Naming Parts of Our Dissociated Selves
One of the more difficult issues surrounding dissociative disorders is the so-called dissociative disorder language. Unfortunately, it is this language that is one of the reasons why dissociative disorders, including dissociative identity disorder, continue to be controversial. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the language is naming of dissociated parts of self.
I know there are many times when my therapist asks the dreaded question "Are you feeling grounded as Paul?" In the hospital, I am sometimes asked the much more ingratiating question "Who am I talking to?" Either can go down in one of two ways. One frequent response is to be taken aback and roll my eyes. I often feel like I am "Paul" but maybe a very different shade of myself, and so the questions feel incredibly awkward. But then there are clearly times when I (or rather some aspect of me) readily answers to a different name. I suppose there is a middle way and that is that I am taken aback, but then realize that I am only acting as a barrier to some other part of me.
I believe, and this is based on my personal experiences, that the complexity of dissociation and how it manifests drives this type of necessary communication. My level of dissociation varies enormously over time. On one side, I can often be relatively whole with access to many aspects of me, experienced mostly as "shades of myself." But, on another, I can also often be extremely fragmented with little awareness of anything beyond what some narrow segment of me knows. As a result, there is no "perfect" (or probably even easy) way in therapy to interact with me, and while sometimes these questions feel uncomfortable, there needs to be space to ask them. If we are not direct, there is a huge potential to avoid addressing very real internal needs, which can then lead to problems such as safety issues or intolerable internal conflicts.
In therapy, the place where I make the most deliberate and focused effort to heal, there really is no other language to describe the very real partitioning in my head. We use names for parts because they have names, and to not use names would make communication difficult if not impossible.
I have always struggled with names of parts. I realize that some believe the very notion of having names for parts causes more problems or even creates them in the first place. I can understand that argument. For those of us with dissociative disorders, I think we need to come to our own personal understanding and response to such a message. For me, accepting that argument leads to denial and barriers. But, and this is a very big but, having names for parts should not ever be an excuse to take away our personal responsibility. I have seen this over and over again. We must own our actions, even if a part of us, even with a name, did them. I believe it is crucial to keep that perspective.
Names for dissociated parts of myself is one aspect of the language that my "system" (if I can use that word) ended up using to make sense of that system. While I know there were names associated with parts way back when, they were not so clearly defined as they are now. A number of the "hurt" parts were always thought of as shades of Paul or "young pieces of Paul." So there were many variants of the name Paul. And also there were "characteristics" as names, like "Dirty One", "Sexual One", "Evil One", etc. My experience of my dissociation as a kid and young adult was always in those contexts, with massive gaps in my awareness.
Back in 1991 when I found myself in the mental health system and my level of dissociation became more apparent, there was a more clear defining of names as a way to talk about experiences so that those who were helping me and I could find common ground. It is so much harder to say "the part of you who is very spiritual and wants to go to church and holds a lot of physical pain" than to just say a simple name.
The names of parts are much more specific now, and while this is one of the sources of controversy concerning dissociative identity disorder, this increased specificity has helped me in so many ways. I have long accepted that I have extremely compartmentalized parts of myself, and if I did not address them head on, I would be at an extreme disadvantage.
Being able to define parts more clearly allows me to know more specifically what parts represent, what their issues are and what their needs are. It has helped me put the pieces of my self and my life back together. It has helped me to be more whole and more functional in my life. It helps me to be more aware and safe. But most importantly, it has helped me to heal.