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Leah Peterson

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Mismatched Boots

Posted: 05/21/10 11:17 AM ET

The first time Claire came I was four years old and I didn't know she was my other personality. I thought she was my friend. I could see her in my head. I could feel her feelings. Sometimes she made my body move, but when I closed my eyes, we were both inside and outside. In fact, because we were both "out" together most of the time, it seemed perfectly normal for me to share my body with her. And then I learned that I shouldn't talk to other people about it because it made them uncomfortable and sometimes they made fun of me.

Having a mental illness or disorder carries a great stigma with it. Having a "normal" life once the label has been applied is close to impossible. People start to look at you differently. In the workplace, your competence and trustworthiness are considered and inspected more often for the same work you've done, and done well, before. Your family might have reactions from distancing themselves from you to disbelief of your diagnosis to the uncle that thinks if he just keeps teasing you enough, you'll pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it. Right when you need to learn how to love yourself with all your imperfections, the people around you start acting weird, looking at you as if you might explode and you begin to question everything and wish you could drop in a hole out of site. This is all normal and to be expected.

When a person with a Dissociative Disorder has more than one personality "out" at a time, it's called Coconsciousness. Throughout my life, I've experienced coconsciousness about half the time, sometimes more successfully than others.

When I was about 28 years old or so, and near the beginning of my effort to be coconscious as an adult, I remember searching the cupboards and not finding anything to eat that met the standards of my discerning palate, namely, Cheetos, pudding and vodka. An emergency trip to the grocer was in order! As I walked down the aisles, I pulled various items into the cart, including the plumpest cream-filled donuts I could find.

And then I froze. I froze because in my cart were items I had not put there. I realized at once they were Claire's things. As I had been wandering the aisles, absentmindedly placing snack foods in the cart, she had been consciously replacing them with nutritious foods. If the security cameras were on me, they would have seen me in the bread aisle setting a slice of strawberry pie on the shelf and grabbing some whole-wheat, multi-grain bread. Dairy left next to the organic cereals, licorice abandoned by the 100% fruit juices. For the clean-up guy, it was like a little Easter egg hunt. But instead of chocolate covered marshmallows, he found curdled mocha creamer and wilted cream puffs.

After a laborious hour or so, we compromised on our food items. We had muttered and laughed while walking around and I suspect from the wide berth the other shoppers gave us, we generally looked like a crazy person putting things in and out of the cart repeatedly. When I got home and glanced in the mirror by the front door while hauling in the groceries, I saw I had on pajama pants, a button-up, white dress shirt and mismatched boots. A classic coconscious fashion statement for me.

This scenario played itself out in many ways, not just groceries. I'm recalling knee-high, lace-up, green army boots, dark purple, foot-long, feathered earrings with tiny gold bells that tinkled every time I moved my head, and a sadly hopeful cream-colored lace top two sizes too small, with tiny ribbons cinching under the bust trying to create a Victorian peasant look. Actually, I'd love to have those earrings again. I could duct tape one to the cat and hear him before he pounces me. (KIDDING.) (I would never use duct tape!) (Strapping tape works so much better.) (KIDDING AGAIN!)

During this season of United States of Tara, Tara, played by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Toni Colette, experiences coconsciousness for the first time, which can be very disconcerting and sometimes scary. And though it suddenly feels more messed up and out of control to the person experiencing it, it's actually a good step towards healing. The more coconscious time personalities can spend together, the better. Even if it looks crazy. Even if they mumble to themselves or directly contradict things they've previously said. It can be an embarrassing time for the Multiple when they find themselves acting a bit erratically, but every time there is a coconscious effort, the personalities get to know each other better, which leads to more cooperation. Switching between personalities becomes smoother and you stop losing time, which leads to less secrets, which leads to a higher quality of life and being able to function and cope with the outside world.

This can be a hard time for everyone in the family and it's important to keep a sense of humor about what is happening if at all possible. That is one of the great things my kids did for me. They were quick to lighten the situation if things went awry. I can't count how many times I got lost driving us somewhere. I would be mostly "out" when we started, but Claire would switch to mostly "out" half way through and had no idea where we were going. When we realized our mistake, Claire and I would try to get back on track, which meant we drove around for what seemed like forever trying to figure out where we were. The kids would laugh and shake their heads and call it The Scenic Route or One of Mommy's Adventures. That helped Claire and I relax and do a better job of finding our way. Being able to laugh with others about strange behavior helps relieve tension and actually brings you closer together.

I hear, mostly from people who have no experience with DID, that it seems wrong to have Tara be a comedy, that DID is a serious subject and should be treated as such. I hear what they are saying. Yes, DID is serious. But, it's also humorous in so many ways. If we just focused on the serious we would be doing a great disservice to the DID community, where there is a lot of people who need that humor to get through it all. We need to laugh at ourselves. We laugh with each other. And we love it when you join in. "With" being the operative word. Never "At." If I could say one thing to the family of a Multiple, it would be DON'T GIVE UP. Your loved one will figure it out and in the long run, it's worth the investment of love and patience on your part to help them get through it.

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Leah Peterson is a consultant for the United States of Tara series on Showtime created by Steven Spielberg and Diablo Cody. She's an author, freelance writer, photographer, mental health coach and all around pretty nice gal. Leah speaks at conferences on a variety of subjects including mental health, social media and crafting. Her latest venture is publishing her own magazine at www.CreativeHumansMag.com. You can find out more about her at www.Leahpeah.com. Heads up -- Leah will steal your comfy slippers, beat you at Guitar Hero, then tell you you're pretty, your hair is shiny and she likes your shoes. (And mean it.)
 

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