Sitting in a circle of uncomfortable hotel conference chairs, we watched our fellow EMDR trainers file into the room. Our stomach rumbled. We felt the rainbow-patterned top that we’d decided to wear for our presentation that day clinging to our skin from all the sweat. We focused on the brightly lit, red exit sign above the door for some sense of anchoring and security. “This is a bad idea,” we said to ourselves at one point, almost darting out of the room. “But we’re doing this. They need to hear what we have to say. No turning back now.”
Many of our colleagues at this meeting were people we’d learned to admire in the EMDR community. Most of them scared us, and a few of them pissed us off. I am/we are a person with dissociative identities. We were not formally diagnosed by an EMDR therapist until 2004, yet the experiences of dissociation—both as a saving grace and as something that could keep us paralyzed in our life—has defined us since early childhood.
Since finishing our EMDR training in 2006, we’ve sat through conferences and courses in which many revered members of the community have talked about people like us in a way that made me/us feel like a science project. So much jargon—apparently normal parts (ANPs), emotional parts (EPs), taxons. So much fear-mongering—“never let clients dissociate during EMDR, and clients who do may be poor candidates for it.” So much hyperbole—“your dissociative clients need you to take our training.” And overall, so much misunderstanding, even by many of the specialists.
We wanted to speak up through those years but felt like we couldn’t as the young therapist on the block. Moreover, the fawn response can run deep in survivors of trauma-based dissociation. “They are the experts,” I/we told ourselves many times. “Surely we are the ones who must be missing something.” But the more we held our tongue, the more our temper would come out in passive-aggressive ways at conferences and meetings, earning us a reputation as a rabblerouser in the early years of being an EMDR trainer and author of EMDR Made Simple.
But the more comfortable that I/we became with ourselves, the more we seemed to gain respect in the community, and the more ready I/we felt to fully and unapologetically come out as Jamie+, a four-part dissociative system that has to share with the field about dissociative identity.
That’s what brought me to the meeting of EMDR trainers in 2018, where we sweated in our rainbow top as we readied ourselves for our big presentation. Although the red exit sign shone bright above the door, we told ourselves that we simply couldn’t run away. The stakes were too high. Speaking up for people like me was no longer an option; it was a necessity—and doing so meant coming out about our dissociative identities. The absurdity is that we’d come out about many other things in our lives already. We’d been open about being in recovery from an addiction since 2002. We’d even come out as bisexual to our first professional colleague at the EMDRIA conference in 2010, and that inspired us to be more fully open about our sexuality in all areas of our lives, even to our conservative Christian family.
So what made coming out about my dissociative identities—especially to a room full of trainers in a trauma treatment modality—the scariest yet? Without question, the fear stemmed from the way that people with dissociative identities are still perceived in society at large and even within the psychotherapeutic professions. Many therapists and psychiatrists still think that we’re making it all up. Other therapists find us too hard to handle. Although it’s nice that colleagues in the latter group actually believe in our existence, some of them haven’t looked fondly upon my being so candid and vulnerable about our personal experiences with this diagnosis. They’ve told me that my boundaries are poor and that people won’t take me seriously if I’m not more scholarly.
Despite all this, we were able to breathe through our fear and give our presentation about being a plural therapist. In it, I/we simply told our story, explaining how our dissociative mind developed and doing our best to paint a picture of what it was like in our early days as a young professional hearing speakers talk about us in ways that felt so cold and disrespectful. No PowerPoints were needed for this kind of presentation—we simply spoke from the heart.
Looking into the audience, we saw plenty of heads nodding. We felt some warm displays of energy. We also noticed a few colleagues eyeing that red exit sign uncomfortably. Regardless, it felt refreshing to answer questions that people had clearly been too afraid or too embarrassed to ask others over the years: questions like, “What do you really think of a person’s capacity to do EMDR therapy when they have a dissociative disorder?” and “How would you handle a trainee who dissociates?”
It’s vital for me/us and other plural therapists, as they feel ready, to come out and add our voices to the important conversations of how we can best navigate dissociation clinically. Plural therapists have long felt afraid to be “out” in the therapeutic professions, fearing judgment about their credibility. Yet listening to the lived experiences of such therapists is the key to better understanding and working with dissociation and embracing people with dissociative identities.
More Than Parts Work
Despite the popularity of “parts work” models like Internal Family Systems and an abundance of trainings on dissociative disorders, many of which use clunky assessment tools like the 218-item Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation (yes, 218!), therapists are still largely afraid of dissociation and its manifestations in clinical settings. One of the first things that a plural therapist will tell you about the state of education on dissociation is that trainers make learning about it harder than it needs to be. Pierre Janet, regarded by many as one of the first fathers of the modern profession to truly understand trauma, used a word in his native French (desegregation) to set a framework for the many layers of what was later translated into English as dissociation. Its Latin root, dissociatiō, simply means to sever or to separate.
What are we severing or separating from? Generally, one of two things. The first is the present moment, when it’s unpleasant, painful, distressing, or even boring. That’s not unique to us. Most human beings engage in behaviors like daydreaming, living in a fantasy world, zoning out, or using outside accelerants to help them dissociate quicker, like drinking alcohol or playing on their phone. Some of us just do it more often than others and with greater degrees of intensity if the need is there. Yet at the end of the day, we all dissociate to cope with the uncertainties of life. We sever or dissociate to get our needs met and to protect ourselves.
We can also sever from aspects of ourselves, usually as a survival tool. This phenomenon can play out as garden-variety compartmentalization: the human skill that may allow a person who practices law with the ferocity of a shark to also be an amazingly tender parent. Or the skill may be called upon more intensely by survivors of trauma, who often, when we are very young, create systems in which different parts or aspects of us can hold the various pieces of our experience for us, as trying to handle everything at once can feel too overwhelming or even impossible. Some theories of dissociation posit that we’re all born fragmented and in the presence of healthy development can form into a more cohesive personality, but many of us reject this contention. In the words of Melissa Parker, a therapist with DID who’s become a personal friend, “I see the formation of new parts as a sign of growth and adaptation. It’s nothing to be shamed.”
In my early days as a professional, I don’t recall ever having dissociation explained to me in terms that honor the simplicity of the word’s origin and connects it to the universality of human experience. Instead, trainers tended to overcomplicate it with jargon and theory. I vividly remember sitting through a lecture on dissociation during my first EMDR Therapy training, writing down all the big words the trainer used, and saying to myself, “I/we think she’s making this much harder than it needs to be.” Yet I still went up to her after the presentation to thank her for it because, after all, she was the expert—I/we were just a person with dissociative identities. What did we know?
Turns out, we knew a lot more than we gave ourselves credit for. In our clinical practice, we often knew exactly how to help our traumatized clients because our lived experience was our greatest source of knowledge. As a system who’s coconscious with and in regular communication with our parts, we found that our four-year-old self, whom we call Four or Lucy, gave us the compassion to sit with our clients through their most emotional moments. Lucy knows the experience of being misunderstood and labeled “overly emotional” by caretakers.
Our nine-year-old self, whom we call Nine—who formed when we were chronologically nine and first began to experience suicidal thoughts and tendencies to self-injure—knows pain, frustration, and the feeling of being trapped. As we’ve allowed her to heal over the years, she’s learned how to transform this pain into a keen wit and healthy cynicism. Nine regularly helps us to better understand our clients, and even our students and consultees, when they feel stuck. And learning to see her edginess as an asset and not a deficit allows us to do things like write this article.
For many years we didn’t give our 19-year-old part, whom we call Nineteen, much consideration because our more healed “adult” part, especially the Dr. Jamie side of our personality, saw her as a lush. Nineteen was the one who crossed the line into alcoholism and addiction. Yet the more we came to listen to her story in our healing journey, the more we realized that she formed in response to a year of intense trauma—pain and rejection from our family of origin, coming out to ourselves as bisexual, and the sudden loss of a beloved mentor, our high school guidance counselor. To add insult to an already tremendous injury, our abusively religious parent—threatened by our leaving the church—told us that our mentor’s death was our fault, God’s way of “teaching us a lesson” for straying from the path. We’ve learned that Nineteen helps us to better understand our patients in the depths of their suffering. We’ve also learned that she represents creativity and a wonder for life that was largely snuffed out when we were chronically 19. Today, she expresses it through us, the Dr. Jamie/Jamie who presents to the world.
Ditch the Jargon
As we progressed in my development as a therapist from the time of that first EMDR training, we’ve encountered some glimmers of hope in our field. They came in the form of folks like Curtis Rouanzoin, an early EMDR Therapy trainer who called the Calm Safe Place guided visualization exercise that we teach as a standard preparation skill in EMDR Therapy “an exercise in dissociation.”
This guy gets it!, we thought, especially when he made this point to explain that dissociation is nothing to be afraid of. If we leverage it for adaptive purposes, why do we get so afraid of it when clients do it naturally? Years later, we interviewed Rouanzoin for our book, Dissociation Made Simple: A Stigma-Free Guide to Embracing Your Dissociative Mind and Navigating Life, and he spoke to the gifts of learning from his dissociative clients over a 40-year career. “I always tell my colleagues, ‘Find a dissociative client and listen to them. That will make you a good therapist,’” he said.
In our experience, it’s rare to hear such humility from those who lecture on dissociation and parts work. When my plural therapist colleagues get together, our conversation is filled with horror stories about what we heard various presenters say about plural folks and those with dissociative identities. We’ve heard many of the revered leaders in the field say things like “those people are addicted to chaos” or even label us “masters of deception.” When questioned, supposed experts in the field of trauma studies on dissociation have said things like, “We don’t really get dissociation and this theory may not fully apply.”
If we’re going to work more effectively with dissociation and not be so afraid of it in the therapy room, we can’t hide behind clinical jargon or professional distance. Yes, you can still practice therapeutic boundaries—they are downright essential when you work with any type of client—and use good clinical decision-making when it comes to self-disclosure. However, you can also deepen inquiry into the ways that dissociative experiences and the internal world of your own parts may inform the way you see the world. How might you use dissociation to cope? Do you daydream? Zone out? Scroll on your phone a little too long, especially when life is feeling unusually stressful? Does it ever feel like there’s a part of you that wants to stay engaged in this field and a part of you that just wants to give it all up? How do you navigate the conflict between these parts? These questions are similar to ones our clients navigate on a daily basis, perhaps with a little more intensity and urgency if such behaviors are getting in the way of their lives. Yet perhaps the more you sit with these questions and explore them yourselves, you may find that you’re not so different from your clients after all.
We often provide consultation for EMDR Therapists who get so frustrated when working with clients who have dissociative identities. When they present their cases to me, I/we often feel them twisting themselves into a knot to conceptualize their case through some overly academic model. Once, a therapist consulted with me on how to work with a client’s young, six-year-old part. He was confused and overwhelmed because he didn’t know how to set boundaries with her in the moment.The consultants he’d worked with told him that if he indulged the younger part, he could do more harm. Yet that seemed cruel to him.
“Have you ever parented a six-year-old child?” we asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“And how would you have worked with your six-year-old in a similar situation?” we asked.
At this, we saw the lightbulb of recognition ding above his head, and his face lit up. “You mean it’s that easy?” he exclaimed.
I/we smiled, saying that yes, it often can be that simple.
My hope is that therapists like him will feel empowered in future years to access their lived experience to inform their clinical decisions. We’re grateful that popular models of parts work emphasize the idea that we all have parts with things to teach us. But while normalizing the experience of parts, our field tends to exclude the voices of people who identify as plural systems. What’s more, there’s often an air of at least you’re not like “those people” with DID communicated, reinforcing messages of shame experienced by plural therapists. So many of my fellow plural therapists in this community have long battled a feeling that we aren’t good enough to practice as therapists and that coming out about our plurality would amount to career suicide.
Although we still largely live in this reality, these days we’re inspired that many plural therapists like me are feeling more empowered to declare, Nothing about us without us. Marginalized communities and communities of people with disabilities use this phrase to hold their allies accountable. Whenever our allies cite research and neuroscience, many of us are now committed to ask, “Have you really talked to people with lived experience on the matter? Not just given them a research instrument, but really talked to them and attempted to see the world from their perspective?”
Since deciding to come out so fully five years ago, we continue to receive emails and messages from other plural therapists sharing their frustrations with how many of the leaders in the fields of trauma and dissociation studies talk about us like we’re science projects and not people with brilliant and creative minds. We have so much to share about how our minds are an asset in helping us navigate the realities of being a clinician in a suffering world and about how to effectively work with others with creative minds like ours.
As we continue to advocate on behalf of plural folks, especially plural professionals, the 1980s power ballad by Twisted Sister often comes to mind: “We’re not going to take it anymore!” This song is an anthem for many people in peer recovery circles who are fed up with having their lived experience dismissed by the professional establishment. We can feel it beating through our soul as we implore our colleagues in psychotherapy: listen to the voices of plural therapists. You’ll be glad you did.
PHOTO © JOESUNT
Jamie Marich, PhD, LPCC-S, REAT, RYT-500, RMT, (she/they/we), began her career as a humanitarian aid worker in Bosnia-Hercegovina from 2000-2002, primarily teaching English and music. Jamie travels internationally teaching topics related to trauma, EMDR therapy, expressive arts, mindfulness, and yoga, while maintaining a private practice and online education operations in her home base of Akron, OH. Marich is the founder of the Institute for Creative Mindfulness and the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness approach to expressive arts therapy.
Marich is the author of EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches for Using EMDR with Every Client (2011), Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide for Recovery Enhancement (2012), Creative Mindfulness (2013), Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment, and Working with Survivors, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation (2015), and Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery (2019). Marich co-authored EMDR Therapy & Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care along with colleague Dr. Stephen Dansiger in 2018, and their new book with Springer Publishing Healing Addiction with EMDR Therapy: A Trauma-Focused Guide released in 2021. North Atlantic Books published a revised and expanded edition of Trauma and the 12 Steps in the Summer of 2020, and they released The Healing Power of Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide to Transforming Trauma and Facilitating Recovery in 2022. Her latest release with North Atlantic Books, Dissociation Made Simple: A Stigma-Free Guide to Embracing Your Dissociative Mind and Navigating Life came out in January 2023. She has three more projects in the works with North Atlantic Books, including her personal memoir about surviving spiritual abuse called You Lied to Me About God due out in Autumn 2024.
The New York Times featured Marich’s writing and work on Dancing Mindfulness in 2017 and 2020. NALGAP: The Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and Their Allies awarded Jamie with their esteemed President’s Award in 2015 for her work as an LGBT advocate. The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) granted Jamie the 2019 Advocacy in EMDR Award because she used her public platform in media and in the addiction field to advance awareness about EMDR therapy and to reduce stigma around mental health. The Huffington Post published her personal story of being out as a clinical professional with a dissociative disorder in May 2023.