National Alliance on Mental Illness Essay Paper

Sybil & DID

This fairly brief report takes on the dual focus of a movie and a mental disorder. The two are actually related in that the disorder is depicted in the movie. The disorder in question is known as dissociative identity disorder, or DID for short. In the past, DID has commonly been referred to as multiple personality disorder. This report shall cover the major facts and facets of this disorder. There will also be a correlation between the disorder and how it was depicted in the movie Sybil. Feelings and analysis of that movie will be included in the summary. While movies and reality often diverge in multiple ways, it is important to know the basics, facts and implications about DID and disorders like it.

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Just like post-traumatic stress disorder has evolved a great deal when it comes to how it is handled and what it has been called, much the same thing is true when it comes to DID. Beyond that, the dissociation that is experienced very harshly by DID patients is experienced by all of us at one time or another. Indeed, we have all had those moments where we “daydream” or otherwise get lost in a moment. However, people with DID experience such events to a much more obvious and extreme degree. Even with the evolution and changes that have come about when it comes to the disorder, there is still active debate as to whether the disorder is even real to begin with. Much like fibromyalgia and a few other disorders, there are many that are skeptical that it is anything more than the workings of a calculating and lucid mind. Others still believe that DID is simply just an offshoot of borderline personality disorder, not unlike prior associations between hoarding and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Disorders that are related, yet different from, DID would include other dissociative disorders such as dissociative amnesia (Webmd, 2016; Tartakovsky, 2016).

With those prefaces and precautions out of the, it is important to discuss what is widely known and accepted when it comes to DID. Basically, the original and now often discarded name for DID, that being multiple personality disorder, is a pretty good description of what goes on. More or less, someone with DID has multiple personalities that they switch back and forth between. The switch can be fairly immediate or it can be over a period of minutes or days. It has been found that hypnosis is fruitful when it comes to fettering out the personalities and such that exist. Each personality will have its own age, sex, race and the like. There will also tend to be postures, gestures and talking patterns that are unique to each method. The inability to remember what has happened in the past, especially under the control of other identities, is fairly common and it absolutely goes beyond simple forgetfulness (Webmd, 2016; NAMI, 2016).

Beyond the above, some common signs and symptoms that come about include depression, mood swings, suicidal tendencies, sleep disorders (e.g. insomnia, high terrors, etc.), anxiety issues (e.g. flashbacks, panic attacks, etc.), compulsion/rituals, alcohol and/or illicit drug abuse and eating disorders. Other common symptoms include headache (as mentioned before), time loss, trances and out of body experiences. DID should not be confused with schizophrenia. This often happens but they are quite different. Whereas DID is typified by a person “becoming” different personalities, schizophrenia is more about a singular personality being “spoken to” by voices other than their own. One thing that DID and schizophrenia do share is that suicide attempts are much more likely with both as compared to people that have no known mental disorder or even most other mental disorder patients (Webmd, 2016).

One of the main factors in DID that wreaks havoc in the life of a DID patient are the main psychological effects and broken psychological processes that are in play. Indeed, depersonalization, de-realization, amnesia and identity confusion are all commonplace when it comes to people with DID. The amount of personalities that emerge from a DID patient usually starts at two to four upon initial diagnosis but quite often exceeds a dozen once all of the proverbial layers of the personalities are dealt with. Indeed, finding thirteen to fifteen personalities in a DID patient is about the average. However, some people have had more than one hundred discovered. The overall causes of DID are not really known. Thus, figuring out precisely why someone gets (or does not get) the disorder is still very much in its nascent stages. One thing that is known is that abuse is a huge catalyst when it comes to DID. Indeed, if a parent (or more than one) and/or relative is frightening, abusive or unpredictable, this can be a huge trigger and aggravator of someone with mental illness and DID patients are no different (DID, 2016).

Diagnosis is not easy when it comes to DID and it can take some time. It is commonly accepted, and is in print in the DSM-5, that there are five main things that must be identified before one can be diagnosed with DID. There must be at least two tangible and real personalities in play, there must be the presence of amnesia, the person must be distressed by the disorder, the disturbances experienced by the patient must not be part of a person’s normal culture or religious practices and the symptoms cannot be due to psychological effects brought on by the use of certain substances such as drugs (e.g. alcohol). A famous person that is known to have been diagnosed with DID is former football player and occasional MMA fighter Herschel Walker. As for how common the disorder is, it is actually extremely rare. While the precise rate is not known, it is commonly accepted to be absolutely no more than one percent and could be as low as one hundredth of one percent. That being said, people that experience some form of dissociation is actually quite large in comparison, as noted earlier. That rate is at roughly seven percent of the population. For those that truly have DID, there are no known pharmacological interventions that work but different forms of therapy (e.g. talk therapy) seem to be beneficial (Webmd, 2016). When it comes to dissociative disorders in general, the Mayo Clinic very much echoes the words of Webmd when it comes to the common cause and that would be some source of trauma that is typically rendered and experienced during childhood. War, natural disasters or any childhood abuse are very likely to cause dissociation on some level, up to and including DID and other more advanced manifestations (Mayo, 2016).

As for the movie part of this report, that would refer to the aforementioned Sybil. Indeed, the movie was actually a mini-series that aired in 1976. In total, the running time was the better part of four hours and the show started Joanne Woodward, Sally Field and Brad Davis. The miniseries was based on a book by the same name and speaks to a woman named Sybil Dorsett that is diagnosed by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur as having DID. Sybil tells her psychiatrist Dr. Wilbur that she has blackouts and a set of fears that is getting worse and worse. As Sybil continues to work with the doctor, it comes to light that she has about sixteen personalities moving around inside her head and each of them is manifesting themselves over time. Some of personalities are absolutely handfuls. The nastiest is Marcia, who wants to kill Sybil (IMDb, 2016).

It comes out later during hypnosis that there is a reason behind Sybil delusions. It is revealed that Sybil’s personality known as Peggy, a little girl, was the subject of very nasty and protracted abuse, both physical and sexual. Sybil ends up “embracing” Peggy after being scared of her for the longest time. This was apparently a trigger for Sybil to remember the abuse and what all else happened. Sybil regains her memories and is able to move on and live a normal life. As for whether this was the best or a good outcome in general for the plot of the film, the author of this report has mixed feelings. The research done earlier in this report indicates that DID, if it really does exist as claimed in the DSM, does not just get “switched off.” It would seem that the goal for patients with DID Is to cope and adjust rather than being “cured.” That being said, the climax of the movie does make a good point in that the abuse needed to be fleshed out and revealed so that Sybil could deal with what was causing her so much pain and distress. It is indeed a “neat” Hollywood ending for her life to be all shiny and new after she has her revelation. However, that’s the ways that movies like this tend to work. What happens in the movie is a feel-good moment but it does not directly translate to real life a lot of the time, and this is no different (IMDb, 2016).

There is something to be learned from the film, although it’s not a lot. Indeed, the rate of people with DID is very, very low. The chances that any single person would run into someone with DID (theorized or proven) is not all that high. Movies that would pertain to much more common disorders like PTSD and general depression would resonate with people a lot more. That being said, anxiety and depression are just a few of the symptoms of DID so there will be a lot of people that identify with Sybil on one level or another, even if the vast majority of them do not have DID. The climactic scene with Peggy and Sybil is easily the most poignant and important because it is the moment that Sybil becomes self-aware enough to be in charge of her own healing and progress. Up until that point, she struggled greatly.


It really does seem that Sybil’s personalities were a compartmentalization of the feelings, experiences and emotions that were going through her head with Marcia (suicide) and Peggy (childhood abuse) being two of the more important. Once she was able to get the important one figured, that being Peggy and the abuse, she was able to get her head together and move on with her life. Up until that point, she was a mess and each personality was seemingly depicting a different part of her scarred psyche.


IMDb. (2016). Sybil (TV Mini-Series 1976). IMDb. Retrieved 2 November 2016, from

Mayo. (2016). Diseases & Conditions: Dissociative disorders. The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 2 November 2016, from

NAMI. (2016). NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness – Dissociative Disorders. Retrieved 2 November 2016, from

Tartakovsky, M. (2016). Dispelling Myths about Dissociative Identity Disorder – Psych Central. Psych Central. Retrieved 2 November 2016, from

WebMD. (2016). Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder). Webmd. Retrieved 2 November 2016, from

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