Mclean Hospital

Deconstructing Stigma: I’m a Survivor

February 4, 2019

The following story features Robert, a participant in our Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life mental health public awareness campaign. Told through the eyes of its participants, this campaign boldly challenges the misconceptions of what those with mental illness look like and is intended to spark conversation. To learn more, visit DeconstructingStigma.org.

Robert is an accomplished scholar, a popular author, and a political heavyweight. He is also a survivor of child abuse that left unseen scars on his brain. Scars that resulted in mental health struggles, including alcoholism, bulimia, and dissociative identity disorder (DID)—formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

Like the abuse he endured as a child, he was able to hide all these struggles from his friends, family, and colleagues, so no one knew the mental anguish he was enduring.

“I was successful. I graduated high school, college, earned a PhD, and had a thriving career as the president of the Asia Society. I was married and had two beautiful children and to anyone looking at me, I’m sure I appeared to have it all. What was totally hidden from everyone was the inner torment I was experiencing. I was filled with anger and depression, so I began drinking heavily to ease the pain.”

Deconstructing Stigma participant Robert
Campaign participants like Robert bravely tell their stories to help break down mental health stigma and remind others that they are not alone

Robert also experienced missing periods of time—blank spots in his memory—where he could not recall anything that happened. Finally, Robert sought help from a skilled psychiatrist who diagnosed dissociative identity disorder—a mental illness associated with post-traumatic stress due to severe physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during early childhood and is characterized by the presence of two or more compartmentalized identity states.

Although Robert was initially in denial, doubting the notion that one person can compartmentalize important aspects of the self to such an extent, years of therapy revealed that he had eleven inner identity states. Over time, Robert came to realize that his inner community of self-states could interact to overcome painful memories and to unlock new energies and fresh opportunities. Like many people with DID, Robert has turned to art-making as a creative outlet and now has become a successful sculptor, painter, and photographer. In this respect, he is following the path of Shirley Mason (“Sybil”), who became a very skilled artist.

Today, Robert is sober, happily remarried, and continues to live with DID, but rather than hiding it from the world, he has chosen to speak openly about his illness and the abuse that caused it. He has chronicled his experience in a widely admired memoir, A Fractured Mind.

“DID is nothing to be ashamed of. I see it as a symbol of strength, because I am a survivor—not of mental illness, but of child abuse. I want everyone to understand that those of us with DID are not freaks with multiple personalities. We are survivors.”