AN INTERVIEW WITH JANYNE MCCONNAUGHEY, PhD
Hello. My name is Ms. Skeptic and I am here today to interview Dr. Janyne McConnaughey about her recent revelations concerning her life with a dissociative disorder. She has accepted this interview in hopes she can help others in understanding the disorder. …
Now, Dr. McConnaughey, for those who do not know you, will you tell us a little about your life?
Honestly, the life story I always told was of a pretty idyllic 1950s childhood. Much of my story of growing up in a preacher’s home and serving in church-related educational ministries, and my now thirty-eight year marriage is included here. On the surface, it was a wonderful life!
You are aware most who say they have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) do not have such idyllic descriptions of their lives? Were there signs that others might have noticed in you?
The disorder is mostly hidden and often misdiagnosed. A few things are helpful in understanding this. The first is an understanding of what a dissociative disorder is. In my journey, I began to understand dissociation as more of a spectrum. To some degree, in order to cope, everyone dissociates from reality on occasion—daydreaming for instance—very common and usually healthy.
On the other end of the spectrum is the person who separates into multiple identities to divide up the pain and live life. In this category there are some who have periods of amnesia while various “parts” live life. In my case, “DID NOS,” (Dissociative Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified) there was not significant amnesia between my alternate identities or “alters.” Thus, I didn’t wake up and find clothes in my closet that I didn’t remember buying. I did have significant blocked memories (due to repression), but none impaired my ability to function on a day-to-day basis.
So no one could tell?
No. After I explain it to my closest family and friends, they often say, “Well, that actually makes sense.” But we all have quirky things we do, and this was what everyone assumed.
I must pause at this point to say there are those in the field of psychology who do not believe in the diagnosis of DID. What are your thoughts on this?
(Sigh) This is so damaging for those who are dissociative—especially in one specific way. Dissociation at every level on the spectrum is a coping mechanism and as such is not a systemic mental illness—in other words, no one is born dissociative, it is a result of what happened to him or her. Granted, there may be some predisposed tendencies, such as intelligence and creative cognitive coping skills, but it is always the result of some type of trauma—usually sexual abuse at a very young age. As a coping mechanism for trauma, dissociation can be healed. It is complicated but possible. If a professional does not believe in the validity of the diagnosis, then the answer is usually medication—which may alleviate the symptoms to some degree but never addresses true healing.
In addition, being believed was important to my healing. I knew there were three adults in my head and felt myself shift to them periodically through the day. There was nothing in my story to cause me at sixty one to suddenly create a fantasy such as this—for what? Attention? (Laughter, lots of laughter.) Dissociative disorders are all about hiding—especially at my level of what I call “functional dissociation.” When I finally came to my own conclusion about being dissociative, it was absolutely crucial to be believed!Did you know?Absolutely not. Did I know something was not right? Yes! Most spend years in therapy before it is correctly diagnosed.
When did you decide to seek therapy? What brought you to this decision?
For some, the idea God audibly told me to go to a specific therapist is probably going to be harder to swallow than the disorder itself, but that is exactly what happened. I described my fear of going to therapy in one of my first blog posts. At sixty one, I was at the top of my professional career, a wife, mother, and grandmother, with many wonderful friends—and absolutely terrified.
Why were you afraid?
Great question. I was unaware of living as multiple identities, but did spend my life running away from a “me” I could neither understand nor tolerate. My life was successfully navigated above the turmoil. I didn’t understand what it was, but I knew it had the power to destroy my carefully-constructed life.
How long were you in therapy before you understood what you were dealing with?
This is a very simple question, which involves a very complicated answer. My first session, in hindsight, was an amazing display put on by “Janyne” to prove there was absolutely nothing wrong. I was just trying to decide about signing the contract for the following year, since teaching at the college didn’t seem like a good fit for me any longer. In the next couple sessions, it became apparent I had mother issues. This is not uncommon—maybe you do too? (Uncomfortable laughter.) By the third or fourth session we decided I should work through some of my anxiety issues by going back to my childhood memories with my mother. This was when I had my first introduction to EMDR.
Can you explain EMDR?
Yes, this is always a question. It is a recognized, research-validated therapy treatment in which the client remains aware but is able to go below the surface of cognitively processed events and resolve the underlying emotions connected to the memories stored in the limbic brain. It is done in a variety of ways by bypassing the cognitive part of the brain and allowing the experience, with all of the intensity of the attached emotions, to surface. In my case, this also released repressed memories. If unfamiliar with this recognized type of therapy, it might be good to explore the EMDR International Association website.
Why was EMDR so important to your healing?
My survival was dependent on cognitive coping strategies and few therapeutic interventions would have been successful in getting underneath my defenses. There are some concerns that EMDR causes memories to surface too quickly and may overwhelm dissociative clients who do not have strong processing structures in place. As with any therapy, the keys are skillful use and care for the client. For me, EMDR was the avenue of healing.
Why do you believe this was true?
Many with dissociative disorders spend years in various therapeutic situations without ever obtaining a correct diagnosis. The whole purpose of dissociation is to hide subconsciously repressed or suppressed memories. While EMDR is designed as a way to process memories, in my case it also served as a mechanism to retrieve frozen memories from dissociative states. This doesn’t mean it would be effective in this specific way for everyone, since each case is unique.
My simple question of “Which one?” (explained in Chapter 4) early in therapy probably moved my healing at warp speed, since it allowed me to see my inner structures of functioning personas and dissociative states. My ability to see and analyze these dissociative structures was a gift, but I would never have allowed myself to see it outside of EMDR therapy. My structures were too perfect and I was too strong.
How do you know the memories were real?
This question voices a common fear. I was concerned that a therapist would convince me something had happened in my early life, but she never did that. This may occur on occasion with the rare, unethical therapist, and probably is the reason for the myth. It is horrible and prevents many from seeking help. Before the first memory of abuse surfaced, I said, “I don’t think we are going to find anything, do you?” My therapist never led me down any path. She simply believed in the truth of the memories that did surface.
But how did you know it was real?
My first memory was when I was probably three. While in the memory, there were neither adult words nor understanding to explain the pain. The truth my body told, and the anguish pouring out of me, could not be manufactured. I have no doubts. Once the memories were processed, the related triggers vanished—proof of the connection between the abuse and the triggers that had plagued me all my life. Many of these triggers are explained in the following pages.
So, you have no doubts about the truth of your memories?
Oh! Thank you for asking this question! Anyone who studies memory knows things may not have happened exactly like you remember them. In my case, there were many false cover memories (flat memories without emotion) to hide the real memories. In every one of them, I was brave and strong and escaped danger. Most of the time, it was illogical that a child, teen, or young adult could have escaped the situation, but my story convinced me. I never said these false versions of the memories in EMDR—even when I wanted to do so. I was a child and while the memory may not be exact, there is no question but something happened—something involving very traumatic sexual abuse. My body told the story during therapy, triggers made me live the memories my entire life, and once I faced the truth, there was nothing in me to doubt it. In fact, it finally made sense.
Didn’t remembering make it worse?
This is exactly what I would have thought, but the process of EMDR takes the power out of the memory by releasing it so it can be understood by the adult self. Integration was not possible until the power was removed from the memory.
What is integration?
The first step to becoming one whole person happened to me the day in therapy when I became aware of the three adults who had been living in separate compartments in my brain. I saw them and they saw each other. One of my therapist friends called it a “perfect three-point landing.” Recognition happened again and again as the alters entered my conscious world. I knew them immediately and could describe each of their personalities. So the first step was awareness. Then we had to find out why they had been created or split—always trauma of some kind had occurred. Once the trauma was healed, if they were twins (one who lived and one who held the pain), they could become one or integrate.
Integration only comes through healing—the split remains because of unprocessed pain. Shifting is a survival skill. I could not have held all the pain in one person.
The process sounds very complicated—how long were you in therapy?
I almost hesitate to answer this question. If someone is heading into therapy, he or she often wants to know exactly how long it will take to be helped. That’s an unanswerable question. I thought I would be “outta there” in a couple sessions. My denial makes me laugh; but in reality, the time it took me to reach integration was unbelievably short. It is very common for people to say eight to twelve years! That seems realistic! It is complicated. I completed the integration of the three adults in less than six months, but was sometimes in therapy for seven to eight hours in a week. What we did in so short a time was literally impossible! To say it is possible or recommend it to anyone would be irresponsible! I did not know how to do this any other way. We all knew this was true. Once the problem presented itself, I attacked it with a vengeance. It was necessary for me to give up almost everything in my life to heal; and I lived through months of hell—while still working. Most of that period of time is a blur. Without my writing, the memory of the deep processing would be lost.
So, never do what I did! Go slowly. Take time. Take breaks. Stabilize. Then go back. Slower would have been better for me; but I didn’t know any other way.
Is it hard for you to go back and read what you wrote during therapy?
Sometimes. Most of the raw processing was accidentally deleted. Those raw documents would probably be difficult to read; I did not have a clear sense of self, probably because of the extent of the trauma which created such a disorganized state. Much of my raw processing was transferred to a version of the story in which my identity was carefully disguised—a method, which distanced me from my own pain. I’m saving the volumes of material related to the psychological process of healing, for a later book. It is a very messy process, but true healing cannot happen unless someone is willing to get messy. Getting messy is something we almost always avoid, probably because we think we are the only ones who ever had such awful thoughts. Part of my sharing my messiness in this book is to tell others it is OK—you are not alone. There is so much fear. We need to help each other feel safe.
Is there anything else you would like your readers to know before they read your Brave books?
It is important to say my parents knew what happened to me at three but made choices based on the era in which they lived. My father loved me, and my mother was incapable of being the mother I needed. They both on separate occasions said I was “difficult” as a child. Yes, I imagine I was. It is also important to know I was born in 1953. What happened to me (multiple times) was unthinkable. As children, we were taught to respect adults and obey them. I had no words to describe what happened, and my perpetrators told me no one would believe me. They were right. Therefore, I used every possible God-given coping mechanism to survive.
It is hard to listen to you and not believe you.
(Laughing.) Yes, I wish I could just sit and talk to anyone who is skeptical. My openness and clear honesty is a gift. I have nothing to gain personally by sharing my story—except to help others.
Thank you for sharing so openly with me today. I do think this interview—and your BRAVE books—will help others to understand more about dissociation. I wish you the best as you continue to live out your life.
~(Excerpted from the book, BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma)