A reflects on dissociation and art therapy

A suffered serious and prolonged abuse as a child resulting in complex trauma and dissociative identity problems. She came to adult mental health services where she received a diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder. A reflects on these experiences and how she used art therapy within a mentalization service to recover.

Audio transcription:

A: This is one of my earlier pictures at the beginning of my therapy. And on the left-hand side, it’s at more happy times where there’s a sunshine, and trees and flowers which I do- I really like because I’ve got a nice garden. And there’s a toolbox and all the tools seem to be all in working order. And that’s how I feel about life; that we’re supposed to have tools that actually work, or we cannot gain any structure or get anywhere in our life.

And on the right-hand side, there is a box with broken tools in that do not work. And it seems to be quite sad and stormy, the weather is not very nice, and I don’t look very happy because I don’t have any tools that actually work. So, the tools in the box are all broken, and I can’t use them.

In the beginning, when I was diagnosed with EUPD, which is emotionally unstable personality disorder, I realised that this did actually fit, although it was upsetting reading about it, my emotional state was really bad. And I was just getting really upset and easily distracted, one little thing and I’d just be crying for days about it. And my life was very confusing, I had a lot of memory problems, I was kind of going from one thing to another. I was drawing pictures, I was riding a bike, I was trying to exercise. I was going from one extreme to another with my eating; like one minute I was eating a lot, the next minute wouldn’t eat at all. Everything was just all over the place, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, who I was. And it was just hard to be in control of anything.

And when I was younger and I was at school, I was bullied quite a lot. I was abused by my sister. I remember being locked in cupboards, and just being really frightened of my sister. I tried to run away a few times. She had asked me to do weird things, and I’ve tried to block all these things out. Even some of it, I don’t really remember because I was quite young. But as I’ve gotten older, I understand that she wasn’t well, and I’ve tried to forgive her because I feel sorry for her.

The one thing I did do when I was younger was; I kind of invented an imaginary friend. Which now I realise was actually me. I was actually pretending to be a cat, and when I was the cat, the cat was called Eow, and the cat wasn’t hurt, everybody loved the cat. I used to tell my brother he had to love and feed Eow, and he would pet me. And it sounds really weird now talking about it, but at the time it was like a safety net. If anything was going wrong, I would pretend I was this cat. And the reason why I was like that is because I was blocking out stuff that happened. There was one time I was in a car with my sister’s friend on the backseat and I was abused and that’s all I really kind of remember because I just started to block everything out and pretend I wasn’t there.

This is what I used to do, and I feel that as I grew up, I didn’t have tools that could work because of all the stuff that happened. And my tools were just not working like everyone else’s. I wasn’t able to stick up for myself, I wasn’t able to work out what was going on.

A: This one was done a little bit later on in therapy and I had started to work out that what was going on in my head was that I had fragmented people and memories living inside me. And the bit in the middle is all of me spinning around and all of my different sides, my different states, my feelings all represent what’s going on in the middle there. And the people that are standing alone are the ones that have managed to become separately rather than all in one go. Which made it very hard for people for me to understand me and I also was very confused trying to live in that cycle in the middle. I was spinning from being sad one minute, then absolutely cracking up at the most silliest things, laughing my head off, and then crying again, then being quite angry. And just really going from one mood to another, like to extremes. And nobody could really understand me when I was spinning and other people would be frightened by it, or not frightened but maybe just confused and just couldn’t understand me at all, and I couldn’t understand myself.

And as I went through therapy, I was able to separate these personalities and become one. Because it was just easier and my life was less confusing if I was able to stay as one personality for longer and then recognise when I was spinning, and then try to stop spinning, which was really hard. Because once I started spinning, it was like a washing machine, and I was just going round and round, and everything was going round and round at the same time, and I couldn’t see a way out. People are now on the outside because they represent the different personalities but standing by themselves.

There was one thing I wanted to say about having problems with dissociative identity disorder is that; I was so desperate for people to see it on the outside and they just couldn’t see how I actually felt inside. I knew that I was changing from day to day, I knew I was spinning. I couldn’t explain it at first but being able to be understood in therapy was- it was a big step for me. I just felt all I had to actually do was explain how I felt inside, and I didn’t have to react in a way where I wanted to be noticed as being different or a different personality.

I started to notice in my pictures that there were differences in my handwriting – that was one of the main things. And looking back at notebooks and stuff and realising the big change in handwriting was a big thing. And also, the style of my pictures would change. And just little things like that made it more real for me and I felt more understood and accepted, more than ever. Because I’ve been struggling with it my whole life and I’ve looked back on old photographs, and I’ve shown those to the therapist. And everybody had kind of had agreed with me that they may not be able to see them, but they do understand, and they do believe me. Which was- it just made me feel happy inside, yeah.

And it stopped me acting out more and I’ve definitely cut down on pretending to be other people, you know like doing the impressions and stuff like that. I don’t push that on anyone anymore because I feel that if I’m just myself, that is now accepted. And I wanted to be believed and I just feel like a big weight has been lifted and I don’t have to be frightened to talk about it anymore.