Not demons but dissociation

* * may trigger * *

this post contains references to Christianity (it is written by a priest), and mentions cult abuse (no descriptions of abuse)

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Ravi Holy describes his personal route through healing, discovering he has dissociative identities (D.I.) and the reality of life after.

Not demons but dissociation

As a priest in the Church of England, I preside at the Eucharist most Sundays and one of my favourite parts of the service is when we all say, ‘Though we are many, we are one body; because we all share in one bread’. Those words have a special – and a double – meaning for me because, as a result of extreme childhood trauma and abuse, I have a dissociative identity. I would say that I have dissociative identity disorder but disorder seems like an odd word with which to describe something as organised as my system of parts or alters. Plus, I haven’t been formally diagnosed as such (on which more later).

However, I didn’t know that I was ‘D.I.’ until relatively recently and, obviously, discovering that I was was a bit of a shock, to say the least. I’d had a similar shock back in 1994 when, in group therapy, I remembered the sexual aspect of the abuse that I had experienced as a child. I’d never forgotten the – in itself pretty extreme – mental and emotional abuse that I endured at the hands of my primary perpetrator and I’d occasionally had glimpses of the sexual abuse in dreams (or should I say, nightmares) but it wasn’t until I went into therapy at the age of 25 that those memories forced themselves into my consciousness in such a way that I could no longer ignore them and had to address them. And, clearly, that was a very difficult time.

I remember saying back then that where, if I’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it would have changed my present and my future – and drastically – this changed my past as well. It was like coming to the edge of a cliff so turning round only to see all the ground you’d covered before crumbling away; including the bit you’re standing on. So, suddenly you’re in freefall, with nothing at all to hold onto. And it was all downhill from there (if that’s not mixing metaphors too much!)

At that point, I started seeing a therapist one-on-one and while that helped in many ways, I also started remembering more things; things to do with cults and rituals which appeared to have happened when I was a bit older. And that was when I really fell apart. But thanks to my therapist, my wife and (from my perspective) God, I gradually got better and went from being completely unable to work, to holding down a pretty high-pressure job in the software business, to deciding to get ordained. And by the time I went off to theological college in the summer of 2002, I felt that I was – not cured as such but at least no more messed-up than anybody else. (I’ve always loved that quote by Freud which says something like, ‘The aim of psychoanalysis is to turn neurotic misery into the general unhappiness that everybody has to live with.’)

Anyway, as I began my ministerial training, I believed that my troubles were behind me and I hoped that, at some point in the future, I would be able to help other people who had been through similar things. And when, three years ago, I became the vicar of Wye (a village in Kent between Ashford and Canterbury) it looked like that time had come.

Shortly after I arrived in Wye, one of my new parishioners told me about a project for survivors called the Heal For Life Foundation which her sister had set up in Australia and I immediately knew that this was what I’d been waiting for. So, I arranged to go out to Australia to see what it was all about and to do one of their five-day healing weeks myself. Now, in one sense, I was simply on a fact-finding mission to confirm that this was something I wanted to help set up over here but I also figured that it couldn’t do me any harm to have a ‘psychological M.O.T.’ Maybe there was still a bit more work that I needed to do on myself. It turned out that there was a lot more…

On the third day of the course, I had an experience very similar to what had happened to me in group therapy 16 years previously. I suddenly found myself reliving – and thereby, releasing – some of the more extreme trauma that I’d experienced as a result of abuse and torture by some sort of cult. It was a huge relief to get all that out of my system (which I’d never felt safe enough to do before) and even as it was happening I was thinking, ‘It’s a bit of a shame that I had to travel to literally the other end of the world to do this but I’m certainly glad that I did. I’ve done what I came here to do.’ But that was just the start of it.

A few hours later, I was in the middle of a conversation with someone when suddenly an alien force took control of my body. It was as if I’d been driving along in my car and then found myself pulled out of the driving seat and someone else at the wheel and I’m in the passenger seat thinking, ‘Who are you and what are you doing in my car?!’ Very disturbing, I’m sure you’d agree.

Now, to some extent, I’d had experiences like that before but because I’d been a member of a Pentecostal church at the time, where there was quite a lot of emphasis on demonic possession and exorcism, that was how I’d explained them. And that was my first thought when this apparently-hostile entity took control of my body now. But within a few minutes, another, more gentle personality was speaking out of my mouth and I knew that that wasn’t a demon. I also knew enough about D.I. to realise what was happening.

So, within minutes, I’d gone from ‘I’m basically healed’ to ‘I’m demon-possessed’ to ‘Actually, I have D.I.’ And, of course, knowing what I know now, I realise that all the alleged ‘demons’ that I’d ‘had in me’ before were actually just parts of me – which is why well-meaning people had had so little success in casting them out of me: you can’t cast me out of me! And, in fact, because of all that, I no longer believe in demons – but that’s a subject for the pulpit or a theological journal not this one!

So, there I was in Australia, 12,000 miles from home, suddenly realising that I have D.I. and, returning to the M.O.T. analogy I used earlier, it was as if, having expected to pass with flying colours, perhaps being told that my tyres might need changing at some point in the future, but otherwise everything was fine, they’d said instead, ‘Your engine’s completely burnt out and needs replacing straight away.’ So, again, a bit of a shock.

What was worse was that later that evening, I encountered a part, an alter personality, that I was absolutely terrified of; an animal part in the form of a creature I was hugely phobic of so, for a split second, I thought, ‘I can’t cope with this. I’m going to have to kill myself’. But then, almost immediately, I said to myself, ‘Well, no! I haven’t come this far to give up now’.

Because as well as surviving everything that had happened to me, I had been in a conscious process of recovery for nearly 23 years at that point. I first sought help for drug and alcohol addiction in 1988, when I was just 19 years old, and my life has got steadily better since then as a result: I’m happily married, I have two great kids and a job that I love. I was therefore very literally damned if I was going to throw all that away.

So, really, I had no choice but to turn and face that animal part and say to it, ‘OK. You’re going to have to bear with me because this is pretty hard for me. But I accept that you’re there, I’m committed to working with you and what I ask in return is that you’re gentle with me.’ And he was. Because as well as being a part of me, that part, however terrifying his outward demeanour, is actually just a frightened child who desperately wants to be loved. To be heard, acknowledged and nurtured. And because I did acknowledge him (and I think he could tell that I really meant it) he calmed down and played ball right away.

Now, to be fair, he kicked off again the next day, in a fairly major way, but the fact is, he has endured suffering beyond the comprehension of most people so it’s hardly surprising that he’s… a little touchy sometimes! Plus, as a protector part (which is what I’ve subsequently discovered he is) that’s sort of his job.

Anyway, I think that acknowledging my parts in that way, unconditionally accepting them, was incredibly important in my subsequent healing process.

On the fourth day of the Heal for Life course (the day after I discovered I was D.I.) we were all encouraged to write a letter to our inner child – or, in my case, inner family; inner menagerie, even! Now, to some extent, I had already shown my parts what they needed to know – in how I’d dealt with my ‘rogue’ animal part the night before. However, I think it made a huge difference to do it formally as well. So, I wrote them a letter saying to all of them what I’d said to one of them the night before. Most of it wouldn’t make sense to anybody else but it ended like this:

I don’t know most of you yet. I don’t even know how many of you there are. But I promise you all that I will do my best to love you all, equally and unconditionally. Always. Your friend, Ravi.

I think that was important. And I’m sure it was because I gave them that assurance that I was able to get on a plane and come back to England a few days later and carry on running a group of eight churches – which, a few hours previously, I hadn’t thought I was going to be able to do. But, by the grace of God, I have not just coped but flourished and, in a sense, I have been successfully managing my inner family for the whole of my life. I see myself – as in the adult part who’s writing this article – as a kind of benevolent jailer who, for all our sakes, kept the others locked away until we found a place where it was safe to let them out. And that just happened to be in Australia.

Now, once my parts had come out, they were very unwilling to go back in again– and who can blame them?! But because I assured them that I would no longer ignore them and that they would get regular time out, they were willing to, as it were, get back in their box and our weekly therapy sessions are their time. So, they (pretty much) stay in their box during the week, when I have to be a vicar and a father and whatever else I am, but then, on Fridays, they get a few hours to do what they want. Which has worked pretty well for the last two years.

Some people have suggested that we should have daily ‘house meetings’ but that hasn’t really worked for me. I guess we’re all different. And one of the biggest differences between me and other people with D.I. that I’ve met or read about is that I am fully co-conscious all the time and always have been. That is, when a part comes out – or even when one takes over as my animal part did in Australia – I (the adult part who’s writing this) am still there, watching what’s happening. I’ve never ‘lost time’ (at least, not since I stopped drinking 25 years ago but, that’s a different issue!)

Now, I’ve been told that, given that, some people, some medical professionals, would classify me as having D.D.N.O.S. (dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, now Other Specified Dissociative Disorder) not D.I.D. Well, I don’t really care what you call it: the bottom line is, ‘I’ am not a single person but rather a collection of people, parts, personalities who together make up the entity known as Ravi Holy. Are those parts separate? Well, in one sense, no and I sometimes think of my system as being structured like an octopus, with the adult me being the head in the centre and the parts like tentacles branching out from it. But, equally, some of them do, effectively, have minds and wills of their own and I do sometimes experience them as entirely separate – as in the incident described above when one of them took control of my body.

Another example would be when I was first thinking about the idea of integration which, at that time, I was picturing as the various parts being ‘absorbed’ into the adult me. But that caused a bit of a revolution inside me:
“Why should we be absorbed into you? How would you like to be absorbed into us?!” But, since that time, I’ve changed my mind about what integration or recovery means and, ironically, it’s been reflecting on one of the key doctrines of the Christian faith that’s helped me to do that.

I previously had this idea that singularity was fundamentally better than multiplicity and that progressively greater health meant progressively fewer personalities. But then what do Christians claim about the Godhead itself? We say it consists of three distinct persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are, in one sense, a unity, but who will remain three persons in one, the Holy Trinity, for all eternity. So God Himself is a multiple! And since, by definition, God is perfect, this would seem to suggest that multiplicity is a higher state of being than mere singularity!

Now, I’m sort of joking and I certainly don’t want to offend either other Christians or people with D.I. who aspire to, as it were, full integration. As I said, we’re all different. But that thought genuinely helped me to feel more positive about being multiple and the fact is, I love all my parts. And, at this stage, I don’t want to lose any of them. Even the difficult ones. Especially the difficult ones because, again like God, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for my more prodigal children.

So, what does recovery look like if it doesn’t (necessarily) involve that kind of integration? Well, my new boss, Archbishop Justin Welby, said, in a recent speech about doctrinal differences in the church, that we need ‘to understand reconciliation… as the transformation of destructive conflict, not unanimity’. And that’s pretty much what I’m aiming for in therapy: as long as we’re happily co-existing, what’s the problem? So, for the foreseeable future I will continue to affirm, with both my outer and my inner congregations, ‘Though we are many, we are one body; because we all share in one bread’.

Copyright Ravi Holy, 2013

Ravi Holy originally gave this talk at Campaign for the Recognition and Inclusion of Dissociation and Multiplicity organised by the Paracelsus Trust in London, England, in March 2013 and an edited version was published in Interact (summer 2013), the journal of the Trauma and Abuse Group (TAG) .

Animal and demon alters.

People reporting alters who believe they are animals or spirit/demons often also report being subjected to ritual abuse.   Historically, several of Freud’s most famous cases are recognized by an animal component, such as the rat man. Clinical reports of non-human alters are limited, but are demonstrably linked to abuse.

The ISST-D Adult treatment guidelines for DID (2011) explain that the “demon” alters are just dissociated identities, like other alters, and how they are linked to abuse:
“Although patients may experience certain parts of themselves as demonic figures—and occasionally positive spiritual entities such as angels or saints—and as “not-self,” clinicians should regard these entities as alternate identities, not supernatural beings. Names of alternate identities such as “Devil” or “Satan” may reflect patients’ concrete culture-bound stereotyping of their self-aspects using religious terminology rather than evidence of a demonic presence. Malevolently labeled self-states also may reflect specific spiritual and/or religious abuse, such as abuse by clergy and/or projection of blame by the abuser. For example, a child may be told that punishment is necessary because he or she “is filled with the devil.” The child may encapsulate forbidden behaviors and affects in a malevolently named “other” identity, thereby preserving a sense of self as “good.””

Professionals also state that attempting an “exorcism” of the “demon” parts of a person hinders healing, and has not been shown to be effective.

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6 thoughts on “Not demons but dissociation

  1. Pingback: The Significant Other’s Guide to Dissociative Identity Disorder | Trauma and Dissociation

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  3. I am very glad you realize that “demons” can be alters and they should not be made worse by trying to shun or abort them. There are “introjects” that can be picked out and discarded, but alters really can’t be. They need to heal and be integrated (which can only truly be done to a degree). Have you ever heard of Jungian Archetypes? Sometimes alters can be sorted out according to archetypes, and this is how I see it. The mind is compartmentalized. Some alters represent a time period, but really ultimately they are archetypes.

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    • I have heard of Jungian archetypes but I haven’t really thought about their relationship to DID. Could you say more about that? Either here or you can contact me on facebook or by email: raviholy at aol.com

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  4. Pingback: The Significant Other’s Guide to Dissociative Identity Disorder | Trauma and Dissociation

  5. Pingback: Not demons but dissociation (post moved) – Trauma and Dissociation Project

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