By Daniel J Vance


  Nearly everyone over 40 remembers the 1973 book Sybil and the ensuing movie in which a confused Sybil Dorsett supposedly experienced sixteen separate personalities arising from sexual abuse suffered in her childhood.

  Though a colleague of "Sybil's" psychiatrist has since cast doubt on critical information in the book, there is no doubt whatsoever that Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) does exist as an actual mental/emotional disability. Because it is a "hidden" disability, no reliable numbers are available on its pervasiveness. Prior to 1994, the American Psychiatric Association referred to DID as Multiple Personality Disorder.

  Everybody experiences dissociation to some degree. We all daydream, can become entranced with a glowing campfire or on rare occasions feel like we're looking at ourselves from outside our body. But persons with DID seem to dissociate with more intensity, and then regularly take on a completely different personality while having no recollection of the prior "person."

  To learn more about why it happens, I spoke with Elizabeth Vermilyea, author of Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress and training director of the Maryland-based Sidran Institute, a nationally known organization that educates people about the resources and treatments available to those who suffer trauma.

  She said, "DID is very highly correlated with childhood sexual abuse. In fact, if you meet someone with DID, the chances are very good that they have a history of childhood sexual abuse. In cases not caused by sexual abuse, sometimes an extremely invasive and painful early childhood medical procedure while being separated from the family can be the cause of dissociation."

  Hope exists, she said. "Due to a lack of outcome data we don't yet know the odds of a person improving following treatment. But it is a treatable disorder. The International Society for the Study of Dissociation does have treatment guidelines and a number of excellent treatment books are available."

  Besides individual therapy, treatment often includes medicine to help with anxiety, the adoption of a structured lifestyle, group support, and social skills training.

  Specific sounds, smells, people or emotions can trigger a person's memory of a particularly unpleasant childhood event and in turn cause a personality shift. DID is far more common in women than in men. Complications may include self-mutilation, drug abuse and attempts at suicide. You can learn more at www.sidran.org.

  [Give Mr. Vance your column ideas while visiting www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2003 by Daniel J. Vance.]