Dissociative Identity Disorder: Living With Twenty People in One Body
All images: Zachary Tang/Rice Media

Clad in a bold combination of a Union Jack crop top and jean shorts, Miss Mercury Jamie Alice stood waiting for me at the Tampines MRT tap-out gantry. 

Her outfit was about as bold as her name. I suppose I expected nothing less. What I hadn’t expected was standing right beside her—a small figure in a bright yellow shirt, her girlfriend Heather. They greeted me, and we made our way to their home, where the interview was going to be conducted.

It was there I got to know the peculiarities of their little world. They lived together in a rented single room of a three-room HDB flat, where they were avid gamers. As I later found out, they were engaged in a polyamorous relationship with Alice’s other girlfriend, Rena. Talk about an atypical family. 

Then again, from having Asperger’s syndrome to being transgender, nothing about Alice’s life is neurotypical, let alone typical. 

You see, unlike the throuple’s living situation, most of whom Alice would consider family lives rent-free—in her head. 

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

20-year-old Alice has been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)—basically the mental ailments handbook—DID is described as a disruption of identity characterised by two or more distinct personality states.

In Alice’s own words, “DID, essentially, is when you go through extreme trauma as a kid, before you can form a sense of identity. Your brain basically goes, ‘Well shit, you can’t handle this, and neither can I, let’s create someone who can.'”

That’s where her alters come into the picture. 

“Alters” are known in the DID community as alternate personalities that share the same body. They are distinct from each other, having various likes, dislikes, needs, and desires. In the headspace, which is the world that exists in the host’s head, they even tend to have their own unique bodies.

The “host” is usually the person who identifies with the body. Alters and the host work together to form a “system”, which is what their collective entity is usually called. 

Alice’s system refers to itself as the ‘Underworld System’. A cast of 20 or so diverse personalities that work together to keep the body alive. 

That’s why the system exists in the first place. As mentioned by Alice, persons with DID are all childhood trauma survivors. Many with DID would claim that they wouldn’t have made it through the trauma without their alters. 

“Without them, I probably would have broken. I probably would have gone insane. The kinds of things I was put through as a kid, I don’t think abusive even begins to describe it,” Alice tells me solemnly.  

Alice.

Because DID is the result of the body trying to cope with trauma, hosts often face blackout moments, especially if not yet diagnosed or aware of their DID. During these blackouts, an alter takes control of the body while the host is stuck somewhere in the headspace. Often this results in periods of memory loss, which can only be rectified if the alters communicate with the host directly.

Of course, not all switches occur this way. A “switch” is the situation where an alter takes control of the body. If the host is aware of their condition, they can control these switches. Alice categorises the switches of her Underworld System into three types.

“First, for context, I like to describe a switch as peeling off a piece of paper glued to a glass,” explains Alice. “There are three kinds of switches. They go from least bad to absolutely abominable.”

  1. Passive switching: it is like slowly peeling paper off a glass and glueing a fresh sheet of paper back on it. It is the most common form of switching, and it is consensual between whoever is switching in or out. The body simply needs to be in a quiet place.
  2. Active switching: this is a triggered switch. It is like quickly ripping paper off a glass, which is still effective, but you risk damaging the paper. The system tries not to switch actively because it can be pretty disorienting. There is no communication between the people switching. An active switch would most likely occur when a perceived danger to the system is perceived.
  3. Blackout switching: this is like using a hammer to smash both the glass and the paper, then quickly grabbing whatever is nearby to paste on top of it. This is when the host experiences a blackout. For the Underworld System, it might mean that one of their more violent alters can come out. However, because there is virtually no communication between alters, there may be no recollection of what the body did in those moments.

“It’s kind of like a chain of command. If a certain clearance level cannot handle it, then they up it to the next level,” Alice explains. “And I guess that’s what this switching is. The problem starts when blackouts happen because we normally try to track what’s going on. During a blackout, there is no guarantee that whoever is out will follow the rules.”

Let’s meet the alters

Alice has around 20 alters in her system. According to Alice, several alters have been around for a long time, some even since childhood.  

The first alter that seems to have existed is R. Just R.  

R, Alice explained, has always been the protector of the Underworld System

“He was the first person to fight back physically. He stood up to my family when they were beating me. Again, this was one of those moments I blacked out. He had whipped the cane out of their hands, snapped it in two, threw it out the window, and screamed in their faces. Of course, they just grabbed something far more lethal. But the message was sent, that you can try, but we’re going to start fighting back.”

R is described as an American man who is strong, Southern, and ready to rumble. Even though he was around for a long time, he first emerged with his identity when Alice was 17. 

This is where Sonia (name changed for the article) came into the picture.

Sonia is Alice’s ex-girlfriend, and she helped Alice accept the place of DID in her life. Slowly through Sonia, Alice understood that R and herself were two different people who lived separate lives. 

However, two years into the relationship, Alice cheated on Sonia. R did not know of this, yet he still ended up facing the consequences of Alice’s actions.

“At the time, Sonia blamed R for not stopping us from cheating, but R didn’t know what the hell was going on. When I cheated with R, it was a spur of the moment thing. But R had no part in it.”

“The relationship began falling apart after that, and I do feel guilty because R and Sonia had such a great relationship. They even had customised couples rings.”

R has been devastated ever since. Even though the relationship ended nearly two years ago, R still holds on to what the relationship once was. 

R (he/him)

R.

I had the pleasure of meeting R in person. The moment Alice switched to R, the difference was perceptible. 

Alice had crawled into her bed, under her covers, and told me to “wait a sec”. Moments later, her muscles went limp. I could recognise that a passive switch was occurring. R slowly appeared—the first indication of his presence was an accent change. He spoke with a deep southern drawl. 

True to his description, he was a towering figure. Alice had been tall, but when R was out, I truly noticed. It was almost as if Alice’s body was too small for how he felt inside. R changed out of Alice’s crop top and shorts and opted for a more masculine look, a white singlet and sweatpants. 

Once he switched in, R immediately bounded for Heather (Alice’s girlfriend), giving her some playful tickles. It was evident their relationship was different from Heather and Alice’s. R and Heather loved each other, but they were friends. 

Heather had been instrumental in helping R get over Sonia. She had taught him tarot reading, witchcraft and meditation, which helped him take his mind off losing his love. The one he had lost through no fault of his own.

When I asked R how he felt about Sonia leaving, he said, “It hurts like hell. There ain’t no feeling like it in the world. She was the only woman I loved my whole life.”

Despite the pain and having to contend with Alice’s betrayal, R still cares about Alice and the system. He recalled moments he had to protect Alice from her parents when they were beating her, and he felt for Alice in her struggles with gender dysphoria and poverty. 

“If you look at Alice’s arms, you can probably still see cane marks. Cause when they hit, they don’t ask you to stick your hands out or whatever like the rest of them crazy Asians; they just go all ham. It’s not fair. You do that to a kid, but how are they supposed to fight back?”

I told R that he sounds like he loved Alice a great deal. 

He responded humorously: “love is a strong word. I care for her, though. I think she deserves a better hand. But I don’t know how to help her cause my skill set is useless here. I can’t beat someone up and tell them to give her a job; I can’t do that. I can go into boxing and make some money that way, but I need money to begin with. I need to train cause this body ain’t strong anymore.” 

R had agreed to let Alice transition, and he even wears a bra out of the house to ensure that Alice does not get misgendered. Suffice it to say, R is rather selfless. The big brother of the system.

Still, sometimes he allows himself to ponder, “You know, sometimes I think about the life I would have had if I had my own body. I’d probably serve my country. Join the marines. Toughest cookies in the country. Maybe when I’m done with all that, I’ll retire back in Texas and get me a trailer. Just live that simple life. I tell you this; we could all live a quiet life right now; we’ve had enough crazy.” 

Dylan (he/him)

Heather, pictured on the left, and Dylan, on the right.

Dylan is a relatively new alter that showed up a few months ago. Even so, he’s made himself an invaluable member of the team including fulfilling the role of Heather’s lover—Heather is dating Alice, Dylan and another alter in the system, Eris.

Dylan and Heather exchange a few kisses sitting on their neighbours’ swing set. It’s sweet, and Dylan isn’t shy. 

“C’mon, let’s give them a few for the camera,” Dylan says cheekily to Heather as he turns her face and kisses her. Heather is shy, but you can tell she’s taken by his candour. 

With his sweatpants and black shirt—which he changed into after switching in from R—Dylan certainly expresses himself unabashedly. He even carries a little anime doll around simply because he finds it cute. Aside from showering Heather with cuddles and kisses, he is also the resident genius. 

“When I came out, I knew I was a knight. I was meant to try not to harm people and serve the weak,” said Dylan. 

Unlike most other alters, Dylan did not have a source material. In the DID community, it is possible for alters to be fictional characters. For example, R’s source is a character from Devil May Cry called Dante, although he has developed into a more complex person as time has gone on. Another alter, JD, has his source from the musical Heathers. On the other hand, Dylan has no apparent source material, which is more common in other DID systems as well.

He then went into the details of how he tried to help the system with an investigation into Sonia’s potential harassment case—that’s a story for another article—alluding to how he helped the system connect clues that they hadn’t considered before. He and Heather then talked about how brilliant Alice was, but she was also emotional and drained. 

Dylan came into their lives at a time they needed him most.

That goes for most alters that appear. Not all of them emerge after a specific trauma, although some do. Mostly, they are born to fulfil a need the system has—that is how the brain and body cope with the realities of this world.

Dylan with his anime toy.

The counsel and minor alters 

The counsel is the group of alters appointed by the Underworld System to make decisions. This includes Alice, R, Dylan, JD, and “the kid”. 

The minor alters are out less often. They also have complex and interesting personalities, but do not have as much of a stake in the decision making. 

Suffice to say, each alter with their diverse needs and desires will affect the body in the outer world in their own way. One can eat too many sweets, making the body less healthy, while the other can build up strength, only to have to let some of it go.

It’s quite funny how the different alters are so much like regular people, with their quirks and proclivities. The only difference is that while the rest of us will be held responsible for our actions, the Underworld System does not have that luxury, as illustrated by how Alice’s cheating impacted R’s life so severely.

Perhaps that has helped them develop as people faster than we ever could. Every action they do must be in consideration of the whole. How often can we say we behave that selflessly? 

It mustn’t be easy for a body full of male alters to transition and present as female to the rest of the world, either. Yet, they do so because they care about their host. She hasn’t always been the best host, as evident in her previous mistakes with Sonia, but she says she has grown a lot since then. 

Despite all this, Alice says that there’s a lot to appreciate, “It’s like a video game where you have subtleties in each person. It’s beautiful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“To everyone else, this is going to sound cringy, but they are very much like family. I know them; I know their quirks. They are very annoying. But they are here for me, and they will help me in any way they can. I am grateful for them. Like I said, the system works. We’ll just leave it at that. As long as no one messes things up, we’ll be okay.”

Is Alice crazy? Yes, but pick the right flavour.

Alice herself has lived her whole life in dissonance with her brain and body. Since young, she has sensed that there was someone else with her.

“I have memories of about 5 or 6 years old when I told my mother, there’s someone else here, there’s someone else controlling me. 

Since childhood, she has had to contend with people not believing her. First her parents, about having DI, and again later when she came out as trans. Even now, she’s constantly misgendered and questioned about the validity of her alters.

“Being transgender and having DID is sometimes a mixed bag,” Alice describes. “With DID, the system has had to agree to present as female because we don’t want anyone claiming that we’re faking being transgender.”

However, because most of her alters are male, especially the major ones, she often gets accused of faking her transgender identity. 

“Most of your alters are male, so you can’t be truly trans,” Alice quoted naysayers with exasperation.

On top of this, some people question her validity as a person with DID, thinking that she faked her condition for clout when she used to post as different alters on Instagram. The healthcare system also threw her in for a loop when she kept getting preliminarily misdiagnosed—which is common for people with DID.

“When I went to A&E so that I could get an appointment with them, the provisional diagnosis was schizophrenia. Ah, they probably think I’m loco!” Alice recounted with a laugh.

Alice agreed to see the schizophrenia specialist, and he told her that she was right about her DID. “It felt great to be validated finally. Like we’re not loco. We’re not crazy.”

“Well, you are crazy,” Heather jutted in, “just a different flavour of crazy.” We all laughed.

“Anyways, we got diagnosed this September by Dr Luke Hong at the National University Hospital,” Alice continued.

Finally, on a folded slip of paper issued by the National University Hospital, one Miss Mercury Jamie Alice has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and dissociative identity disorder. Alice may be crazy, but at least now she can prove that her flavours of crazy are real.

“Flippity-floppity, I’ve got no property”

The system has not had a very easy life. Alice was a victim of childhood abuse, and her relationship with her biological family is virtually non-existent since they kicked her out of the house.

Alice has had to fend for herself. She’s had to search tirelessly for a job and a place to stay. So far, they have been living off government welfare, which has been sufficient in sustaining them. However, as per the last negotiation, her funding was cut down because she found a waitressing job.

The problem is, with DID, Alice gets burnt out quickly. It has become harder to sustain a job that only Alice, and none of the other alters, is good at. 

Finding a place to stay was hard enough. She is seen as a woman to male roommates, yet not enough of one for female roommates.

“Flippity-floppity, I’ve got no property,” she joked, which seemed to be her coping mechanism at this point. 

Jokes aside, it is a genuine concern for her if she cannot pay rent due to job insecurity and lowered funds. 

“We’re stuck in your world. This world was made for neurotypical people. Schools, healthcare institutions, these are all designed for you. We just happen to be stuck here,” Alice says, exasperated. 

“I have a lot of conditions, and the world is not very accommodating. I have to pretend as if I am neurotypical.”

“I’ve been so tired for so long. But this is my story, and this is my chance to tell it. I’ve got no money, I’ve got no future prospects, the only reason I’m not dead yet is because I’m trying my best to hold out for Rena and Heather. So that I don’t disappoint them,” she continued. At this point, she was scrunched up, hugging her legs. 

“When I hit rock bottom, I thought I couldn’t go any lower, and someone handed me a shovel.”

R was right. Alice had been handed a bad hand. If life was like one of those video games she plays, she might be surviving better—in those, she has guns and knives. Unfortunately, that life isn’t real, and she’s consigned to this reality, where her guns are her wit, and her knives are her strength to push forward.

Alice knows that even with her real family shunning her, she has found unconditional love, and I’m just referring to the ones who have their own bodies. They would do anything for her, just as she would for them. 

As for the rest of her family, the system, she is indebted to them for saving her. So as life throws them all into the deep end, you better believe Alice is trying her darndest to bring them right back.


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