19. August 2014 · 5 comments · Categories: Post

Continuing with introductory posts, I would like to talk about what is presently a significant part of my identity: plurality (also known as multiplicity). Plurality, broadly speaking, is the presence of multiple selves within a single physical body. Plural folks switch between these selves (switching), and/or may experience a merging of selves (blending), or multiple selves being present at the same time (co-fronting).  The self or selves that are presently in control of the body are said to be fronting. Some folks understand each self as being a completely separate person or identity, whereas others feel there is a constant self or identity component which remains part of their consciousness at all times.

Each self exists in their own unique way, and may have their own unique identities (including gender, sexuality, age), interests, ways of speaking, mannerisms, skills/talents, handwriting, and other characteristics. The exact characteristics that change between each self depend on the individual selves and the body that contains them.

The body and selves taken together is called a system. Systems vary considerably in their configuration, and people have a wide variety of understandings of their own plurality, with varying levels of associated pathologization. Unfortunately, regardless of their level of functioning and self-pathologization, plural systems have to deal with being considered mentally disordered by most people including mental health professionals. As a result, we potentially experience a great deal of marginalization if we are out as plural or unable to adequately suppress our plurality (an act which has potentially negative consequences for a system’s health).

Western psychiatry and mainstream psychology do not have a view of plurality outside of an extremely pathologizing framework. In the DSM-V, plurality is understood as either “dissociative identity disorder” (DID), or “other specified dissociative disorder” (OSDD).  The diagnostic criteria for DID are, put concisely:

  • two or more distinct personality states
  • gaps in recall of everyday events
  • symptoms cause significant distress
  • symptoms not part of broadly accepted cultural or religious practice
  • symptoms are not attributable to physiological effects of a substance

I have read, and get the general sense from chatting with plural folks, that many of us do not meet the criteria for DID. Rather, we meet the criteria for OSDD.  OSDD is a catch-all for a dissociative condition that doesn’t fit a specific dissociative disorder. The first example of OSDD in the DSM-V states:

Chronic and recurrent syndromes of mixed dissociative symptoms: This category includes identity disturbance associated with less-than-marked discontinuities in sense of self and agency, or alterations of identity or episodes of possession in an individual who reports no dissociative amnesia.

The second part of this first example, “alterations of identity … [with] no dissociative amnesia”, is particularly applicable. This is why people sometimes refer to OSDD-1B (or DDNOS-1B, “dissociative disorder not otherwise specified“, in the DSM-IV).

While OSDD-1B is basically DID without the amnesia component (no significant gaps in recall), the dividing line between DID and OSDD-1B is somewhat arbitrary. Our own system has some amnesic components, mostly having to do with remembering how we felt in a situation, though we can usually remember what happened when other selves were fronting. Furthermore, many of us that have a well functioning system and are accepting of our plurality do not experience significant distress as a result of these “symptoms”, thereby disqualifying us from a DSM diagnosis entirely. The lack of a diagnosis, however, may create a new problem; we may be left feeling a significant lack of language, narratives, and understanding of our experiences (as non-pathologizing plural narratives are harder to find).

 

As this is a personal introduction meant to describe our own story, I want to talk about our own experiences with plurality. I have not found many narratives around plurality that I can relate with, so I hope this will reach others feeling similarly alone in their stories.

I began experimenting with a plural self-concept about 9 months ago. I have an online friend that self-identifies as plural and she talked about her own experiences with being part of a plural system. At first I didn’t think it was something I experienced or could relate with. However, I began recognizing that I did experience some identity switching which I had previously attributed to borderline characteristics and my identity attempting to stabilize after accepting myself as transgender. As I explored these things more, I worked on letting switching happen instead of repressing it (switching can be disorienting and something we still have trouble with at times). What emerged was a either the beginning of a plural system, or the end of repressing a plural system that has existed for a while (even most of my life). We started with understanding our system as three people: Ellie (me, 30 years old), Kyra (16 years old), and Little Ellie (5 years old). That has since grown as our system evolves or we continue to discover what was previously repressed.

I am grateful for having some exposure to plurality in a non-pathologizing way before these experiences became really obvious. Instead of jumping to considering myself as mentally disordered, I recognized this as another way of experiencing identity, and an equally valid way of being human. Being plural no doubt brings us some unique challenges, but also provides us with unique and wonderful experiences (being little can be really fun), and allows us to have multiple selves that can emerge when the situation is best suited for them.

 

Conceptualizing outside of a pathologizing framework turns plurality into a question of identity rather than medical diagnosis. Exploring any identity requires that we reflect on our experiences, find language that fits those experiences, and possibly find community that we can relate with around those experiences. Plurality as a (meta-)identity could be defined simply as the subjective experience of having multiple selves. That is to say, if you subjectively experience multiple selves or find yourself part of a plural system, and you find it helpful to understand yourself as plural, then you are plural. It is not anyone’s right to challenge that identity (not mental health professionals, not other plural folks). If your experiences do not deviate significantly from singlets (non-plural folks), then it is unlikely that you will find it helpful to identify as plural. It’s a bit of an arbitrary line, and it’s up to you to decide on which side of the line you belong, or even find language that describes a middle ground (like median system). If you are exploring your own potential plurality, you might find this article helpful. In particular:

So really, the whole question becomes a very simple case of asking what works. What helps you function better, what gives you greater freedom, what makes sense, what moves you forwards and helps you have a life?

This was extremely helpful for me in recognizing that plurality was an appropriate and helpful framework for self-understanding. Our previously diffuse identities have solidified and stabilized, we have improved our relationships with others, and are starting to improve a lot of mental health issues (especially anxiety) that I believe came partly from suppressing our plurality. There is no doubt that navigating our selves and the outer world with a plural self-understanding has helped us move forward and live a better life.

5 Comments

  1. Just coming back to read this again. So very well written and explained! Thankyou :)

  2. Lovely and concise as always, Thanks Ellie!

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  7. There is “DDNOS-1B” in DSM-IV
    however there is no such thing as “OSDD-1B” in DSM-V.
    There is “a” and “b” under the category of 300.15-1 in DSM-IV (APA, 1994; p.490)
    There is no “a” or “b” under the category of 300.15-1 in DSM-V (APA, 2005; p.306)
    They are close but the same.
    For your information

    • Thanks for the clarification. You are right that the DSM-V doesn’t explicitly provide an A and B category for OSDD-1. However, it is still somewhat implicit in the description:

      “Chronic and recurrent syndromes of mixed dissociative symptoms: This category includes identity disturbance associated with less-than-marked discontinuities in sense of self and agency, or alterations of identity or episodes of possession in an individual who reports no dissociative amnesia.”

      Whether it’s a helpful distinction will probably depend on an individual’s or system’s unique experiences.

  8. correction:
    “They are close but not the same”
    sorry

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