Do you know yourself?
Do you trust your memories, your feelings, thoughts and opinions to tell you who you really are?
Let’s do a little exercise. If you are a regular reader here I want you to pretend for a minute that you don’t know me at all.
I can describe myself by physical appearance such as body size, hair colour, clothes I’m wearing today – this gives people an image and a stereotype they personally associate with that image.
So I’m wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt with a black hoodie. My hair is dark blonde with highlights and I’m a little chubby.
Then I can go a little bit deeper, I can describe what I do and what surrounds me. I can inform you that I’m a wife, a mother, an Australian, I live on a farm and I drive an SUV. This can be enough for most people to conjure up an opinion about my personality based on their experiences and stereotypes.
Then I can talk about current life experiences, like I can explain that I have four children, and have recently had chemo therapy for cancer – this might change the mental image a bit, perhaps you will see me as being a little older or having a little less hair.
Now I’m able to tell you all of these facts about myself without once telling you how I feel about anything or what my personality is like.
I could mention a few other things, perceived ‘bad’ qualities: I’m forgetful, easily distracted, don’t call people back as quickly as I should and my house is a bit messy.
Would you make excuses for me so that I continued to fit inside your mental image of ‘me’? Like ‘she probably has chemo brain’ or ‘lots of kids keep you busy’.
What if I were to say I suffer from mental illness?
Would that change the mental image you have formed based on the facts I gave you?
What if I told you I had depression? Would the mental image of my house suddenly seem messier?
What if I told you I had bipolar disorder? Would you start to question my parenting skills?
What if I told you I got episodes of psychosis? Are you questioning if everything I’ve told you up to this point accurate?
What if I told you I have dissociative identity disorder? Are you questioning whether I might have an evil alter capable of doing something terrible?
How is your mental image of ‘me’ changing?
Humans are very quick to judge. In an age of social media, we hear some selective facts about total strangers and based on those alone, we decide who they are as people. If someone is smiling in pictures they must be happy. If they talk publicly about things that upset them they are ‘attention seeking’, if they are openly angry as a white woman they are a ‘Karen’.
If someone is accused of a crime or a morally questionable act, complete strangers will have an opinion, often a strong one, about how ‘bad’ they were and how they should be punished or excluded from society despite solely based on these publicised facts and not knowing anything about their thoughts, feelings or intentions.
If a Facebook page is shown on the news of an accused person and contains selfies then people will start throwing around the term narcissist. If a neighbour is interviewed who always thought this person was lovely and kind then they will talk about how they have now shown their ‘true colours’.
Everyone runs straight to the torches and pitchforks and I wonder if this is an effort to find something, anything, to seperate themselves from this person, seperate their friend from this person and to feel like they are safe in their environment.
What exactly are someone’s true colours?
Two people are in what appears to be a devoted and loving romantic relationship for 30 years, then one day one partner gets drunk and cheats with a stranger they met at a work conference. Was the entire relationship a lie? Was the cheating partner now after all this time showing their ‘true colours’?
Say a person volunteered in a soup kitchen every week for 25 years, attended church regularly, mowed their elderly neighbours lawn and were always kind to people, then one day they killed their wife. Are they a cold blooded murderer showing their ‘true colours’?
The truth is, people can both love someone and have a wonderful relationship then one day cheat. Humans can be kind charitable people and then one day commit a terrible crime. Life is not black and white, it’s full of nuance and those of us looking in on a situation from a distance, particularly one where selective facts are plastered across the media, have absolutely no idea of who those people actually are, but if we can seperate them from ourselves we feel safer.
The belief that a person was actually bad the whole time and only pretending to be good helps us believe we are good and therefore safe and incapable of wrongdoing. To believe that good people can do bad things is scary. It means people we love or even we could potentially do bad things and that’s too hard to think about.
Having Dissociative Identity Disorder effects my memory and my ability to have a cohesive narrative to my life. Other aspects of my personality have different opinions, reactions and beliefs than I do and yet we all co habitate a body. You can see why Hollywood jumped straight on the ‘what if one of the alters was a murderer!’ bandwagon. A terrifying prospect and a brilliant horror movie trope.
While having a murderous alter you know nothing about is about as likely as being struck by lightening the same day you get bitten by a shark, there is a very genuine and based in reality issue of not really knowing who you are. When you think you are a certain way but people comment that you are another, and another again – it’s extremely confusing.
When you have this disorder but can’t communicate with your alters very well it seems almost easier to rely on the judgments of others and question your own thoughts and perceptions. I thought I didn’t like sausages but you’re telling me I said I loved them at a bbq the other day so maybe I do and I forgot? I thought I was a kind person but you’re telling me I am mean? Slowly you trust other people’s perceptions of the collective ‘you’ more than your own fragmented one.
I’ve been called the following:
A monster, kind, cold and calculated, warm and loving, honest, a liar, a fraud, a thief, an ally, an enemy, a peacemaker, a shit stirrer, interesting, boring, intelligent, stupid, strong, weak, an attention seeker, stoic, introverted, extroverted, narcissistic, thoughtful, borderline, unemotional, psychopathic, empathetic, manic, depressed, delusional, sane, spiritual, atheist, demanding, easygoing, selfish, charitable, manipulative, altruistic, a coward and brave.
That’s a lot of contradictions.
If I were to be arrested for murder, there would be people who would be shocked, and people who would nod their heads and say ‘that doesn’t surprise me at all’. Those who were shocked would no doubt speak of me “showing my true colours” and those that found out about the DID would probably assume Hollywood was right.
So if I’ve been described in all those ways, what are my true colours?
Perhaps ‘we’ are all of these things, or have been at one time or another. “I” am nothing more than a part, a piece, a distinctly un-whole fragment of some greater “me” I can’t properly conceive of and yet perhaps I, like you, are neither good nor bad, but simply human.