After decades of struggle, a difficult diagnosis

At 50, Sharon Fitzpatrick learned she has dissociative identity disorder, the result of early childhood trauma. Now what?

From an early age Sharon Fitzpatrick felt both unusually prescience and uneasily out of sync with the world around her. She had an exceedingly high IQ, a near photographic memory and a philosophical bent unusual in someone so young. But she was also unable to name what daily activities she’d been in engaged in just hours before. Names took on an abnormal significance to her and “coincidences” happened with more regularity than is coincidental. There was a constant churning of thoughts and stream of voices in her head, though she didn’t distinguish them as distinct or separate.

“I’d say my mental problems, having more than one identity, probably started very young, long before I knew it,” Fitzpatrick says. “But I never realized that the many voices I hear in my head in conversation are not a single voice. I would have just identified them as my thoughts. There’s a rotation of ‘selves’ – the one who defends, the one who dances, they’re the most active – and at least three are active whenever I’m thinking. So my thoughts are more like a conversation than streamlined.”

Independent and with a fierce intellect, she was obstinately sure of her opinions and not afraid to question, challenge or reject whatever she didn’t identify with. At 11, just before she was to be confirmed in her faith, she spurned the Roman Catholic tradition she’d been raised and educated in because its teachings didn’t make sense to her extremely logical mind.

From the moment she crafted her first poem, at 7, she referred to herself as a writer. It frustrated her that adults couldn’t see how one of her earliest works, “The Conversation,” a question-and-answer exchange, was clearly a dialogue between herself and the God she often begged to “bring me home because this is not the place for me.”

The internal cacophony in her head was, if not catalyzed then at least exacerbated by the instability of her early home life. Just before turning 5, she had a premonition that the great grandmother who helped raise her was going to die on her upcoming birthday. When her grandmother did, in fact, pass away exactly as Fitzpatrick had imagined, her father, an emotionally-abusive alcoholic with a sadistic bent, became her primary caregiver.

The household was violent and abusive. More than once her parents’ fighting prompted the adolescent Fitzpatrick, fearing for her mother’s safety, to call the police. But instead of being praised for seeking help, her mother punished her for “showing the world that we had these problems.” Invested above all in presenting a “normal” front, her mother was simply “not present, for protection or anything else,” Fitzpatrick says.

“My mother’s concerns were always about if my problems were making her look like a bad mother,” she says. “She was probably in denial herself. She definitely found me weird and felt that I was culpable for being weird. I was in trouble a lot with her for not ‘acting normal.’ The possibility of being considered crazy was such a problem that I was taught very young to hide those things.”

At 12, Fitzpatrick was sent to a psychiatrist, whom she now believes may have identified the diagnosis she would receive decades later. But her mother outright rejected the possibility that her daughter had dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), never telling her the doctor’s pronouncement nor allowing Sharon to return for treatment.

At 14, Fitzpatrick confided to her best friend that she’d been date raped by a much older man. When the news subsequently spread throughout the school and she was “slut shamed” and accused of lying about the incident, her sense of betrayal was so intense she decided  “this world was just not a good place for me, that there was just too much cruelty and apathy for someone like me to survive.” That marked her first attempt to take her own life, by overdosing on medication.

Unsuccessful in completing the act, she was sent to the family doctor, who gave her a “trendy” diagnosis of bipolar disorder and put her on Lithium. There was no inquiry into the family dysfunction her parents tried so desperately to encourage her to hide. In her pragmatic, reasoned way, Fitzpatrick rejected the diagnosis and stopped taking the medication as soon as she left the hospital.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’d love this diagnosis because I think it’s simpler than what I actually am and I love these highs, which I don’t get normally,” she recalls. “But I was not going to take this thing that inhibited by creativity when I knew that it was not what I am. I was not going to medicate for what I’m not.”

At 16, she fell in love with a boy who went to a Quaker school. The brief relationship prompted her to transfer to the school, 45 minutes from her family home, and ignited her ongoing commitment to Quaker principles. But it was also the first time Fitzpatrick was made to feel that her mental state made her “damaged goods.” It happened after she responded to a question from her boyfriend with, “Sharon doesn’t like that.”

“He said, ‘Did you just refer to yourself in the third person?’” Fitzpatrick recalls. “And I said, yeah. And he was like, ‘Oh, don’t do that!’ It weirded him out and I never did it again. But I remember having this sense that the abuse I had been through made me undesirable. So that I had to hide whatever weakness I had and try to be as normal as possible to be accepted as normal and have a normal life.”

At 17, she came home one day to find her father’s dead naked body lying on the floor. As abusive as he had been to her, his loss was a devastating shock that left her feeling even more alienated. Then, only weeks after his death, her uncle --“who happened to look and sound almost exactly like my father” – moved into the house with his child, Fitzpatrick’s cousin, and began an intimate relationship with her mother.

“There was no time for grieving, there was no sense that I had been through this major trauma of finding my father,” she says. “At this point, my father is dead, my uncle is basically in his place -- and nobody speaks of it at all.”

A second suicide attempt led to an extended stay in a mental hospital and a period of working with a psychiatrist who tried to convince Fitzpatrick that her situation at home was “no different than what might have happened in Biblical times,” with a male relative assuming responsibility for a relative’s family after a death. The problem, he insisted, laid not with her mother nor her uncle, but with her for being unable to accept it.

While in the psychiatric hospital following her attempt, Fitzpatrick was exposed to “cutting,” a common method of self harm among teens. Though she’d never cut herself, she could immediately relate because she’d been practicing her own form of self harm for years -- picking at the skin on her face until it bled and scabbed.

“I knew the urge was the same, but I managed to create it in a way that I could hide it better, because it just looked like acne,” Fitzpatrick says. “I didn’t know what caused it and I didn’t know how to stop it.”

In the years to come, she would sporadically seek help to curtail the behavior, but the only help she ever received was directed toward getting her to “break the habit,” not tracing the trauma from which it stemmed.

Without an outlet for her grief or an acknowledgement of her trauma, Fitzpatrick began sobbing during classes and eventually shared her situation with administrators of the school. They encouraged her to become an emancipated minor and extended the invitation of a couple involved with the school who offered to have Sharon come live with them.

Fitzpatrick’s mother initially refused to allow her to consider the move. But when, less than a week before Sharon’s 18th birthday they got in an argument over household chores, Fitzpatrick walked out with “my blankie (the childhood blanket she still sleeps with), an extra pair of Guess Jeans, seven dollars and my toothbrush” and moved in with Joan and Frank Smith, practicing Quakers who continue to this day  to provide her with a safe space whenever she is in need. In two hours of speaking about her painful life, talking about the Smiths is the only thing that brings tears to Fitzpatrick’s eyes.

She lived with the Smiths, who both had psychology degrees, until she began college a year later; it was the first of several stays in their home during which they have provided unconditional support, love and guidance.  They connected her with a psychiatrist who “was one of the few mental health people who was really helpful” and encouraged her to attend St. John’s College rather than the Ivy League colleges she’d been focused on. The school had a reputation for attracting brainy intellectuals who “didn’t fit in” and who “liked to discuss deep thoughts and abstracts and not bother with small talk.”

But once again,  Fitzgerald’s  “primaries” (as she calls them) -- those voices that push her to “do things that don’t really seem prudent” – derailed her. She withdrew from school shortly before the end of her junior year and met a man 10 years her senior while waiting tables who she was convinced was a “real love.” Their marriage lasted five years before she conceded her attempt to save him from, among other things, a substance abuse problem, wasn’t going to work.

For a time, she rejoined the Smiths and did some work with a hypnotist who identified her problem as obsessive compulsive disorder. Then she moved to Florida, fueled by an interest in learning to grow food organically, “get rid of lawns” and live in a place where she could do outdoor things year round. She chose Sarasota largely because she knew New College of Florida, which she felt would provide a community to stimulate her intellectual curiosities.

But, as Fitzpatrick puts it, “life does not flow for me in the way it does for any normal person” and stability and prosperity continued to elude her. For the past 20 years she has gotten by financially on an assortment of odd jobs – landscaper, house sitter, herbarium overseer, writer, artist  – and settlements from a number of accidents (a severe dog bite and several car accidents). Over that time she wrote a book, did landscaping and developed a persona with gloves and fake tresses – Share FauxHair --  to inhabit while performing interactive poetry and storytelling.

Within the local spiritual communities where she’d found a home – a Sufi group and the Quaker church – she was  much loved and admired by some for her creativity and commitment to feminism, and the Quaker tenets of truth, simplicity, equality and peace. But for others, her eccentricity and assertiveness became a lightning rod for criticism and judgment. Her “energy”—“I always have a lot going on in me all at the same time” -- is uncomfortable and misunderstood by many, who blame her for her erratic behaviors and see her as someone who simply refuses to get help, “take meds,” or “is just crazy.”

If ever there were proof that trauma unresolved is compounded over time, Fitzpatrick is a walking example. Because the trauma she endured in her childhood was never resolved, she is extremely vulnerable to retraumatization. This has been exacerbated, she believes, by the currently popular philosophy of “the law of attraction” --  which says individuals are responsible for attracting whatever they experience.

“That puts the onus on the person being mistreated for the mistreatment,” she says. “In my case, yes, I was abused as a child, that’s never been a question. But the people who say I treated you that way because you somehow attracted me to do it, that’s very harmful. It gives those who are mistreating you an excuse to do it.  There’s so much going on within me at all times, it makes me a target when I haven’t done anything that’s not acceptable except to try for stand up for myself.”

A year ago, Fitzpatrick landed in the hospital with a severe case of pancreatitis. Because she doesn’t drink alcohol and it was determined not to be from a gall stone, doctors were stymied as to its source. Just after her 50th birthday, on February 21, she was waiting to hear from a specialist. She left her cell phone on its charger after a call at 3:30 p.m. and, as far as she can recall, next picked up the phone at 6 p.m.

When she still hadn’t received a call, she contacted the doctor, who informed her that she’d sent the diagnosis – “hereditary pancreatitis” – and a link by text at 4:30 p.m. and that Fitzpatrick had responded with a strange text at 4:48 p.m.  (“S SEX”) which the doctor had assumed was a “butt dial.”

In horror, Fitzpatrick realized she must have suffered a blackout when she read the diagnosis and that one of her alters sent the text. No one else had access to the phone; no one else could have responded. But she had no memory of having picked up the phone nor any idea what the enigmatic text meant. The next morning she was on the phone with a local mental health facility scheduling an evaluation. Soon thereafter, she received the diagnosis her mother had withheld from her as a child.

Previously known as multiple personality disorder, DID is a complex and rare (one in 200,000) psychological condition caused by severe and repeated trauma during early childhood. It is an extreme form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thought memories, feelings, actions and sense of identity. The dissociative aspect is thought to be a coping mechanism – the person literally shuts off or dissociates themselves from a situation or experience that’s too painful to assimilate with their conscious self.

For the first time in her life, Fitzpatrick felt some insight not only into the whirlwind in her head, but to the fragmented puzzle of her life. At the same time, with its poor prognosis and her awareness that, at any time, one of her alters could step in, the DID diagnosis terrified her.

“It was the most frightening time of my life, getting that diagnosis and dealing with it,” she says shakily. “And part of the fear is that half the world will say, ‘See, we were right.’ I never denied there was something, because I have never been delusional. But things may have happened and I didn’t even know it.”

With no support group to turn to, no medical insurance and limited finances,  Fitzpatrick dove into working with a counselor from the local behavioral health center who himself has had little experience with DID, which cannot typically be treated with medication. She began sessions of Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), a process that fosters rapid recovery by reprogramming how the brain stores traumatic memories and imagery. The treatment incorporates memory visualization techniques, enhanced by the use of horizontal eye movements, as well as memory reconsolidation, to incorporate new information into existing memories.

While the technique has allowed her to revisit and resolve some recent traumas, she’s yet to face the destructive scars of her youth. That she now knows the hum in her head represents different “alters” with different intentions is little comfort; she worries that DID may be responsible for many suicides that have not been previously  understood “and that if something happens that’s extremely stressful, I could lose control over myself and take this option.”

“I may have heard every word of encouragement the people who took me in gave me, but it’s entirely possible that I might not always  have access to that,” she says. “I now know that had either of my suicide attempts been successful, I would not have been counted as someone who has this disorder. And similarly, many people may have done it without meaning to leave people behind because they did not know themselves that their mind works this way.”

Fitzpatrick plans to move from Sarasota in the coming months, looking for a fresh start. But she knows “the stress and trauma of modern life is going to be part of my world wherever I am” and she wonders if she will ever be able to come to terms the trauma she was trained so well to hide.

“The thing about trauma – when there’s this much and there is a pattern that’s been set – is that you can deal with it to some degree, but there’s always residual,” she says. “Unfortunately, the way our society has traditionally dealt with trauma puts the burden on the person who has experienced the trauma.”