Content copyright © Sara Lambert. Originally published in Team Spirit. Reprinted with permission. Design copyright © 2009 by Survivorship. All rights reserved. You may print out one copy for use in your own healing. For additional reprints, write Survivorship, Family Justice Center, 470 27th Street, Oakland, CA
Switching: Early Warning Signs
One of the most common fears of multiples is that they will switch inappropriately in public. Not only is this embarrassing at times and hard to explain to those who do not know the survivor is multiple, it can also be dangerous. For these reasons, it is important to develop awareness of how to recognize the early warning signals of switching and have a variety of techniques for avoiding switching when necessary. For many multiples, the tendency to switch uncontrollably and inappropriately may be an expression of their general anxiety about their self-control (namely, their lack of it) or it may have more to do with the importance of maintaining a constant source of fear in their lives. Strange at it may sound, fear can actually be a friend, especially if it is all you have ever known. It can also be incredibly addictive for both positive (the buzz of adrenaline) and negative (“I don’t deserve peace of mind”) reasons. The threat of inappropriate switching may provide that fear. It may also keep life chaotic, unpredictable, and therefore familiar – and comfortable.
Other multiple survivors use switching as a mechanism o f power and control over their primary person or the rest of the system – especially when certain selves feel they do not have enough “body time” or when their needs are not being met. On a more basic level, some multiples simply have not developed the quality of communication required to monitor when it is okay to switch, or the co-operation that would protect them from dissociating automatically when triggered. There are usually ways for a multiple to recognize that she is about to switch, although it may take her some years to become aware of these. The signs are unique for each multiple, but some common ones include:
- Headaches: these may signal that there is tension/change going on within the system. They may also indicate the alteration in body chemistry that sometimes occurs with switching.
- Spacing Out: self-detachment may prepare the way for a full identity switch.
- A Feeling Inside: this is hard to describe, but it is a physical sensation, like something inside is undergoing a major shift.
- Dizziness/Blurred Vision: again, this indicates chemical or energy changes associated with an identity switch.
- Doubleness Of Self: there may be a sense that another is standing inside/behind you, prior to them emerging completely.
- Infusion: this is a lot like doubleness, except that it is not so much a sense of another’s presence, but of being filled with emotions or thoughts that are not your own, that in fact belong to the other self. So you may suddenly feel giggly and light like a happy child before that child comes out.
- A Triggered Response: the only warning some multiples get is a brief moment of realizing they have been triggered, or a snatch of emotion too overwhelming for them to hold, before they defend themselves by switching.
These are only a few examples of warning signs. Remember that the processes of multiplicity are different for every multiple and, if yours is not on this list, you are not doing it wrong! Becoming aware of your own personal warning signals requires time and patient study. For some, the signals may be so clear, and they may have such confidence in the fact they are actually a multiple self-system, that developing an awareness of warning signs for switching is fairly easy. Others may not realize they have switched until later, upon finding evidence that it happened, or they may have such intense denial of their multiplicity that they deliberately ignore all signs that a switch is about to occur. This latter situation tends to create more inappropriate switching as the system becomes overtly dissociative in an effort to fight the denial to have the reality of its existence acknowledged.
The size of the system also influences how able someone will be to track their switching signals. For those multiples with a relatively small and straightforward system, it may be easy to get a handle on whose switching process feels like what. For those who are poly-fragmented or with a more complex system, this may be impossible as some selves are only fragments, some have no names, some are layered across others, and so on.
A number of survivors find it helpful to keep a journal of what happened just before and during their switches into specific alter selves. By doing this, they can track any patterns of feeling or behavior that may exist. Others ask outside observers to describe what they see when the multiple switches - one of the reasons why therapists are helpful! An internal gatekeeper who can observe switching from the inside as it happens, and later pass information about it on to the primary person, may also be helpful - but is probably only possible once the survivor’s self-system has developed a good level of communication and co-operation amongst themselves. The next question is, how do you stop switching before it happens? I believe it is possible to do so, although some survivors may not develop this kind of self-control until well down their healing road. In my opinion, to say that the system has no control over its traffic flow is to buy into the idea that life is always chaotic and that the survivor has no internal locus of control.
Different techniques for avoiding switching are suitable for different people (including the different selves of someone), and it is a matter of trial and error finding something that personally works. Suggestions include:
- Negotiate in advance with your other selves when each can have time in the body to follow their own special pursuits. For example, allowing a child time in the evening to color-in or watch cartoons will mean that she is less likely to emerge during your work day in order to just have time out. If you are the sort of person who likes charting schedules (or if you tend towards chaos and need a charted schedule), then you might like to make a pie chart divided into segments representing the hours of your day, and allocate each segment to different selves. You can then include in this chart the various chores that have to be completed during certain parts of the day, and it is the responsibility of those selves present at that time to attend to those chores. Drawing up this chart with the help of everyone in your system is a great opportunity for developing communication – although be prepared for it taking some considerable time before you come to any agreements!
- If someone is going to come out because they have been triggered, have another alter self be with them inside, to comfort them until you are able to spend time with them going over what happened. If possible, take a few moments for them to write down what triggered them and why.
- Use breathing and grounding exercises to remain in your body. Try applying something very cold to your skin.
- Take time out, for example by going to the toilet or having a breath of fresh air. This removes you from a triggering situation, changes your environment, and gives you the chance to have a conversation with the alter self who wants to come out, without anyone noticing that you are ”talking to yourself.”
- Ask adults to keep the children occupied during work hours, perhaps by singing to them, telling them stories, or teaching them about things you have learnt about yourselves in therapy.
- Avoid over-stimulation or, on the other hand, boredom. Be flexible, insofar as, if some activity is causing you to dissociate, take a break from it for a while or do something else instead.
- Have a buddy inside who can help you deal with both internal and external stressors. Have an outside buddy as well, if possible. You may be able to disclose your multiplicity to a trusted work mate or friend who can let you know if you are becoming too dissociative, and help you to ground yourself.
- Use your dissociative skills to put up a wall between you and your inner selves while you are at work or in a situation where you need to be ”singleton.”
What does not work is trying to block other selves without compensation or denying their right to be in the body at all. As well as being unfair, this will only encourage conflict. Instead, work out compromises for sharing your day that will allow everyone a certain amount of freedom. (If you resent your other selves taking time that you consider to be yours alone, remember that they are actually all part of you, so in reality you are only denying yourself the opportunity to spend time doing things that, in part, you enjoy doing!)
While it is important to control inappropriate switching as much as possible, I do not believe that switching in general should be discouraged, especially in the early years of recovery, on the basis that dissociative defenses are ”bad.” Certainly, there are better and safer ways of dealing with problems, and much of the recovery process deals with learning new ways of problem-solving and associative skills. But denying the presence of alter selves, refusing them body time, ignoring their needs and discounting the ways they defend themselves and the system as a whole are all recipes for disaster. In fact, if there is one thing guaranteed to worsen dissociation, it is trying to make it go away. What I strongly support is multiples finding ways to respect their alter selves, develop communication and cooperation, and find ways that everyone can have “body time” and get their needs met at appropriate times.
It seems to me that nothing happens in a multiple’s system without a reason. Therefore the trick to stopping things that you don’t like from happening is to find out why they are happening and then come up with a more suitable and effective alternative for action. For example, there is usually more to a child coming out at the office than her just being a brat. She may be frustrated because she is never allowed out at any other time to play – in which case, the system must arrange time for that child to be out at home, where she will be safe and the system not embarrassed, and she must be allowed to play. Another reason for the child’s appearance may be that she was triggered by something in the office, and her appearance is a powerful way of the system drawing attention to the potential danger of the trigger. In this case it would be worthwhile to talk with the child about what triggered her, as this is valuable information which holds clues to what happened in the past. Once the trigger is known to the system, they can come up with ways for dealing with it in the future so the child does not have to be involved (and so is protected from further fear and distress). The child herself will probably have some good ideas about how to defuse and/or associate the trigger. The child may also appear as a sign that something is wrong inside the system. It could be that the primary self has been neglecting her alter selves, or that they are rebelling against her denial of the diagnosis, or that there is conflict inside or re-enactment of abuse scenarios being played out on the child.
Letting other selves spend time in the body does not make multiplicity worse or create more switching, to the contrary – it eases conflict, promotes harmony and control, creates less need for inappropriate switching, and so makes things better for all.