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Multiple identities misunderstood, says Comox Valley woman

SUZANNE VENUTA has Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder. The Comox Valley woman is working to raise awareness and dispel myths surrounding the disorder by writing articles for magazines (above) and other methods such as speaking to psychology students. - Photo submitted
SUZANNE VENUTA has Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder. The Comox Valley woman is working to raise awareness and dispel myths surrounding the disorder by writing articles for magazines (above) and other methods such as speaking to psychology students.
— image credit: Photo submitted

Suzanne Venuta is a wife, mother and active member of the Comox Valley — and she has what's formerly, and commonly, known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

Now officially known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the condition generally includes two or more 'alter' personalities, which are disconnected from each other and are created as a way for the person with the disorder to deal with some sort of trauma.

While many people may have heard of the disorder by its old name, Venuta says the reality of the condition is much different than many people assume.

"It's Hollywood's version, right, you've got the good guy, the bad guy, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 'Oh, this person's really nice but at nighttime they go out and they're a mass murderer,'" says Venuta. "It's great entertainment but it's not reality."

Venuta explains about one to three per cent of the population has DID and — while she says it's as common, if not more common, than schizophrenia — only about six per cent of people with DID have extreme changes in their behaviours when they switch personalities.

In fact, Venuta, who is 53 and started developing alter personalities in response to severe abuse as a child, wasn't even diagnosed with DID until 2003 — and for all those years she was undiagnosed the most obvious symptom was her inability to remember things.

"It's bizarre, but until I was diagnosed I thought everybody had chunks of life missing," recalls Venuta, adding that since her personalities were disconnected from each other she wouldn't remember what happened when one of her alter personalities was living her life.

"I cannot remember my first-, second-, third-year grade teachers. Christmases — I have little slivers of a couple Christmases. I have years of blank, absolutely nothing.

"So many times, I'd go to the mall and never come home with anything that I went to the mall for because I'd forget why I went … I'd go home and there'd be stuff in my cupboard I don't remember buying — obviously I bought it, you know, how else did it get there, but I don't remember it."

Although Venuta had chunks of her life missing, she says it's been a good life so far. She got a diploma in Early Childhood Education and worked in various aspects of the field before she retired, she's captain of her dragon boat team, she's very involved in various other community organizations and activities, and she raised her son, who is now 27.

After she was diagnosed, Venuta worked hard to face her physical and emotional pain from the past. With support from counsellors, psychiatrists, her GP, family and friends, she has been able to face her problems, and while she says she will have DID forever, she no longer loses large chunks of time.

Venuta says there is stigma around DID, from the public and medical professionals, and a number of medical professionals doubt the disorder's existence. She's working to increase awareness of the disorder and dispel myths surrounding it.

She produced an episode about living with DID for CBC Radio in 2008, and she recently had a piece she wrote published in a magazine called Insights into Clinical Counselling. She's also spoken to North Island College students, and on Thursday she will head to Highland Secondary School for the third time to speak to psychology students.

Community members are welcome to attend the presentation at Highland, which happens from 10:30 to 11:55 a.m. Anyone interested can stop by the school office and staff will direct them to the classroom.

She points out everybody has different personalities when explaining the disorder, adding a person may have a slightly different facet of their 'self' at work, with their parents, kids, spouse or siblings or with their friends.

"We all have different aspects of ourselves; I have all these different aspects of my selves but they weren't connected, there was no linear connection," she says.

For more information visit Venuta's blog at suzy-livingsucessfullywithdid.blogspot.ca.

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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