Unreal: Homelessness and Mental Illness

It’s a rare chilly morning in August, and I’m not fully awake when I hear the sound of an incoming message on my phone. I force myself to sit up and grab the phone from the nightstand. I see that it’s a message from Jeannie, an acquaintance from high school. There’s a video attached to the message. Jeannie likes sending me funny videos that she finds on YouTube—this one is called “Fake Mental Disorder Cringe.” Right away, I start to feel uncomfortable. 

I have seen some of these videos before. They’re compilations of videos made mostly for TikTok by teenagers who claim they have dissociative identity disorder. It’s always a teen lip-syncing a song while dressed as some anime character that they say is one of their “alters,” or other personalities. When not lip-syncing, they make videos like “10 alter switches in 10 minutes” or taste tests for their different identities. It’s easy to see that they have no idea what DID is about, and don’t understand that this form of mental illness actually destroys lives. I quickly send her laughing emojis, but what I really want to do is tell her that for some people, this kind of mental illness is an everyday struggle. She has no idea that I live with what these kids claim to have. 

I’ve struggled with mental issues for most of my life, and have been recently diagnosed with a serious, rare disorder. After years of being misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder, depersonalization and derealization, and OSDD (Other Specified Dissociative Disorder), I was finally diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, which affects only up to 2% of the population. 

DID, was previously called “multiple personality disorder.” It is often a reaction to severe and constant trauma in the early formative years. The disorder is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality identities. Each may have a unique name, personal history and characteristics. Because of this disorder’s rarity, individuals are usually misdiagnosed with other illnesses. There are some mental health professionals who don’t believe DID is real and dismiss DID  symptoms as fantasies, or even as ploys for attention. The symptoms described by the Mayo Clinic include, but are not limited to:

  • Memory loss (amnesia) of certain time periods, events, people and personal information 
  • A sense of being detached from yourself and your emotions 
  • A perception of the people and things around you as distorted and unreal 
  • A blurred sense of identity 
  • Significant stress or problems in your relationships, work or other important areas of your life 
  • Inability to cope well with emotional or professional stress 
  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors 

Earlier in my life, I was diagnosed with depersonalization/derealization disorder. People who have this disorder persistently have the feeling that they are observing themselves from outside their body, or have a sense that things around them aren’t real. Feelings of depersonalization and derealization can be very disturbing—sometimes it feels like you’re living in a dream. For some, it can be severe and may interfere with relationships, work and other daily activities. 

When I lost my apartment, I became homeless. I was helped by a family friend who recognized me and knew of my depersonalization disorder diagnosis. During my period of homelessness, the world around me felt unreal, as if I was watching a TV show about someone who looked like me, but was not me. I hardly ever ate, and there was a constant “narrative” in my mind from what I later learned to be one of my identities. People avoided me, not knowing that I needed help, and would often scream at me whenever I was too close to them or asked them for something to eat. People tend to think that homeless people are on the street because they’re all drug addicts who have only themselves to blame for their failed lives. It’s hard to explain this time in my life to individuals who have never experienced dissociation. I felt “unreal,” like I didn’t exist both as a human being because of how I was treated by others, and because I was not present in my own reality and life. Unfortunately, there are many homeless people who suffer from a variety of dissociative disorders. Most will not receive any help for their mental issues. 

At the time, I was not aware that I had dissociative identity disorder. This is not unusual, given how often health care professionals misdiagnose and how rarely they screen for it. Symptoms of DID often show up in childhood, between the ages of 5 and 10. But parents, teachers or health care providers may miss the signs, confusing it with more common behavioral or learning problems found in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

The typical patient is diagnosed with DID at about age 30. A retrospective review of that patient’s history typically will reveal onset of dissociative symptoms at ages 5 to 10, with emergence of alters at about the age of 6. 

DID is characterized by “switching” to alternate identities. A person with DID may feel the presence of two or more people talking or living inside their head. This disorder is often mistaken for schizophrenia because the identities are thought to be hallucinations. However, each identity has a unique name, personal history and characteristics, including obvious differences in voice, gender and mannerisms. Even though the identities are all different, for years, they fool everyone they come into contact with into thinking that they are the “core” identity, i.e., the person whose name is on their birth certificate. 

I was not aware of my other identities for years. I knew that I’d often have amnesia and I’d lose minutes, hours and even days. I was told that I said and done things that I have no recollection of ever saying or doing. My friendships never lasted, so I had a very lonely existence. My marriage fell apart, and I couldn’t keep a job because of the instability, amnesia and the stress came with this disorder. People who are diagnosed with dissociative disorders have a suicide rate of 70%. . The high proportion is driven by PTSD, breaking down of relationships, lack of understanding by other people, homelessness, unemployment, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and instability. Many who are diagnosed with dissociative disorders self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which exacerbates existing problems. I have never self-medicated, but I have gone into deep depressions that lasted for months on end. Employment has also had its difficulties. I often have problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior and a sense of self. Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of mental functioning. 

We live in a society that still stigmatizes mental illness and people struggling with it. I’ve heard people say that individuals “choose” to be mentally ill because they get something out of it—like attention, for example. I can honestly say that I wish I could wake up one morning and find my mental struggles gone, but it’s not as easy as that. The only treatments available for DID are talk therapy, and to treat each issue separately: the depression, the anxiety, the nightmares, etc. My therapist suggested screening for DID after I started “switching” identities as I came in for my appointment every week. 

The screening was extensive, involving both physical and psychological tests. During the evaluation, a health care provider reviewed my symptoms and my personal health history. They performed tests to rule out underlying physical causes for my symptoms, such as head injuries or brain tumors. After the physical tests, I was given several psychological tests and evaluations. 

Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite writers, wrote, “I guess the only time most people think about injustice is when it happens to them.” As long as mental disorders are misunderstood and hidden, we will continue to have suicides. Homeless people with mental health conditions will continue to wander without hope or help. 

This is the reality and struggle of being “unreal.” 

 If you’d like to learn more about my disorder, please watch my channel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbl8YHfxexHQ5TGJbPw_B4Q or look for my channel under the name “Rotten On The Vine: Dark Fiction”. 

If you’d like to donate to help support me and my channel, my PayPal is: hauntedhill@yandex.com, Thank you!

Street Sheet published Johanna Elattar’s contribution, “Mousey’s Story: Homelessness and Mental Illness,” in its February 1, 2022 issue.