The Night My Girlfriend Dissociated and Forgot Who I Was
Because of her dissociative identity disorder, I was a stranger in the eyes of the woman I loved.
Images by Mark Duffy
The situation, as it stood, couldn't have looked much worse. A man had cornered a tearful, terrified woman in the lobby of an apartment building and wouldn't let her leave. If another person entered at that moment, the woman would say the man was a complete stranger. She'd say she had no recollection of how she'd got here.
The third person would—quite reasonably—deduce that, in all probability, the man had drugged the woman and, if he had a shred of human decency, would come to her rescue by whatever means. Maybe he'd call the police. Maybe he'd beat the shit out of him. After all, this man was clearly planning to rape the woman. There was almost no explanation in which the man came out looking like a good guy. Almost.
I played the hypotheticals through in my head and, to a God I decided in that instant was real, I prayed. I prayed that as long as I stood there with my girlfriend, in the midst of a severe dissociative episode, no other soul would appear. God, if you're reading this: I owe you one.
We were in bed early one Christmas morning when she first told me about her dissociative identity disorder (DID). At this point, our relationship was eight months old, and she'd been open about pretty much everything from the beginning—apart from this. I don't think it was so much that she was worried it'd scare me off, but that she had to know she could trust me completely with this information virtually no one else knew.
She explained the condition very briefly to me—at its worst, she said, she would not only struggle to identify who she was, but even what she was; unable to process the concept of her own humanity. It caused her a great deal of pain talking about it, which I think was probably a major factor in so few people knowing. For her sake, I didn't really ask any questions or press her on it further. When she finished talking I told her it didn't change anything and that I loved her regardless. Four months later, I saw for the first time what she had described.
The night began with us watching a movie at a friend's place. About halfway through the film I noticed a shift in her breathing, and it became faster and shallower. This wasn't particular cause for alarm—she'd suffered severe anxiety since long before we met, and was generally pretty good at overcoming it. I rubbed her back and shoulders in an attempt to reassure her, but it gradually became more and more apparent that this panic wasn't going to shift. After about 20 minutes, she whispered in my ear: "We have to leave. I'm about to dissociate."
We quickly gathered our stuff and apologized to the hosts, claiming we were both just exhausted and needed to get home to sleep. Once we got out of their building she placed her hand in mine. "Promise me that whatever happens, you will not let go," she said. I promised.
As we walked along the street I could see it beginning to take hold; she was becoming visibly confused by her surroundings. I managed to flag down a taxi straight away. There were a few moments of good fortune that night; this was the first.
Hackneyed as it sounds, the silence was eerie. This was a woman who made most extroverts look like J. D. Salinger, someone who could engage even the surliest of bouncers in cheery conversation and charm them enough to let her obviously underage friends into bars. And she just sat there, staring out of the window. For the first time in our relationship she was speechless.
I squeezed her hand and said, "I love you." She looked at me blankly for a few seconds then turned back to her window. I knew I couldn't take it personally and tried to rationalize the matter—after all, it wasn't like she was mad at me and giving me the silent treatment after a fight. She simply didn't know who I was. In retrospect, it feels a little selfish that I even stopped to consider how her nightmarish ordeal was affecting me, but it was inescapable. It was a deeply and uniquely upsetting situation.
In the eyes of the woman I loved, I was now a stranger. I was crushed.
The last ten minutes of the journey went by without incident. She remained calm in spite of the sheer terror she was clearly facing, for which I was (again, perhaps selfishly) grateful—I didn't fancy explaining to our driver the specifics of a condition I myself knew next to nothing about. I had just enough cash for the fare when we pulled up outside her apartment building, another tiny but glorious stroke of luck.
I opened my door and, careful to not let go of her hand, awkwardly maneuvered myself out and pulled her with me. We crossed the road, walked through the courtyard and through the front door into the lobby of her building. This was when things got difficult.
I guess, up to this point, we'd been in public, and the presence of the taxi driver would have provided a certain level of reassurance. Now she was alone with a man she had, to her knowledge, never met before. And while it was her building we were entering, this too was unfamiliar in her current state of mind. Although she was able to identify that she was dissociating, she had no idea how she got here. If you've ever tried to lead someone back to their tent while that person was K-holing, it was a little like that, only amplified to a whole other level.
Picture the situation: A relatively small woman suddenly becomes aware she is inside a building she doesn't recognize with a strange man who is significantly larger than she is. She did what any woman would do in that situation and ran, pulling her hand out of mine and making for the door. I was surprised by my reaction as instinct kicked in and I leapt after her, wrapping my arms around her waist and lifting her away from the exit.
Physically restraining a distressed woman, it turns out, is not an action that says, "No, really, you're safe with me," but I had no other choice. Had I let her run out at night into streets she couldn't possibly navigate, she could have faced serious, life-threatening danger. I placed her in a corner and stood a few feet back, acting as a barrier between my girlfriend and the door. I spoke softly and raised my hands, the universally accepted body language for "Seriously, I'm chill."
She cowered in the corner. "If you come one step closer, I'll scream," she warned me. I stayed put. It was then the hypotheticals entered my head. As we already know, whether by sheer good luck or an act of God, we remained alone. Helpful as this was, it didn't change the fact I was still standing in a lobby with a woman who had no idea who I was and wouldn't let me take her to her apartment.
"You have your phone on you, don't you?" I asked her. She looked into her bag and nodded. "Do you know who George is?" She nodded again. George was an ex-boyfriend, one of her oldest friends, and the only person outside of her immediate family, doctor, and me who knew about her condition. As someone who'd been in her life significantly longer than I had been, she had more memories attached to him and so hadn't forgotten who he was. "Call George," I said.
This is perfectly normal, I thought, as she scrolled through her phone looking for George's name. I'm just a guy, standing here, getting my girlfriend's ex to vouch for my existence.
Her first attempt went through to voicemail. Quietly and tearfully, all she could say was "help me" a dozen or so times. I wondered if he was at work. It could have been hours before he was able to check his phone. In our last stroke of good fortune for the night, he called back a few seconds later. I can't remember exactly what was said or how long they talked for; it might have been a minute, it might have been five. She mentioned that there was a man here she didn't know who was claiming to be her boyfriend, and in a sort of exaggerated stage whisper I said, "George! It's me!"
She listened for a little while longer and then passed the phone to me. "He wants to talk to you." I spoke to George for a couple of minutes. I've never been so relieved to hear the voice of a girlfriend's ex. He calmly talked me through the next steps—to get her into her apartment, sit her down, and pull up something she'd seen before on Netflix. Familiarity was key, he told me. I thanked him and returned the phone. They talked for a few more seconds, then she hung up.
"George says I can trust you."
I took her by the hand once more and led her up the stairs.
Once we were inside her flat, things got easier. I closed the door behind us and she immediately sat down on the wooden floor and told me her feet hurt. I helped her take off her shoes and then pulled her up, before walking her round the room, pointing out the framed photos on her wall and asking if she recognized the people in them. "That's me!" she said cheerily. "And that's George!" This helped a lot.
In the space of a few minutes the dynamic of our relationship had shifted from one of me as her would-be attacker to a bizarrely paternal thing. As her boyfriend, both of these were a little odd, but at least with the latter she was no longer afraid. For the rest of the night we watched TV together while I waited for the woman I loved to return.
A few hours after she first told me, I took some time to read up on dissociative identity disorder. As with many mental illnesses, there's a lot of speculation and theory surrounding the condition, which is understandable when you comprehend what a convoluted labyrinth the human mind is. However, DID is considered "probably the most disputed of psychiatric diagnoses," with "no clear consensus regarding its diagnosis or treatment."
It's a rare condition, but one that crops up in popular culture a huge amount. If you've not heard of DID before (I hadn't), you probably know it as multiple personality disorder, to which it was formerly referred. Its representations in fiction are often quite harmful, with multiple personalities frequently portrayed as good versus evil, such as in Jekyll and Hyde. As with schizophrenia and other conditions, sufferers are often portrayed as murderous sociopaths—when the reality is they're far more vulnerable to being attacked.
Many people suffering from DID report sexual or physical abuse in childhood, which has led some researchers to believe that DID is a reaction to trauma. I already knew that, growing up, my girlfriend had repeatedly been beaten by her father, so it's likely this played a part in her condition. Another hypothesis suggests that DID is caused by therapists "recovering" memories from patients that then cause them to behave a certain way—but this didn't apply to my girlfriend.
For her, the episodes occur sporadically; she could go months or years without suffering one, but they could also happen several times in a relatively short time span. They almost always happened in times of extreme stress. She'd later tell me that dissociative episodes happened when her brain was unable to cope with the stress, so it would essentially remove itself from her body for a short period of time to give her a break.
About three hours into the episode, I could see a few faint glimmers of her personality reappearing. She recognized a favorite character and a grin spread across her face. A little while later I asked if she knew who I was. "I know you," she said. "I love you." It meant a lot to hear those words.
When we finally got into bed that night she fell asleep instantly, emotionally and physically exhausted. She'd wake up with no memory of what had happened and wouldn't want to know. I lay awake a little while and wondered whether there's anything more terrifying than the human mind.
I doubt there is.
Follow Mark on Instagram.