Mark Hillman, Ph.D., (Psy) LMHC
Dissociative disorders are so-called because they are marked by a dissociation from or interruption of a person's fundamental aspects of waking consciousness (such as one's personal identity, one's personal history, etc.).
Dissociation is a common defense/reaction to stressful or traumatic situations. Severe isolated traumas or repeated traumas may result in a person developing a dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorders impair the normal state of awareness and limits or alters one's sense of identity, memory or consciousness. Once considered rare, recent research indicated that individuals with dissociative disorders are frequently misdiagnosed for many years, delaying effective treatment.
What kind of events or experiences are likely to cause symptoms of dissociation? There are various types of traumas. There are traumas within one's home, either emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Other types of traumas include natural disasters, such as earthquakes, political traumas such as holocausts, hostage situations, wars, random acts of violence (such as the Oklahoma city bombing and the Columbine shootings), or the grief we feel after the death of a family member or loved one.
Depersonalization Disorder is where a person "looks at themselves from the outside", and observes their own physical actions or mental processes as if they were an observer instead of themselves. This often brings a sense of unreality, and an alteration in the perception of the environment around them, as well as the person fearing they are not in full control of themselves. Depersonalization can occur during a number of different times, and not be a disorder. In order to qualify as a disorder, it must be recurrent to the point that it interferes with daily functioning in at least one major area of life.
In Dissociative Amnesia, the person is unable to remember personal information. They are aware that they have forgotten information, but do not know what they have forgotten. While they are able to perform simple tasks, they usually are unable to perform more complex ones such as shopping and cooking, instead wandering aimlessly. This type of amnesia usually lasts for a period of hours to days follows a severe stressor, and may be selective for a traumatic event.
A person in a Dissociative Fugue adopts a new identity after leaving their previous living arrangements and forgetting or being confused about their previous identity. They are able to perform well enough to survive under the new identity. These episodes are generally caused by a severe stressor and are time limited to a few days, but may last up to months. When the fugue ends, the person is unable to recall what occurred during this state.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is a disorder in which a person has more than one discrete, separate identity. Each identity is unique, and has its own sets of memories, ideas, thoughts, ways of thinking, and purposes. One identity may be the protector, while another may be a child. On average, a person with DID has between 8 and 13 separate personalities. DID generally results from a severe traumatic experience during the early childhood years.