One of the aspects of psychology I have found the most fascinating is abnormal psychology. While living with conditions such as Clinical Depression, Bipolar Disorder (formerly Manic Depression), Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality Disorder are far from desirable, the way the brain’s chemistry and human behaviour work are astounding.
As writers, mental illness is an area you can delve into to form characters, or use as a plot device. While writing about mental health issues can be very helpful in creating awareness, if the particular diseases are not understood, substantial harm can be done as erroneous stereotypes are reinforced in readers.
There are two diseases which are frequently misunderstood and mixed up. These are Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality Disorder (or Dissociative Identity Disorder.) I’m sure you’ve heard jokes such as, “I’m a Schizophrenic. So am I.” The perception that Schizophrenia involves a split personality is completely wrong. The diseases manifest and function in distinct ways.
The best definition of disease I have ever heard was explained as dis-ease. It is something that makes you uncomfortable and cannot be easily lived with. Unlike back pain, or some other physical ailments, you cannot brush it away and keep going normally. That definition encapsulates the effect of mental illness on a person.
Schizophrenia is a split from reality that makes everyday living, work and relationships extremely difficult, if not impossible in some areas. It has a biological basis which appears to depend on brain chemistry. It can be caused by genetics, drug misuse or biochemical imbalances in the brain. It results in a delusional state of mind where the way the sufferer sees things, feels or thinks is fragmented and differs from the norm. It is a complex disorder and there are different forms of Schizophrenia, but the sufferer is still themselves: one person; one set of thought processes and no internal division.
Multiple Personality Disorder is completely different. It does not have a chemical cause. It is created by severe trauma in early childhood which may have come from ritualistic abuse, or repeated extreme sexual assault. It is an amazing defence mechanism, where in order to cope, the sufferer will fragment parts of their personality which become separate identities. Each identity has a function in the survival of that person. Some identities can be wounded; they can be representative of different ages; other identities are fierce to provide protection. More than one of these identifies may hold the memories, or smaller parts of them, that need to be suppressed for emotional survival.
As WebMD states: “someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder may find themselves doing things they wouldn’t normally do such as speeding, reckless driving, or stealing money from their employer or friend, yet they feel they are being compelled to do it. Some describe this feeling as being a passenger in their body rather than the driver. In other words, they truly believe they have no choice.”
Not every identity may be complete. There can be any number of identities and at any time, something may cause the sufferer to “switch” to a different identity without warning. The oft-repeated example is someone going into the grocery store; seeing something that upsets them and then switching for protection. They are left standing there with no idea why they are in the store, or what happened. If you would like to watch a movie that correctly depicts Multiple Personality Disorder, watch “When Rabbit Howls,” but be warned. The movie content is extremely distressing as it comes from the true story of a survivor of horrific childhood abuse.
There is a great deal more I could say about how each of these dis-eases functions, however, I am going to leave it to you to do your own research. We need people in the community who understand that mental illnesses are not faked, exaggerated, or a way to opt out of society. They have treatable causes, but the side-effects of the drugs and permanent nature of these dis-eases makes living with them a tough journey. I hope this post gives you greater understanding. Please, represent people with kindness.