Jul 24

“Scared Selfless”: Therapist’s Horrific Childhood Trauma

I was raped and tortured and prostituted to countless men. I was used in child pornography. As a result of this abuse, I grew mentally disturbed and was in danger of a wasted existence. But I made a decision not to give into despair. I vowed that, no matter what, I was going to fight for a good, decent, normal life. The journey to that good life wasn’t easy. It was fraught with pain and self-doubt and self-loathing. But I persevered and eventually found the help and love I needed to be happy. Psychologist Michelle Stevens, from her memoir Scared Selfless (2017)

Michelle Stevens, PhD, is the author of Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving. Scared Selfless is based on her psychology dissertation, one that merited special distinction from her school, Saybrook University.

Stevens’s memoir presents a unique viewpoint: on the one hand, as a therapy client she’s addressed the severe mental health effects of her own horrific abuse; on the other, she’s now a therapist herself, able to offer her specialized expertise to clients who also have trauma histories.

In the brief video below, Stevens explains further:

 

Kirkus Reviews summarizes what happened to the author early in life:

Stevens was 8 years old when Gary Lundquist came into her life. A primary schoolteacher and toystore owner, his apparent interest was in the author’s impoverished, poorly educated mother. But shortly after the pair began dating, Lundquist declared his intention to develop a ‘special relationship’ with Stevens and took the child home with her mother’s consent. There, he began to ‘train’ her as a sex slave whom he also prostituted to other equally sadistic pedophiles. The abuse, which Stevens could not articulate to her mother, continued for six years.

The toll the trauma and forced silence took was enormous. As the book blurb states, “Michelle suffered from post‐traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, and made multiple suicide attempts. She also developed multiple personalities.”

“In the end,” adds Kirkus, “it was the empathetic, nonjudgmental kindness of a dedicated therapist—who later became Stevens’ professional role model—that saved her life and gave her the courage to begin the journey toward psychological health.”

Selected Reviews

Sara Corbett, co-author of A House in the Sky“Michelle Stevens has written a fierce, honest account of her life that will stay with any reader long after the last page has turned. This book does more to explain what it feels like to live with the effects of trauma than anything I’ve ever read. It’s the rare book that’s both personal and clinical. It should be a resource and an inspiration not just to survivors but to those who love and seek to understand them.”

Dave Pelzer, author of A Child Called “It”: “a riveting memoir that takes readers on a roller coaster ride from the depths of hell to triumphant success. Michelle’s extraordinary life story and diligent, compassionate work as a therapist teaches us that, with true-grit determination, it’s possible to overcome the worst adversity. Scared Selfless offers courage, strength, and resilience to anyone who desires a better life.”

Joe Navarro, Special Agent (Ret.) and author of Dangerous Personalities“…This is a story about the psychological legacy of abuse, the struggle to survive a troubled mind, the challenges of finding elusive help and about finally and triumphantly finding redemption through the most unapologetic example of personal grit I’ve ever read…”

Apr 21

“Frankie and Alice” and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Several years ago Halle Berry received a Golden Globe nomination for a movie barely anyone had seen, Frankie and Alice, about a go-go dancer (Frankie) with dissociative identity disorder (DID)Although it’s finally been re-released for a wider audience in theaters, its poor reviews may guarantee it a continued lack of audience.

Apparently inspired by a true story from the 1970’s, Frankie and Alice has a lead character who works with a therapist (Stellan Skarsgard) to deal with alters named Genius, a high-IQ kid who’s seven years old, and Alice, a Southern white racist. The trailer:

DR. JOSEPH OSWALD, THE THERAPIST

Peter Debruge, Variety, calls him “an absent-minded researcher whose methods are progressive by 1970s standards (he uses hypnotism in his treatment and participated in a landmark LSD study), but hopelessly square by today’s.”

Director Geoffrey Sax is given credit, however, for portraying a film that’s “relatively enlightened in its attitudes toward race relations and mental illness.”

Duane ByrgeHollywood Reporter: Oz is “emotionally drained,” also “essentially a mope who medicates with tuna sandwiches, jazz and liquor.” But then along comes this case that piques his interest.

But Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post, appreciated Oz’s “gently rasping voice [that] could coax anyone back to sanity.”

FRANKIE, THE PATIENT

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: Before knowing what really ails her, what troubles Frankie are her “bursts of odd behavior and frequent blackouts.” This turns out to be symptomatic of DID.

(Other sources indicate that Berry studied DID by watching hours of tapes of people diagnosed with the disorder.)

But Berry’s portrayal of switching to different alters feels badly executed in Genzlinger’s estimation:

…(W)hen she abruptly switches to the voice of a young child or of a white Southern racist — two of the alternate personalities — it’s hard not to flash back to some humorous working of the same territory. (Think of Toni Collette in the Showtime series ‘United States of Tara.’) It may be that this genre has been forever ruined, or just that it requires a more subtle hand than the one exhibited by Geoffrey Sax, the director here.

Peter DebrugeVariety: “Berry shows total commitment to the part, allowing herself to go unhinged in the hands of a director not quite capable of supporting such a risky tightrope act.”

SELECTED REVIEWS OF FRANKIE AND ALICE

Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times: “Lamentably by-the-numbers, treated like an affliction-of-the-week TV movie by its eight (!) credited writers and directed by Geoffrey Sax as if he knew where commercials should go.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, ew.com: “Something awful happened to young Frankie back in 1950s Georgia to make her so broken; it’s just a matter of time, flashbacks, many costume and accent changes, some more jazz, and a triggering tune on the radio before the truth can set Frankie, and the audience, free.”

Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter: “Both clinically and dramatically, it’s an engaging titillation despite a somewhat flat last half-hour.”

Oct 26

Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder: Not the Same

FACT: Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder are not the same.

QUESTION:

What’s wrong with the following popular jokes? (Besides their general offensiveness, I mean.)

1. What’s the worst thing about schizophrenia?      

Paying more than once for everything.

2. Roses are red/Violets are blue/I’m schizophrenic/And I am too.

3. A psychiatrist asked her multiple personality patient, “So do you feel like you’re cured?”      

He replied, “Absolutely. We’ve never felt better.”

 ANSWER:

The first two jokes confuse the definitions of the distinctly different conditions of schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). A diagnosis of schizophrenia does not include having more than one personality but may include having delusions or hallucinations, neither of which are likely to cause a sense of internal division.

The third one implies that integration of personalities has to be the only or ultimate goal of therapy for those with dissociative identity disorder (DID), a common myth that might have something to do with the popularization of “Sybil” and her supposed treatment, a topic that was addressed in yesterday’s post.

In fact, some individuals with DID do wish to achieve the merging of their different alters, but many do not. My own approach with clients with DID has been to find out what they want. (Note: This should not be a novel thought among therapists.) The upshot is that my experience has been to work with clients’ alters or “parts” to help them learn to co-exist, not to integrate.

Identifying as a dissociative with a system of different parts—and not identifying as a one-name/one-personality-only type of person—does often lead, when feeling safe enough, to using “we” versus “I” in self-reference. Thus, if a client with DID were to say to me, as in the above joke, “We’ve never felt better,” I’d be very happy for them.

Oct 25

“Sybil Exposed”: Not An Argument Against Multiplicity Itself

A newly released book by journalist Debbie Nathan, Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, is currently getting a lot of attention in the press, as well it should if it is accurate in its depiction of highly fraudulent practices on the part of three individuals—the therapist, the author of the original book about Sybil (1973), and the patient herself—who allegedly conspired to make this woman’s condition and treatment into something that it wasn’t, turning her into “Sybil Inc.,” an immensely popular and lucrative enterprise.

On the positive side of this mess, the products generated by Sybil Inc. have served to popularize multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID), and have given many people hope that their complex conditions could become better understood and treated.

On the negative side, the doubters—including some mental health professionals who don’t believe the condition actually exists in anyone—may now seize the chance to use Sybil Exposed to add fuel to that particular fire. See? Dissociative identity disorder is a crock, some are likely (illogically) to maintain.

I have neither read Nathan’s book nor can I weigh in on whether our Sybil of yore does represent one big fat lie, but I have witnessed and do strongly believe that there are those who do live with DID and that they represent one major truth: it is possible, it is indeed highly creative, when faced with severe childhood trauma, for one’s personality to become divided in order to withstand the torturous pain.

Do an online search for DID and you’ll find many up-to-date books that can serve to offset any indications, however shocking and upsetting, that this one particular patient/therapist/writer team may have fabricated multiplicity. (Clarification/ update, 6/10/12: In other words, there are still many experts who cite other case examples and histories; there are still many who believe that DID exists.) Two highly recommended books are The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook by Deborah Haddock and Multiple Personality Disorder From the Inside Out, edited by Cohen, Giller, and Lynn W.

With so many written and oral testimonies by those who’ve experienced DID firsthand, I confess that it’s beyond my ability to comprehend how anyone in my field could be a disbeliever. I contend that the therapists who disbelieve are either uninformed or unexposed or that they are so closed off to the possibility that they are unable or unwilling to see or accept it in their clients.

Moreover, clients may be unable or unwilling to reveal themselves fully in therapy if they sense any of the above characteristics in their shrinks.

For anyone who counters with, If they can hide it, it must not be so, consider your own personality. Do you routinely, for various reasons, keep parts of yourself in check? Please don’t say no. Because if you don’t, the rest of society may ask you to get some help learning how.