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My Son and Five Strangers

By Jamie Johnson

ShadowOne beautiful fall day, when my son Joey was seventeen, we drove through town headed to an appointment we couldn’t miss. As we neared the highway, Joey hesitantly broke the silence. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I knew that tone of voice: it meant he had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. “Is it going to upset me?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, tilting his head to the side, looking right at me.

This didn’t sound like a quick-fix thing. I answered distractedly, “Well, let’s wait until after our appointment. We’re barely on schedule here.”

Joey accepted that for a whole sixty seconds. Then, with a strange, uncomfortable, almost panicky look, he blurted, “No, I don’t think I can wait. I really need to tell you something.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, and waited impatiently.

He tilted his head down, almost as if he was trying to hide from me.

I am sure the look on my face said Okay, if you need to tell me, then out with it. But the moment he said it, I wished he hadn’t.

In a quiet, sort of shy voice he said, “You keep calling me Joey. People have been doing that all afternoon. I take it he is your son? I don’t know who this Joey is, but my name is not Joey.” His face was dead serious.

As I looked at him, my hand came up to my face. My palm rested on my chin, my fingers covered my mouth and nose. “Well…well, who are you then?”

His eyes dropped to his lap and he shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”

My son had been battling depression for months. The withdrawal from our family, the sleeping all the time, the mood swings—had worried me more than I can express. But this…this was like nothing I’d ever heard of before. Had his mental condition become too much to bear and his mind was somehow taking a break? I was grateful he had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression so we had someone to turn to for help.

As it turned out that day in the car was the beginning of the most challenging year of my life. My son spent those months sharing his body with five alternate personalities. It was during those crazy, exhausting days that I learned about DID. Most people know Dissociative Identity Disorder by its former name —Multiple Personality Disorder. What most people don’t know is that it is a defense mechanism used by the brain to protect an individual from trauma. When it appears out of the blue in a teen, it is usually caused by a stressful event that brings back old buried alternate personalities. Those old “alters” come back from the teen’s childhood, where they were formed, usually as a way of mentally surviving repetitive abuse.

They are a coping mechanism and resurface when the teen is faced with anxiety he or she can’t handle—a trigger. I wondered if Joey’s trigger had been a day earlier that summer when he’d come home from school to find our dog, apparently dying, lying in a pool of urine and vomit. He had sat there alone with her, waiting for her to die. That had probably been his trigger. It was awful to think that my son may have suffered something horrifying in his youth and I hadn’t been there for him. Not only had he suffered some type of abuse, but it most likely would have been repetitive for this condition to develop. The personalities form so that the child can escape from the abusive situation.

For months my mind ran through terrible scenarios. What type of abuse had he suffered? Had it been at school, while he was with a babysitter, at a sleep-over, in the playground? God, I wished my brain had an off button.

I learned that there is no medication for DID. The key to his full recovery, without risk of his alternate personalities popping up again some year, unexpectedly, was to find that buried trauma and deal with it. I wanted so badly to help my son. I vowed to do whatever was necessary to find the solution. I would walk away from his hospital room for two full months, (yes he was hospitalized for it) the whole while desperately wanting to bring him home, to get him away from the stress of the other patient’s attempted suicides and assorted mental illnesses. I would give our family history to doctor after doctor. When he was released, I drove him to appointment after appointment. I would put aside the fear of what the ominous “hidden memories” were in order to find them and work past them. I wouldn’t give up.

That is…unless I was forced to.

Giving up had not even crossed my mind.  But after a little over a year of therapy, Joey’s DID specialist cut him loose. She hadn’t found the original cause of his condition—the buried memories of abuse. She said Joey had better control over his other personalities since they were beginning to come together. She had done all she could do for him by coaching him on stress management, he would be fine while she left for a six-month trip abroad.

I was in so much shock I didn’t even think to ask for a referral.

We had been deserted. I thought about looking for a new specialized psychiatrist. But Joey was sick of prying appointments. And really, it wasn’t up to me. Joey was eighteen by then, and it was his life.

I tried to convince myself that not seeing a psychiatrist was for the better. Once uncovered, his memories might be horrendous enough to plague him for the rest of his life. Would that be better than learning to deal with stress to prevent a re-occurrence? Definitely not.

My son never did see another psychiatrist, but today he has only one personality, Joey, and he is studying to become a support worker. I no longer have to worry about what to do with a strange boy that looks like my son, but doesn’t call me Mom. My only worry these days is how many bags of laundry he will be hauling behind him when he heads home from college for the weekend. He has learned to deal with stress and anxiety better. He is a compassionate young man that understands how complicated life can get. His goal—to help people. What more could a mom ask for?

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.


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