My friend and her multiple personalities
by Kelvin Wade
I started writing a column for the Daily Republic in Fairfield, California in September 1992. My first two columns were an endorsement of Bill Clinton for President. One of the next ones was one of my favorite subjects: reading and literacy. A reader named “Pam Baker” sent me a snail mail letter praising that column and including her phone number.
We chatted on the phone and she suggested we meet for coffee. We met at Lyons and talked for over three hours. We continued chatting on the phone and meeting for coffee. On our third meeting, she dropped a bomb on me.
“I’m a multiple.”
She meant she had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder). To be honest, a part of me wanted to just walk away. I thought about Norman Bates and all of the dangerous depictions of “split personalities” in movies and television. You fear what you don’t know. However, I took it in stride, to Pam’s relief. She’d once had a friend flee her apartment when Pam switched personalities in front of her. I wasn’t about to abandon her.
To help educate me on the subject, Pam loaned me books on dissociative identity disorder (DID) and even arranged for me to meet her therapist. Over the years I’ve met many of her therapists and acquired a great deal of knowledge about the disorder. The theory is that multiples develop compartmentalized alters to deal with childhood trauma. In Pam’s case, the teenaged son of her babysitter horribly sexually and physically abused her when she was a child.
These personalities are not full personalities. They’re more like fragments of a shattered personally yet their memories are often walled off from each other.
While she and I became close friends, I experienced her disorder first hand and much of it was eyebrow-raising. I’ve engaged in conversations with alter personalities who would be interrupted by other alters. Then, two weeks later, that first alter may appear and pick up their conversation as if nothing happened, as if someone hit pause and then play.
Once, I was having dinner at her place and as soon as we sat down, SHHH, a 9 year old female alter, came out and proceeded to devour a plate of sliced tomatoes. When she’d finished Pam returned and then looked at me suspiciously.
“You could’ve left me a slice of tomato,” she said.
As I explained what happened (to a skeptical Pam), it was amazing to me that she couldn’t taste the tomatoes. Likewise, some alters required glasses and some did not.
One alter, a cruel male alter named Charles, greeted me by punching me in the face. It was the first and only time an alter had been physically violent with me. I knew the intent was to goad me into being abusive and when I refused, he abandoned that tactic.
It was strange that Pam had an alter named Control, who was a very religious
authoritarian woman. It was strange because Pam’s an atheist.
Once, when Pam had a brief stay at a facility in Southern California, she mailed me a letter written by Control. The handwriting was completely different from Pam’s. I didn’t even recognize it as being from Pam when I pulled the envelope from the mailbox.
I wrote a series of columns on Pam because I wanted people to better understand DID specifically and mental illness in general. The columns were very well received. Then, like now, I used the pseudonym “Pam” to protect my friend’s privacy.
Pam and I were having lunch one day at Bakers Square. A man approached our table and asked if I was Kelvin Wade. I said I was and he told me he liked my writing. Then he remarked that his favorite columns were when I’d write about my friend Pam. It was just hysterical having Pam sitting right there and he was none the wiser. Pam and I laughed about it later.
I’m writing about Pam for two reasons. One, this month is the 20th anniversary of her leaving long-term psychiatric lockup and starting life on her own. And two, this year marks the 20th anniversary of our friendship.
Today, some in the psychiatric community doubt dissociative identity disorder exists. Or they say it’s all iatrogenic, caused by unskilled medical professionals who suggested the disorder to the patient. It’s academic to me. I know that my friend has suffered from a serious mental condition that has, at times, put her life at risk.
I’m pleased to report that she is doing well. She just bought a home and is living her life independently. She’s still bothered by a shaky memory but I no longer see the parade of alters I once did. She’s not the poster person for DID or mental illness and thus, has no interest in publicity. She’s not frightening or strange. She’s just a strong, good and decent person. She’s my friend.