Author Lyn Barrett On Her Dissociative Identity Disorder Diagnosis
Imagine what it would be like to have an entire series of interactions within yourself of which you have no conscious awareness that had your life spiraling out of control? Author, minister, speaker, and retreat leader Lyn Barrett shares her experience in her newly released memoir called Crazy: Reclaiming Life From the Shadow of Traumatic Memory.
Heart-wrenching, inspiring, gut-twisting, it takes the reader on Barrett’s journey from a seemingly idyllic suburban Philadelphia existence to one of confusion, loss, and terror and then to a sense of healing. She writes with raw poignancy about her childhood abuse that led to the revelation that she had DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). This interview with her explores the puzzle that with the assistance of her therapist, her evolving spiritual practice and intense love she has for her children was able to be pieced together.
From the perspective of the woman who is not only a survivor but a resilient thriver, do you feel compassion for all the aspects of yourself?
Yes, I feel compassion for all parts of me most of the time. A critical aspect of my therapy was to get to know all my parts, hear their stories, believe them even when they seemed unbelievable, help them communicate with each other, and love them as if they were me, which they were. Some of them were not very nice initially, angry, rageful, unkind to me (though never to others). Becoming aware that they were hurt children who saved my life was helpful. As I began to parent them, they released their fury, fear, victimization, and shame, and responded to my love. My therapist taught me how to love them by welcoming them graciously each time one appeared. She was my role model.
As a loving mother, what was it like to feel disconnected from your children?
Feeling disconnected from my children was the most painful conscious experience of my life. Perhaps because our bonds were so strong prior to my decompensation, the disconnection was like losing a part of myself, watching it happen, but not being able to do anything about it. I knew how to be a good mother, and I was one, initially. As my dissociation grew, I was heartbroken that I couldn’t do what I knew I needed and wanted to do to be a good parent. It was like being in a prison looking out at my children, trying to reach them through a veil but not being able to touch them. I had no agency with them, no profound love, no energy to do with gusto the things we loved to do together. I went through the motions and, even there, the wheel slowed down, and the motions were minimal.
I’m a therapist and understand the conditions of depersonalization and derealization that you experienced. Can you explain it for the readers who may not be familiar with the terms?
Dissociation is a temporary separation of mind from body, often related to trauma, to protect the individual from the full impact of the trauma. When the trauma is chronic and severe, the dissociation may manifest in the person as depersonalization, feeling unreal, or derealization, experiencing your surroundings or situations as unreal. In my memoir, I use the metaphor of shimmering Christmas tree icicles in the back of my brain to describe the feeling in general. More specifically, these states make you unable to be in the present, you are always looking at yourself and the world through a veil, you can feel overwhelming emotions and numbness at the same time, and you feel crazy because the world is not what you know it to be. I often looked at myself from the corner of the ceiling watching myself go through the motions of life, not feeling a part of my body, and not experiencing the things I was watching myself engage in. I was a spectator in my own life.
While you were going through your own personal crisis, your children were experiencing theirs. How did you balance the two realities?
I did not balance the two realities. Well, that’s not really true. I actually worked exceedingly hard to help them through each of their crises, especially when their father was sabotaging my efforts. For instance, with one child, I worked with several different schools to get him the education he needed. With another child, I arranged for admission to the same psychiatric unit I had been admitted to. With another, I overrode their father’s insistence that mental health treatment was not necessary and pursued that route vigorously. So, I worked very hard to intervene and help them through their own crises, but it was never enough, and I always felt like I was inadequate in this area.
My children were traumatized, too, albeit in a very different way from my own trauma. The horrific end to my marriage, the crumbling of our family life, my own dissociation that shattered our bonds, and whatever made their father react in the ways he reacted, all contributed to their difficult childhoods. Each coped in different ways, and each has managed their lives differently. For the most part, I am proud of them. Their father and I have a congenial but distant relationship.
How did your relationship with the God of your understanding evolve as you decompensated?
As I describe in my memoir, I was raised to believe there was no God, and that people who believe in God are either stupid or weak. While I don’t profess that God dramatically entered my life and saved me from my disability, I believe that God enters into the cracks in our armor and, with our cooperation, leads us toward healing and wholeness. My story of healing is inextricably bound to my faith journey. Slowly but surely, my faith and healing grew together.
In simple terms, how would you define DID?
(Simple? LOL!) When anyone experiences trauma, they may dissociate the mind from body to lessen the immediate impact of the trauma, e.g., veterans on the battlefield, rape victims, accident victims, etc. Likewise, when trauma happens in a child, the brain dissociates to protect the child from the full impact. When the trauma happens repeatedly to a child between the ages of birth and about eight years old before the brain has fully matured, the brain builds amnesic walls around the traumatic memories, events, and emotions which solidify into parts that have no or inconsistent knowledge of each other. This is semi-functional in childhood because the child has parts that hold the trauma and other parts that don’t know about the trauma. The parts that don’t know about the trauma can go back into the world and rely on caretaking adults without the knowledge of trauma. It is dysfunctional in adulthood when the individual is no longer in danger and the body/mind can no longer keep the trauma under wraps.
How did it manifest in your life?
For the ten years of my life prior to diagnosis, I literally felt crazy with symptoms that had no rational explanation: I felt unreal, my emotions and thinking didn’t match, I had body pain everywhere, there were multiple strands of thought in my head at one time, I had suicidal ideation and made one attempt, I felt inward chaos and confusion; all the while, I was excelling in my professional life. All of this, together, led to my decompensation or total loss of coping skills to manage my internal life. Once I was accurately diagnosed, I continued to have many of these same symptoms for the next ten years. However, with appropriate, trauma-informed therapy, I began to peel apart the symptoms, get to know my alters, and engage in the hard, hard work of healing. These two, ten-year periods comprised the “meat” of my dissociative sandwich. The “bread” on the first end was growing up severely shy, terrified of boys, occasionally having meltdowns I didn’t understand. The other piece of “bread,” after integration, enabled me to learn how to live my life which was hard in its own way. Nonetheless, the full course “meal” of my life came to a happy and fulfilled resolution.
Do you think that your upbringing and the ways in which your parents reacted to your questioning of the abuse contributed to your condition?
I think the way my parents reacted to the possibility of my having been abused was an indictment of their complicity.
And then, despite all the hard work you did to heal, they disowned you. How did you work through that?
When my parents disowned me, I was still in the midst of pervasive dissociation so I barely felt the disownment as one might ordinarily feel an abandonment. I was aware of it cognitively and sometimes felt like I was floating in outer space without their mooring. Ultimately, though, it was a positive force for me to be disconnected from them. I was barely managing my therapy and my work, and I didn’t have time for the toxic family dynamics. It allowed me to put what little energy I had into taking care of myself.
How did you become loving and emotionally intelligent when you were treated so poorly throughout your life?
That’s a good question which I can’t answer adequately. My therapist thinks I’m very bright (I think she’s very bright). For a brief period of time early in my decompensation, I would look at other people and/or families who seemed loving and functional and feel jealous. Rather quickly, the jealousy disappeared and, instead, I felt happy and joyful to see happy people. It told me that it’s possible for people to relate to each other functionally, respectfully, and with love. I wanted what they had. I watched people carefully and learned from them.
I would also say that the word “relentless” frequently came up during my many years of therapy. I was relentless as I pursued healing. For instance, my eight years of group therapy were excruciating because I “transferred” my family of origin onto every member of the group. I thought I was being abused but would take it back to my therapist and painstakingly learn that I wasn’t. People in the group wondered why I continued to attend given that I was in such pain with the group. As I said in the memoir, “I kept going back into the lion’s den.” I think group was the single most important factor that helped me heal from dysfunctional relationships. By going to group, I was forced to face my own demons. I was relentless.
As I reread the answer to this question, Mike, my angry alter, wants me to tell you that his anger was a major force in driving my healing and embodying my love. Not only was he “f-ing pissed off that my life was off-track,” he took the time to hold the hurt little children and help them heal. He was a dynamic alter who taught me the value of anger rightly used. At least in his case, anger equaled love.
What did it take to integrate your alters?
Healing. I didn’t do anything special to integrate my alters. As my other symptoms of abuse began to heal, I talked with my alters about the possibility of integrating but, frankly, I didn’t really know what that meant. One day while on vacation, I realized I was one. They had done it on their own without talking to me about it. Integration doesn’t mean my alters aren’t still there. According to the theory of structural dissociation, they will always be there because that’s the way my brain developed as a very young child in response to chronic abuse. In fact, one or the other still comes out and lets me know their opinion or feelings every now and again, but mostly, they trust me to handle life. They decided that life as one would be more effective and pleasurable than life as many. Just to note that not every person with DID makes that choice; some remain in functional multiplicity which is a valid choice.
How can we, as a society, destigmatize mental health challenges?
Education. Give people accurate information about mental health and using real people to exemplify the information. Between 1-5% of the world population has DID, which makes it as prevalent as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It is not rare, nor is it exotic. It is the body/mind’s natural response to chronic trauma. If you are at a school with 100 students or sitting in church with 100 worshipers, between 1 and 5 students have undiagnosed DID and between 1 and 5 worshippers have diagnosed or undiagnosed DID. (Because most of us are in the system for 6-10 years before we’re accurately diagnosed, the number is underreported.) That’s a lot of people. Because it is the “hidden disorder,” you are unlikely to know that your neighbor, colleague, or friend has DID; ordinarily, we don’t “tell.”
What was the turning point that led you to become a minister?
Late in my healing process, I realized I was no longer reading books about education (my profession) but, rather, reading books about God, theology, faith, and so on. I took a year-long course in Gestalt Pastoral Care where little old Mennonite ladies with head coverings prayed me through discernment to leave my job as a public-school principal and enter theological seminary. I had no idea what I would do with that education once I had it, and I couldn’t, initially, see myself as a pastor. So, it really was a leap of faith. I knew I needed to understand more about this God who-I-didn’t-think-existed-but-now-thought-existed-and-had-come-into-my-life.
What is your most profound hope for this book?
Initially, I wrote this book to make sense of my life. In the process, I realized I was also writing it to give support and inspiration to people with DID, their therapists, and their loved ones. Now, I have hope that my memoir will go further, into the general public, and help eradicate the sensational, often inaccurate portrayal of this creative coping strategy that helps children survive the unsurvivable.
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