Multiple Personalities and Massage


Until recently, most people believed the condition known as Multiple Personality Disorder was extremely rare. Multiples were just people who wrote graphic books and appeared on talk shows. Television and movies depicted multiples as serial killers or erratic loonies unable to care for themselves.

According to Dr. Colin Ross (in the foreword to my book Living with Your Selves: A Survival Manual for People with Multiple Personalities), multiplicity affects about 1% of adults in the general population and about 5% of general adult psychiatric patients. Fully 10% of the general population has had a dissociative disorder at some time in their lives.

This means several million people in North America alone! The odds of a multiple coming to you for a massage, then, may be greater than you might have imagined. I hope this article will help you to better understand this condition and give you some tips on working with people who have multiple personalities.

Multiple personality disorder is the clinical name for a psychiatric condition in which two or more persons or personalities inhabit the same body. These persons or personalities may "take over" the body, or "come out" and often exhibit behavior that is out of character for the "host" or main personality. It is not demonic possession!

Except for insurance purposes, the word "disorder" is falling out of favor with both multiples and therapists alike. Rather than a disorder, this condition is being recognized as a highly creative defense mechanism. You may also hear it called MPD, Multiple Personality Gift, Multiple Personality Response, or Multiple Personality Defense.

Just as dissociation occurs on a continuum, with multiplicity being on the "10" end of the scale, so multiplicity has its own continuum. People on the "1" end of the scale may only hear voices and time loss may be infrequent. These multiples often have families, hold jobs, and function well in society.

Multiples at the "10" end, however, may be truly dysfunctional, with alters switching at will and no contact between the selves. These multiples may revolve through the hospital or prison system, experience severe time loss, and have extreme difficulty coping with daily life. Most multiples reside somewhere in the middle.

But aren't we all multiple?

No. Let me explain. Singletons, or people with just one personality, have different aspects to their personality. They may behave differently at work than they do at home; they are different on the baseball diamond than when they are making love with their partner.

The key here is that the singleton knows that s/he is performing the activities and will most likely remember them later. A multiple may not. Depending on how severe the dissociation is, a multiple may not remember from one day to the next what another alter did. A multiple friend of mine put it this way: "A singleton forgets to take out the trash. A multiple doesn't know where the trash is, or even that it belongs to her!" Creating different personalities in response to trauma is not the same thing as having different aspects to the same personality.

What causes multiple personalities?

Multiple personalities are caused by severe and repeated childhood abuse, generally beginning before the age of five. Clinical literature suggests that over 95% of this abuse is sexual. Other causes may be physical or emotional abuse, ritual abuse, or severe neglect.

You see, a small child does not have the same capacity for emotional defense as an adult. If an adult is being hurt or abused, s/he can fight back. Unable to fight against perpetrators stronger and more powerful, something call dissociation is a child's only defense.

The dictionary defines dissociation as the act of separating or state of being separated. In psychological terms, this means that a person mentally distances themselves from traumatic situations or emotional distress. Everybody dissociates. Highway hypnosis or distracted inattention are common forms of dissociation. In and of itself, dissociation is not a bad thing.

Children who dissociate during abuse may create other children in their minds who are more capable of dealing with the abuse. These alternate children take on lives of their own and come out to handle various situations or suffer specific abuses.

Once this defense is in place, it is easy to create other alters as the abuse continues. This capacity to dissociate and create alters may persist long after the danger has passed and well into adulthood.

Dissociation to the point of creating multiple personalities is a healthy response to an unhealthy situation; a sane internal response to external insanity.

More About Alternate Personalities

Alters can be of any age and of many ages. They may be the opposite gender from the host, or have a different sexual orientation. There may be as few as three or as many as hundreds.

While many alters are full-fledged personalities, with their own circle of friends and interests, others may only carry a few memories or were created for a specific function. These alters are called "fragments" and generally stay in the background until needed.

Many multiples have "musical" alters who are designed to keep the host busy listening to internal music and not remembering the abuse. The music may interfere with sleeping and sometimes with carrying on a conversation.

Some multiples have animal alters (often dragons or lions) or inanimate objects (like trees). Animal alters are often powerful forces, designed for protection or anger. Inanimate alters may appear mute, unseeing, and unfeeling. For a small child enduring severe abuse, it helps to have an alter who feels nothing.

Some white female multiples have black male alters. He is perceived as a powerful figure, able to ward off danger and provide protection. Often these alters are valiant guardians of the system.

Not all alters have names. It is quite common for an alter simply to be called by his or her function or basic personality trait, such as The Destroyer, The Whore, The One Who Knows, or The Sad One.

Is the Multiple Dangerous?

Probably not. In most cases, if a multiple is dangerous, it is to themselves and not to others. Of course, there is the odd exception (the one the "movie of the week" loves to show you). Remember that multiplicity is a defense mechanism that ultimately was designed to keep the system safe, not put it in danger.

The odds of a client becoming violent on the massage table is probably slim to none. Someone in the system wanted the massage or they wouldn't be there. The person or personality who came in for a massage will probably be the same one to leave.

What to Do If a Client Switches While on The Table

We all know that massage can sometimes bring out intense emotions. If emotions relating to fear or distrust surface during the massage, a client may indeed switch to an alter who is better able to handle the situation. Deep bodywork that causes pain may cause a switch, as might more gentle techniques like lymphatic massage.

It helps, of course, if you know in advance that your client is a multiple so you can be prepared. Just remember that whoever appears is who you have to deal with. If it's a child alter, that alter must be treated as a child. It is also vital that if a child alter presents itself to you that you ask for an adult alter to drive home. In fact, be sure that if a switch has occurred, that the person leaving knows the way home! Some alters may not.

Some multiples may experience "body memories" while receiving a massage. A body memory is exactly that: the body remembering some incident or experience that the mind has forgotten. The client may or may not express their feelings to you. Be aware of subtle body changes or tightening of the muscles beyond what is usual.

Lymphatic massage, which requires working close to the genital region, may feel unsafe for a multiple. It would help to prepare the multiple in advance that you'll be working close to that area of the body, so that the system won't be frightened by your work.

If a switch occurs during a massage, STOP the massage immediately and inform the "new" alter exactly what you are doing. If you know the alter and the alter knows you, this may not be necessary. Ask their permission to continue.

Massage should be a pleasurable experience. Telling the multiple in advance what you'll be doing may help him or her feel more comfortable. For example, with all clients, not just multiples, I ask before I fold down the sheet for tummy work. This way the person knows that s/he is the one in control, and that I'm not going to expose any part of their body they aren't ready for me to see.

Just a Few More Notes

First and foremost, remember that multiples are just people. Every multiple is different, just as all singletons are different. Multiples have endured extreme trauma in their lives, but usually aren't that fragile. The truly fragile ones aren't likely to present themselves to you for a massage anyway.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially if your client discloses their condition to you before the massage. Ask how their condition manifests itself in their case. Ask how they want you to respond if they switch during the massage.

Most likely, if the multiple switches during the massage, you probably won't even know it. Alters are often created to "cover" for each other, so until they're ready to tell you, you may not know.

Multiples are strong, courageous people who have lived through terrifying events. This condition is what helped them survive. If you have questions before, during, or after the massage, remember Rule Number One: Don't be afraid to ask. Rule Number Two, of course, is: Refer to Rule Number One.

Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals Inc.


By Phoenix J. Hocking

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