April 22, 2011

Be Our Guest / Joan Vanore

Dissociative identity disorder can be misunderstood to be demonic possession

The first time that I spoke to a “devil,” I admit I was creeped out. Especially since it pulled out all the stops—guttural voice, menacing tones and the ominous announcement, “I have absolute power!”

I had been warned by my psychotherapy client that she had a devil inside her, but was still alarmed until I thought to ask, “Who told you that you were the devil?”

This “devil,” as it turned out, held the memory of childhood abuse. She had been told she was demonic, and had believed it.

Imagine if she had taken her story to an exorcist, and the “devil” had emerged in the course of their conversation. Would he know what to ask to find out the truth?

The stories about possession and exorcism in the March 18 issue of The Criterion rightly point out that medical explanations must be ruled out before the Church diagnoses someone as “possessed.”

However, they pass over the disorder most likely to be mistaken for possession as well as the dangerous implications of the criteria used to determine it.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a condition caused by severe trauma, usually in early childhood. The vast majority of people with DID have suffered repeated sexual abuse.

Instead of forming a single, coherent sense of self, their different memories, feelings and behaviors are kept separate—“dissociated”—and take on lives of their own.

In full-blown DID, these aspects of the self have different names, body images and functions. Even in less severe dissociative disorders, we sometimes find memories, traits and abilities compartmentalized according to the person’s particular emotional states.

Several of the criteria for “possession” are, in fact, common signs of dissociation.

People who dissociate use different neural pathways for different parts of the self, often not recalling in one state what was learned in another.

Thus, it is perfectly possible for someone with DID to have learned a language in one ego-state—and be unaware of it in others—or to have a psychosomatic disability in one state but not in another.

Persons with DID live with many symptoms that seem inexplicable until they understand their disorder. They commonly hear voices, sometimes commanding or abusing them. They may find objects misplaced in their homes or notes written to them in unfamiliar handwriting. They enter trances or become confused when under stress. They may have conversion seizures—sudden muscle contortions without medical explanation.

The most disturbing criteria for possession are those involving aversion or physical pain in reaction to Catholic symbols, prayers or sacraments.

These symptoms point to something far more mundane—abuse in a religious context. If we bypass this explanation, looking instead at the victim’s immorality or occultism, we help to support and conceal abusive practices.

We will also prescribe the wrong cure. For people with DID, exorcism is directly counter to the demands of recovery. They need to understand and reclaim all these fragments of themselves, not to shun or evict them. They need to understand the abuses of power which have led to their fragmentation, not to be placed in subjection to our authority. They need to work through the past safely, free of their abusers’ indoctrination, and free to choose their own belief systems.

To focus on the devil draws us away from the real evil at the root of these conditions. Particularly in light of the clerical abuse scandal, the Church has a moral obligation to rethink its practices in light of growing knowledge about trauma.

We need to foster greater awareness and understanding of the evil of abuse—including religious abuse—instead of clinging to the devils that we know.

(Joan Vanore is a licensed mental health counselor and psychotherapist in private practice in Indianapolis.)

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