Arts & Sciences

A New Therapy for Multiple Personality Disorder Helps a Woman with 12 Selves

Image credit: John Dykstra

The author, Rebecca Lester, PhD, is Chair of WashU Anthropology.

When Ella time traveled in my office for the first time, I did not realize what was happening right away. She was sitting comfortably in a chair, her hands folded, her back straight and her feet flat on the floor. There was no dramatic change, no shuddering or twitching. But then I saw it: a slight shift in how she held her body. Her face softened almost imperceptibly. I heard it, too: her voice sounded different, pitched just a teeny bit higher than usual, with a new singsong quality. At first I found it curious. As it continued, I felt a growing sense of unease. Acting on a hunch, I asked her how old she was. “I’m seven,” she said. Ella was 19.

I’m a licensed clinical social worker specializing in trauma, eating disorders, self-harm, personality disorders, and gender and sexuality issues. I am also a cultural anthropologist with expertise in the intersections of culture and mental health. Ella (I have changed her name here to protect her privacy) was referred to me by a concerned university colleague who taught her in one of her classes. Ella and I began meeting for twice-weekly therapy sessions, which eventually increased to three times a week. We worked together for four and a half years.

Ella came for help with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. She was a survivor of long-term, severe childhood sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader. She had nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety, and she engaged in various forms of self-harm, among other symptoms. But there were other things going on. Ella regularly missed pockets of time. She “spaced out” unexpectedly, “waking up” wearing different clothes. She experienced intense thoughts, emotions and urges that felt like they were coming from someone other than herself.

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