Multiple personality disorder is a perplexing phenomenon to outside observers, believed to be brought on by persistent childhood abuse. What is it like living with MPD? And how does a sufferer function, with so many alternate personalities—or "alters"—some of them adults and some children? NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood spoke with Karen Overhill—a former sufferer and the subject of a new book, "Switching Time," by Dr. Richard Baer. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: When an alternate personality would emerge, your own consciousness receded. You called it "losing time," since you were unaware of what the alter said and did during that time. What does it feel like when an alter is taking over?
Karen Overhill: It feels like you're tuning out, about to faint. It would come like a wave over me. When I came back to myself I would be exhausted. I never knew where I'd been or what I'd done, so I would have to look for clues, like a bag in the car or leftovers from a restaurant. [One of the adult alters] would go for long drives at night. In the morning the gas tank would be empty, and there would be hundreds of miles on the odometer. I would wonder, 'Where did I go?' It was amazing, but I accepted it.
You had 17 alters. Before therapy, were you aware of their existence?
All I knew was that I was losing time. But there were signs. Clothes would come back from the cleaner's with Katherine's name on them. There were different books being read at the same time. There were things bought that I didn't remember purchasing. I only got to know the alters during therapy.
Some of the alters had their own friends. Did people call you by different names?
I would answer to anything, because I had no idea. I would just go with the flow. In a store, when I ran into someone I knew but didn't know, there would be a delayed reaction, like someone hit the pause button, until the alter who knew that person came out. I would remember walking up to that person. Then I would know nothing more until I got into the car. Once I got in the car and came back to myself, I'd think, 'Well, at least I got what I needed.'
Experts say that alternate personalities are formed to shield MPD sufferers from pain and memories of abuse. Did you have any awareness of the abuse you endured as a child?
I had some awareness of it at the time. I would see bruises and cuts. I had bits and pieces of memories, but you don't want to ask too many questions as a child for fear of it leading to more abuse. Later, during therapy, I asked questions of my mother and brothers in a roundabout way to try and confirm what had gone on. Sometimes I remembered horrible things, but I couldn't remember feeling pain, because the alters had taken it away.
You truly felt no pain?
The pain would be removed from me. Different alters would feel it. If I had a bad headache and I couldn't handle it, it would somehow just go away without medication. I wish I knew how to do it today. But this caused problems, too, because pain is protective. Once I stayed at work till the end of the day when I needed an appendectomy.
How is it possible that people around you as a child you didn't notice that you were being abused? Why didn't teachers help you?
It wasn't like today, where you mention abuse and everyone comes running. In those days people whipped and beat their children. I went to Catholic school. If teachers saw welts, they thought it was discipline. And I thought I was bad and deserved punishment, so I didn't complain. No one would have believed me anyway, because Elise [the alter who was formed to go to school and behave like a normal child] didn't act abused. My father and grandfather had said that if I ever told anyone, they would kill me. So I put makeup over the wounds or wore long pants if I had bruises. I was careful to cover up signs. When I got to high school it became harder for my grandfather and father because I went to a much larger school that was farther away. They made me come home right away after school so that I wouldn't talk. I didn't have girlfriends, because I wasn't allowed to go to their homes. When I was invited to slumber parties, my parents would say, "She's too sick. She can't come." Eventually my classmates stopped asking.
What was it like during therapy, as each alter gave up its independent existence and was reintegrated into you—Karen?
Each time I went through an integration, it was exhausting. I was receiving all their memories. And there were physical issues, too. One alter would want to do things left-handed and the others right-handed. Lots of the alters had different walks. After integrating one of the child alters, I didn't know how to drive. That wasn't a good day. I sideswiped a car coming out of the parking lot.
It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "identity crisis."
With each integration I would become a different person. If someone asked me what kind of music I liked, I didn't know. I would have to figure it out, because the alters liked different music. I'm still trying to figure out who I am. It took a year or so before I began feeling all the alters were me.
Was it hard learning to live as a whole person again?
At first, when I couldn't lose time, I would get stressed and overwhelmed. There was no escape. I kept saying to Dr. Baer, "I should have kept one alter as a spare, to lose time to." But really, being reintegrated felt like waking up after being in a coma. My life started over in 1998 [when the process was complete].
After reintegration, you found that Katherine had a lot of friends you didn't know. How did you deal with them?
I didn't like a lot of Katherine's friends, and they didn't like me. They were looking for the same person they'd known before. It was kind of sad, because I couldn't be that person for them. I tried to respect Katherine's choices and stay in the relationships, but I didn't really know these people. I faked illnesses a lot to get out of meeting with them. Eventually some faded away. I was grateful for that. "Karen 2" had friendships too, but not enduring ones. Ann's friends were more the church types. I've stayed friends with a few of them, because they were good people. But for the most part I had to make all new friends.
How can you survive the kind of treatment you endured without tremendous anger?
I can't harp on that. I have to move on.
What are your plans now?
I'm still trying to figure that out. When you're suicidal, as I was for so long, you don't make long-range plans. But I like working with people. The funny thing is, most people my age have settled down and are looking forward to retirement. I'm just thinking about registering for college. But the most important thing for me is just knowing that I'm alive and can look forward to the future.