That is me in a nutshell—I once was someone else & often still am—a condition I’m uncovering day-by-day. I repeat this phrase during my morning mirrored check-ins with myself, my self, my selves. It acknowledges my decades-long & two-years-ago diagnosed struggle with dissociative identity disorder (DID), grounds me as I wobble into my day. DID is a condition wherein a person's identity is fragmented into two or more distinct personality states, dissociation being “an adaptive response to high stress or trauma characterized by memory loss & a sense of disconnection from oneself or one’s surroundings,” according to Dr. Marlene Steinberg; her book The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation—the Hidden Epidemic has proved pivotal as my loved ones & I venture towards understanding, managing, & coming to terms with this disorder. DID was also once called multi-personality disorder, but the idea of personalities was too limiting & it now includes “states,” which more rightly is what I struggle with.
I joke that I don’t switch into a waitress named Betty & start singing show tunes on table tops; instead, I have three known alters, which all seem to be repressed versions of myself—a timid child (young Tyler circa nine years old), a control-freak loose cannon (post-first-divorce Tyler circa twenty-three years old), & a new personality that we’ve only seen a time or two, characterized by dressing head-to-toe in camo & chanting “It’s Huntin’ Time.” When I say I once was someone else, I’m saying all at once – 1) I’ve been known as someone else & in certain situations/circles, still am 2) I’ve split into these various alters & often still do & 3) my work now is my exploration of my disorder, my ability to choose/control these & other states, an outlet for my intense need to shape my own identity (identities) moving forward.
Poetry popped into my life when I stumbled into a Writers Community student club meeting at Ball State University during my freshman year. At one of those early visits, the faculty advisor shared a Dean Young poem, which would ignite both my journey with poetry & my relationship with this particular poet. In that poem, brought alive by the advisor’s empathetic, calming voice, I found the energy, polyvocality, & beauty among confusion that I wouldn’t discover as a direct link to my disorder until years later. The past ten years since then has brought many triumphs among its qualifying struggles—a marriage, a divorce, a first book, several lost friends, a chance to study with Dean Young in graduate school, an abuse of a romantic partner, a second marriage. After a horrific incident with an ex-partner, along with the therapy & discoveries that followed, I am ready to talk about my selves publicly. For years, I had a small dry erase board on my fridge, but I always left the same Dean Young quote—“I wasn’t put on this planet to explain myself.” I still totally agree, but I’m starting to figure, since we’re here, it might be good to try.
My loved ones & I call them my episodes or spells, & no matter the alter, we’ve learned they start & end in similar ways. There is a trigger in a high-stress situation, something often related to control &/or embarrassment, then my mind starts to go—time loss, trouble maintaining regular speech style/pattern—then the rest of my body. This was a big break-through, the physical symptoms of an approaching episode—tingling hands, blurry vision, dizziness. Sometimes, it happens so fast, the split, that I can’t even recognize these signs, but one of the best practices for managing my disorder has been recognizing these signs & being able to ground myself &/or change the environment. A big trick I was taught by a DID specialist, one that Pee-Wee (my wife’s chosen pseudonym, ha) wraps me in regularly, is to name one thing I experience with each of my senses in that earliest troublesome moment: “I can taste my spearmint gum. I can hear a fire truck. I can smell the dog. I can feel the breeze on my neck. I can see a tiny sliver of light on the wall” (repeat as long as necessary).
The end, too, often rattles finally physically, me “sleeping” either on the couch or face-down on the floor, usually in my underwear or naked, sweating & exhausted, waking from what feels like one of those terrible naps, where you feel more exhausted than the sleepiness that stuck you there. With that exhaustion comes the flicker of realization that I’ve had an episode & the immediate “ah fuck, what happened” that follows. It doth cycles.
This inevitable guilt & anxiety is why I’ve finally taken to a daily anti-anxiety pill, a low dose of Fluoxetine; my psychiatrist said there is no medication to directly prevent my DID episodes, but an anti-anxiety medication like this, especially since my episodes are often related to some sort of panic, can take the edge off & ultimately help most in the aftershock, what I call my DID hangovers, when I’m exhausted, disoriented, & nervous. It has been over a year & my wife & loved ones say it’s really taken the edge off, & most importantly, I see it simmering down the cycle. My episodes don’t loop like they once did; the frustration & guilt in the DID hangover would send me into another episode, but now, I just sink into the couch for a real nap, one where I feel truly rested & refreshed, ready to hear the forgotten memories, face the consequences, & work to prevent it/learn from it.
Most texts & research will tell you dissociative disorders & alters come from severe physical, sexual, or emotional trauma; Dr. Steinberg says that people suffering trauma have “activated states of consciousness that helped them marshal the inner resources to cope with a situation that otherwise would have been overwhelming.” I’m still in the process of uncovering & dealing with the various traumas that ignited this disorder & continued its development. In fact, for awhile, I couldn’t track any major trauma that might create alters or a disorder like this.
At first, I resisted the initial diagnosis from my therapist; I went through periods where I was convinced I was everything from autistic to psychopathic, sociopathic to merely a useless butthead. As she persisted, we made some connections, however, in which my sensitive/perceptive empathic character that imaginatively & emotionally could have absorbed both my traumatic moments & the traumatic states & histories of those in my life to create such alters.
With this understanding, my therapist & I were able to pinpoint three losses & the language (or complete lack of language) to process these traumas as a main root for my disorder. Within five years, age four to nine, I lost my only sibling, my closest grandparent, & my beloved uncle, quickly & unexpectedly, & the therapy & comfort that followed, probably to no one’s fault, did little to positively teach me to cope & process. It is here, my therapist believes, my mind created the first swaths of the sensitive kid alter & the angry/controlling alter.
My half-brother is ten years older than me, my dad’s son from his first marriage, & in all accounts was a loving & fun big brother, my first babysitter, my first friend. For some reason, I called him “Guy,” & for obvious reasons, I followed him all over our big, old house. Our rooms were upstairs, & when I was about three, my loving brother did an ornery thing, planting in my sponge brain that there were ghosts upstairs, insuring him some extra teenage privacy. The next year, as Guy traipsed through his early teen years, my parents say they caught him in some negative behavior they were not ready to handle, & just like that, I didn’t have a brother, sending him back to North Carolina.
I remember the brother-shaped void that lived in our house, my parents’ impossibility to handle the situation well or correctly. Though Guy & I have discussed this period of our lives, I won’t begin to tell his story or justify any of what happened to him. This is just to say that when we were ripped apart, it was my first loss of security, my first understanding of heart-ache, confusion, & cruelty.
North Carolina was home to Guy & his mother, but it was also home to all of my dad’s family. I have always loved visiting there so much, as we often did every Fourth of July & Christmas, though we never visited or saw Guy for over a decade. We often stayed with my dad’s brother, Uncle R, my favorite uncle. When my parents first drove me, all of three months old, down to meet the rest of the family, we were greeted with a giant sign that Uncle R had spray-painted & plopped by the highway--YANKEES GO HOME (but leave Tyler)--& that’s how it was, my Uncle R & I.
When Uncle R’s teenage son, my Dad, & I would all go with him to his fishing hole, a fancy golf course down the road, or to his hunting cabin in the woods, & my little legs & developing head got all worn out, he was the one who would take me off to rest, for ice cream, to go swimming in another pond for errant golf balls to sell back to the club shop. It was no surprise to my parents when I woke coughing, crying, & clutching my chest in late October of my eighth year that I asked about Uncle R & our next trip to North Carolina.
It was a chilly night in Indiana & we were camping in our little creaky pull camper. They gave me a Sunny D from the cooler, assured me I’d see Uncle Rick soon, & cooed me back to sleep. In the morning, I found out we’d be going to North Carolina much sooner than expected, as my mom’s parents pulled into the campground & told us Uncle R had been in a car crash that morning, at nearly the same time as my panic attack, by a drunk driver as Uncle R was heading to his hunting spot with his son, who would fortunately survive. Uncle R passed away soon after, heart failure from hitting his chest on the steering wheel of his Jeep Wrangler.
My rural, straight-thinking family couldn’t make much sense of such a connection, let alone explain it to an eight-year-old who had just been in tune with his uncle’s death. So they distracted me with three sports, 4-H Club, school, & the occasional trip in the semi-truck with Dad. Summer came & my parents let my mom’s parents watch me. My grandpa, a farmer, would let me ride on the tractor with him or play in the barns, but mostly, I preferred to stay in with my darling grandma, who the year prior had lost her leg to a blood clot caused by diabetes.
We were a heck of a duo that summer. In the house, she knew the games and recipes to keep us busy, & I had the spry body to carry & fetch whatever we needed, often joyously climbing on counters & up ladders. We could also be mobile together in a way neither of us could be alone. She had the license & the van; I had the ability to lift her wheelchair into the van & run into the store for ingredients & snacks. We didn’t need anybody, which is why it was especially startling to my mom that I called her at work on this particular Friday from my grandparents’ house, crying & being worried about Grandma, who was showering in the bathroom down the hall.
My head throbbed, a recurring condition of migraines that started that year, that have continued sneaking up on me every three-or-four months since then, & I blabbered something of worry & fear for / about Grandma. My mom asked if I would check on her, & when I knocked, to our relief, Grandma answered. My mother went back to work & Grandma emerged in her wheelchair, chewable Tylenol in hand, & we went back to making cinnamon applesauce. Again, my parents & I went camping & again we were visited with bad news; less than two days after that phone call, Grandma had died in that very same bathroom, sitting on the same toilet, when a blood clot traveled to her brain.
Future Tyler can totally see how having one’s only sibling torn from your life or predicting a close relative’s death would really cause some manic heartache & troubling anger for a young child, but three? Come on, universe! Still, I don’t much remember dealing with it, the sadness or the anger, though certainly I had both, & according to others, expressed it quite articulately. One of my few clear childhood memories I remember is being numb in the school counselor’s chair & saying, calmly, I feel anger, & when I try to express it, it takes over. Her response was to tell me it was just the devil working inside of me, an attempt, however misguided, to comfort.
My mom tells a story I’ve completely lost about me getting furious when my Dad & his friends left me at the campsite to go on an adult bike ride. I threw my bike in the ditch, yelling curse words she didn’t realize I knew, & later, when she asked me, I told her it was just the devil! Those outbursts, often found out about later, have become a trend in my life, a happy, well-cared for kid, but when pressed towards overwhelming guilt or abandonment, a switch could flip & those maxed-out feelings & the years of fermenting storm out in all their wild fury.
For years, I pretended I knew the stories of my outbursts, afraid to be considered crazy, willing to chalk it up to my hick temper or some sensitive guy idiocy. In reality, the reality I’m beginning to piece back together, I was having the beginning of dissociative splits & suffering from dissociative amnesia. As one of Dr. Steinberg’s patients said, it is like letting someone else take over so you can rest. I didn’t have the emotional capacity consciously, or the support & guidance externally, to process these three losses, so my body began creating alters to take control for me.
For an early, poetic version of my grappling with these issues, check out my poem "WHAT IS HAPPENING / WHAT JUST HAPPENING" over at Reality Hands