves is diagnosed with DID, I understand now my conflicted feelings about that fragmented man.

My father fitted dyslexia, ADHD, bipolar, language processing disorder and obviously also DID. DID commonly overlaps with Schizotypal Personality Disorder, maybe that’s part of his picture, it is part of mine.

Then there was the question of what tipped him from merely a dissociated, perhaps derealised somewhat Schizotypal child into an adult with DID? His mother was a joy and a delight, his father moral, responsible, serious and loyal. These grandparents became my custodians until I was 4 and a half when my grandfather died and my grandmother was sent up the bush. I loved these people, they were warm, safe, and they loved me. But families are not always what they seem and who people are as grandparents can be very different to who they were decades before.

Jack was the 6th child of an inbred mother whose parents were first cousins, whose grandmothers were mother and daughter and whose grandfathers were brothers. They lived in the bush, apparently so poor they once lived in the hollow of a tree truck when he was 3. He moved to the inner city slums of then Fitzroy around age 6, probably around 1940 in the midst of the Great Depression.

My grandmother was, by then, a dipso, drinking her way onto the pavement with red wine where the ridicule of slum locals and their children left scars on my father. He spoke of being a typical ADHD type of kid, distracted, class clown, struggling to attend, to comprehend, to learn, that he’d climb down the drain pipe out of the window when the teacher wasn’t looking, that kids at school had pursued him up a tree then thrown rocks until they hit him out of the tree where he fell on his face, smashing his nose. He spoke of local kids mocking his drunken mother and kicking her as she lay on the pavement. He spoke of the shame of joining in with them. He spoke of having to remind her who he was. He was conflicted between being deeply ashamed of her, needing a mother who functioned more fully than she did or could, angry she wasn’t more than she was, but also deeply cared about and loved her, always trying to get her things to show he cared, things he would steal because the family had nothing, then he’d be admonished for doing so.

He spoke of his father, a moral, self righteous returned WW1 vet who had buried much of his regiment in Villiers De Brettenaux but returned to find his wife with another baby and another life. After 14 years as a swaggie, he had met my grandmother, a woman with 5 children to almost all different fathers.

According to Jack, his father could fight, took no crap, and would quote the bible. Jack told of being scrubbed with a wire brush, having his mouth washed out with builders soap for swearing, that his father took an axe and cut down the stairs once when he thought Jack was up there, that his father had thrown the wardrobe from the terrace house balcony in rage. Jack told how his father never believed he was his own child and made Jack and his mother walk a distance behind him in the street, that at home his mother had once been banished out to the back yard to sleep for 10 months and slept there under a tarpaulin until she was again allowed in the house.

From my perspective, my mother was everything that would have cemented and exacerbated whatever DID Jack already had, just as I think his issues exacerbated her alcoholism, personality disorders, and psychopathy. Though I feel amidst her personality issues that she would have fitted Borderline (BPD), which can involve derealisation and dissociation, I never felt she showed any signs of having DID. I did experience her as shifting between roles, but they were thin veneers and she didn’t switch, she merely revealed what you could always feel just underneath there anyway. Jack was different. His alters weren’t roles, meeting them each felt like a whole person, larger than life, sure, but integral, not veneers. It wasn’t like you could feel the other Jacks still there. It was as if each had left the building.

The Jackie Paper part of my father would have made a great kindergarten teacher. The Sparkling Arkie part was friends with high rollers, crooked cops, fraudsters and dealers, robbers and pedophiles and bragged he could get himself a 12 year old. The one he referred to as Wild Dog Dingo part took guns off the wall and shot at people, smashed the house up, rampaged with the axe and was terrifying. The Johnny Bedrock part was a warm but workaholic wheeler-dealer, everyone’s buddy, a people person, kind and generous. Jackie Williams was the ‘self made man’, Mr Respectable, a family man with the house, car, swimming pool and boat to prove it. Poor Boy Jack behaved like a broken self pitying child, allowing my alcoholic mother to verbally degrade and abuse him, physically threaten him and never fight back with anything more than a muttered whisper and a face pulled behind her back.

There are those who glorify DID as a beautiful adaptation to extreme circumstances, encouraging those with it to feel proud they were ‘survivors’. I struggle with that. I don’t think DID is ugly, but that it can be both ugly and beautiful. I don’t invest in an identity as a ‘survivor’ because I wish to be broader than the contexts of the neglect, trauma, loss, abuse I have experienced. And if I look at my father’s splitting, the idea of ‘survivor’ and ‘a beautiful adaptation’ becomes even harder. We were surviving HIM. And his alters could be endearing, wonderful, captivating, or tedious, self indulgent, endangering or down right dangerous. What was so hard in facing my fathers lot, because my team have such intense, conflicting feelings there, and because his DID contributed to mine. But I can say I love, fear, am enraged by, care for, am endeared to my different fathers within that one body they lived through.

I also struggle to see DID as a beautiful adaptation when it has the highest suicide rate of any mental health disorder. Therapists attempt to salvage this ‘beautiful’, ‘gifted’ idea from the rubble of a DID journey and some DIDers are happy to build identity on that, identifying as ‘survivors’, ‘gifted’ etc…. I have no interest in defining myself by my mental health stuff, especially as integration began organically, naturally for me, something longed for but not possible until the Core Self came out of a Schizoid, depersonalised dormancy and created a fruit bowl effect for the scattered fruits to find home in… so if I over identify with the ‘beauty’ of DID, it wouldn’t have allowed me to embrace the beauty of integration as my own natural evolution with my DID.

I do agree that those with DID are lucky they had the capacity to survive through splitting but after the horrors are over, DID can be really disabling, harrowing, and the journey to co-operation/integration can be as challenging as what gave rise to the DID. I also feel that those with DID and the alters in their team can be beautiful and gifted, and especially some of the most angry, raging or crushed parts who need to be recognised as more than that so they can rise above it.

The rest of the week those in my DID team made peace with our father’s DID. There is no easy way to bury the dead, let alone a dead multiple whose issues went with him, unresolved. But perhaps I inherited not only the genetic predisposition to dissociative disorders from him, but the environmental inheritance of the abusers he chose to surround himself with (particularly my mother), his modeling of DID responses to neglect, trauma, loss and abuse, the impact of his endangerment, inconsistency, neglect, insanity. Most of all, I inherited his legacy and my therapy is, in part, his therapy by proxy. Perhaps that’s resolution.

You can find more info at my website http://www.donnawilliams.netincluding my consultation page for DID where I offer online Peer Support.

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.