Bodies I Thought I’d Never Find Love After My Dissociative Identity Disorder Diagnosis
When you love someone with dissociative identity disorder, you are not building one healthy relationship—you are building many.
“I share my body with fourteen other people,” I texted him, an hour after we first met.
It was the only date I had let myself go on after receiving my dissociative identity disorder (DID) diagnosis three months prior. I believed that my mental illness made romantic relationships impossible. Who could love someone who talked out loud to themselves in every situation? Who was afraid of too firm a touch, or too loud a voice? Who could forget where they were at the mall, at work, in front of your parents or friends? Who disappeared into their own mind when you needed them most, replaced by parts who saw you as a threat?
I didn’t feel ready for love anyway. I was still trying to understand life as Sydney the queer twenty-two-year-old; Sydney the fiction writer fresh out of university; Sydney the tech start-up employee who sort of knew how taxes worked; Sydney who wasn’t just Sydney , but an entire system of other people—termed alters —with different names and memories.
The great irony of DID is that your multiplicity isolates you from other people. Those who don’t believe the validity of the disorder tell you you’re faking or possessed, and those who do believe you still see you as broken. You are never alone in your head, but you feel alone in the world.
I spent the months after my diagnosis weighing the fear of judgment against the fear of remaining alone. Maybe one day , I thought, when I am healed enough, I’ll deserve the kind of care that other people have . But on an evening in late May, my loneliness tipped the scales. My roommate was at her boyfriend’s house. The emptiness of my apartment felt heavy, as if the space had extra gravity. My bedroom was silent, but the voices in my head spoke over one another, anxious and argumentative. In desperation for real, live, human contact, I reactivated my OkCupid account.
I was mindlessly swiping when C messaged me. His questions were polite and hesitant; my answers were elaborate, wildly overcompensating. We fumbled through an eighth-grade slow dance of a conversation, buzzing with potential, both eager and afraid.
When he asked me on a date, I was hesitant. Not from any lack of attraction, but because I had gone my entire life up to that point convinced that I was unlovable. I’m not sure what compelled me to say yes, but I did.
Before I really understood what a life with DID meant, I invited someone to join me in it.
Our first date was coffee at the Black Walnut Cafe on a bright June day. He wore a formal suit despite the summer heat. I was struck by the ease of conversation, each anecdote like an exhale. There was something there, a start, a spark. We shook hands at the date’s end and parted ways.
Maybe we could just continue to exist in that space of bliss. Of ignorance.
Later, we were texting, making plans for breakfast at a diner the next day. He could meet my French bulldog and we could take Dundas Street up to the river and walk along the bike paths until we hit the bridge. Maybe the sun would be high, then, and our faces would be flushed from the heat and our speed and that awkward, wonderful, second-date warmth. Maybe we could just continue to exist in that space of bliss. Of ignorance.
But the more I thought about it—about him —the more I realized that I liked him too much to keep him in the dark. He should know , I decided. I’d tell him right then, over text, so he’d have an early out.
I’d like to lay everything out on the table , I texted him . All of me. So that you know what you’re dealing with.
Then, I told him.
I began to mourn the idea of that second date. A relationship that hadn’t even gotten the chance to start.
But his answer surprised me.
“I think I understand,” he said.
Until my diagnosis, I thought that everyone had more than one inner voice that was clearly different from their own. Part of them, but also not them at all. When friends talked about having a conscience or an inner monologue or talking to themselves, I assumed that they meant something like the group of people in my head, with different names and voices and opinions.
I first heard of dissociative identity disorder in February 2019, shortly before my diagnosis. Before that, I knew it by its previous name: multiple personality disorder. I had seen people with multiple personality disorder on shows like Dr. Phil , switching between angry alters on command as if their condition were a form of entertainment. I had seen the movie Split , in which the character with DID is the villain, with an alter who is secretly a serial killer. All I knew about the disorder was that when it was real, it was something to be feared; when it was fake, it was something you could laugh at. Negative and inaccurate depictions of the disorder in media like Split still lead a lot of people to think that DID isn’t real or that people with DID are high-risk individuals.
At the time of my diagnosis, I had just graduated university and was navigating that transition after being diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD in the years prior. As my doctors and therapist worked with me to isolate and treat each issue, my PTSD symptoms worsened: flashbacks, night terrors, intense dissociation. I felt like I was a character in a video game, constantly switching from first-person to third-person perspective. Being in my body, and then, without much warning, watching my body from afar.
In the DSM-5, the hallmarks of DID are a disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states (alters); an inconsistent sense of self; problems with memory, perception, cognition, or sensory-motor functioning; and gaps in one’s memory when it comes to everyday events, important personal information, or traumatic events. DID can only develop after repeated trauma before the ages of seven to nine years old. I grew up in an unstable home environment, personally experiencing and bearing witness to emotional and physical abuse. I remember some things—the events that reappear as flashbacks. I remember other things as if I watched them happen from several feet away, outside of my own body. There are some things that I will never remember. Even now, years after leaving home, I am perpetually afraid.
When an individual’s conscious awareness can’t process their trauma, their sense of self splits, creating a different alternate state to potentially experience, process, remember, or survive that event for them. Collective alters within one body are called a system , and different alters within a system can vary in age and gender.
The moment of my diagnosis felt like finally opening a locked safe after trying to guess the code for years. I finally had words to put to my experience. A list of diagnostic criteria that matched my symptoms. A psychologist who believed me .
Then, the inevitable: After the initial excitement of opening a safe, you need to figure out what to do with the contents. I shared a body with at least fourteen alters, and I needed to learn how to share a life with them too. That learning had to begin with an admission: My future wasn’t going to be how I’d always imagined it. At the time of my diagnosis, I was single, and I had never been in a committed, long-term relationship. I had dreams of falling in love, of getting married, of traveling the world with someone I cared deeply about. Post-diagnosis, these goals suddenly looked like unrealistic fantasies.
The first time C met another alter in my system, it was four months into our relationship. We were at his parents’ house, upstairs in his childhood bedroom. I lay down on his bed to take a nap. But before I could fall asleep, I switched.
Sometimes, my switches are caused by my PTSD triggers: sudden loud noises, yelling, certain types of media. Other times, the triggers are more physiological: lack of sleep, dehydration or hunger, stress. Either way, the telltale signs are the same. Dizziness. Blurred vision. Vertigo. Nausea. A headache, right behind my eyes. Extreme fatigue. Dissociative confusion—each of my thoughts snatched from my awareness moments after thinking them. And then, a gradual darkening of my peripheral vision.
I wasn’t comfortable switching in front of people then, and I’m still not now. In public, my switches tend to be covert: only those looking for them would be able to notice, and any alter who switches out would simply pretend to be me. Still, the sensation of switching is physically and psychologically exhausting. Over the years, I’ve found ways to delay switches if I feel one coming on in public, which ultimately makes it much more intense when it happens later.
Every DID system experiences switching differently. For me, it’s like riding in a car. People without DID are always alone in the car and sitting in the driver’s seat of their own body. Sometimes, I’m in the driver’s seat of my car, but my alters are in the passenger seat, and the back seats, and even in the trunk where I cannot communicate with them. Other times, I’m sitting in the passenger seat while another alter drives: I’m able to see what they’re doing and in some cases communicate with them, but I am not the one in control.
This time, I was in the back seat. I didn’t know who had switched out, but I had a few flashes of awareness.
When I switched back in, I was terrified and embarrassed and ashamed.
“What happened?” I asked C.
C explained that a child alter had come out and had a full conversation with him. She taught him how to sit with his legs crossed while retaining good posture. She told him that she enjoyed his company and that her name was Ellie.
I felt cracked open, the most secret, tender aspects of myself pooling at my feet like broken yolk. What did I say to him? How did I act now? In that moment, I struggled to remember that it wasn’t me at all. My partner now knew my brain in a way that I myself did not. He met someone with memories that weren’t mine.
How do you, quite literally, trust someone with your inner child? What assurance do you have that they will treat that part of you with patience and respect? That they will keep them physically safe? That they won’t take what they’ve learned and hold it against you?
My partner now knew my brain in a way that I myself did not. He met someone with memories that weren’t mine.
It takes a special kind of trust—one that is built very slowly and very carefully over time.
C did not meet the other alters in my system all at once. The process needed to happen naturally, as each of them grew to trust C in their own way.
It took two and half years for C and Stephen to speak for the first time. I’ve been aware of Stephen since I was seven years old. When alters are formed, they are often created for a specific purpose. Stephen’s purpose has always been day-to-day management—a part of me who could remember to eat and wash and do schoolwork despite my traumatic environment. It took a long time for Stephen to feel comfortable enough to switch out around C, mostly because C was a man. Though Stephen and I experienced the violence of my childhood differently, we still felt it in the same body. We were both on guard—him for much longer than me.
Stephen switched out one evening while C and I were walking through Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto. This time, I was in the passenger seat of the body, still able to hear the conversation. C noticed that something had shifted in my body right away: my posture, my walk, my mannerisms—even the way my hands held the cup of coffee. He knew that I had switched, and he let go of my hand but smiled softly. He asked who he was speaking to.
I was terrified of what Stephen might say, but he simply introduced himself. The way he uses our body’s voice is noticeably different from mine. A calmer tone. Much more formal words.
You’re a wonderful partner, you know , he said to C. I wanted to thank you. For being so kind to Sydney.
Stephen was not expecting C to smile and kiss him on the head. He stiffened for a moment. Then, I remember relief—both Stephen’s and mine—flooding our body.
Their first exchange wasn’t just a milestone in their relationship but massive progress in our own. Each interaction between C and the other alters in my system built up a sense of trust: that he would treat me, all of me, with respect; that I was safe to switch in front of him without fear of judgment; that, just as I would help him through his moments of despair, he would help me through mine.
Much of dissociative disorder treatment works toward something called functional multiplicity : getting to a point in daily life in which all of the system’s alters are able to communicate with one another and ultimately learn how to live as multiples. Slowly, through park walks and dinner dates and late-night conversations, a plethora of different relationships emerged from my committed romantic partnership, each of them intricately bound in a network, like arteries throughout a body.
C and I are getting married this fall. Over the past three years, our relationship has evolved into the kind of love and care that I thought my disorder made impossible. When I first agreed to meet him, I was convinced that the mere idea of DID would scare him off. When he wanted to keep seeing me even after I told him, I fretted over the logistics of how our relationship would work: What if he saw me switch, or saw me have a flashback, or saw me —fully, imperfectly, in my worst moments? When he started to meet my alters, I stressed about what each of them might say to C: Would they all be kind? Would they understand who he was?
But this sequence of worries was itself progress. Slowly, I went from questioning my worth to thinking through how C might treat me to worrying about how I might treat him . The worst-case scenarios became short moments of discomfort that we could work through. I never expected my relationship to be a source of healing, but it has been. It continues to be.
Healthy relationships require intentionality: an abundance of communication, a willingness to listen, an effort to learn about a partner’s needs, goals, and boundaries. When you love someone who has dissociative identity disorder, that intentionality is multiplied. You are not building one healthy relationship—you are building many. Romances. Friendships. Mentorships. Begrudging alliances. Some relationships of care and some of witness.
My dissociative identity disorder diagnosis makes life tremendously difficult, but it does not exclude me from real, healthy, life-changing, imperfect, incredible love. I now know that I am worthy of such love. All of us are.