Nancy Ross was alone in her kitchen smoking a cigarette. Go ahead and finish it, she heard Alice say. It'll be the last one you'll have.
Ross withdrew as if behind a curtain, she recalled. When she returned, she was standing on a bench with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck.
Shocked, she suddenly realized that what her therapist had been telling her must be true: She was sharing her body with someone else.
An 'Inner Family'
In fact, Ross, a 40-year-old Redondo Beach resident, said she eventually learned she was living with an "inner family" of 13 personalities, each with a name and a purpose. They included the Actress, a promiscuous flirt; the Nun, a righteous moralist; the Kid, a mischievous 5-year-old; Marsha, who faints under stress, and Richard, the gatekeeper who directs their comings and goings.
There was also Alice, a suicidal personality who didn't care that if she killed herself Nancy would die too.
Sometimes dramatic and frequently bizarre, stories of selves-within-a-self are not as rare as commonly thought and are increasing, say those who study multiple personalities such as Ross. Of the many professionals who remain skeptical that the phenomenon is real, most have never personally encountered a case, said psychiatrist Frank Putnam, multiple personality researcher with the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington.
However, the diagnosis gained respectability four years ago when multiple personality was added to the American Psychiatric Assn.'s list of official diagnoses. Last year, nearly 500 professionals attended the first international conference on multiple personality in Chicago, and four professional journals devoted solely to the subject were published.
Among believers, there is much debate over the nature of multiple personality disorder, its causes and treatment.
To share knowledge and opinions, a multidisciplinary group of mental health professionals called the Multiple Personality Study Group has been meeting once a month for the last seven years at the UC Irvine Medical Center. They have reviewed between 100 and 150 diagnosed cases of multiple personality in Orange County. Based on that figure, group leader Donald Schafer estimates the incidence of multiple personality in the general population to be one per 20,000.
While stories like "The Three Faces of Eve" and "Sybil" have fascinated the general public, therapists nationwide are now treating thousands of other multiple personalities from doctors to drifters. The vast majority were physically or sexually abused as children.
Most are women. Some speculate the reason is that girls are more often abused.
Some say multiples have above-average intelligence; some believe there is a genetic predisposition to develop split personalities. Others disagree.
Walling Off Conflict
It is agreed that creating separate personalities is a type of "dissociative reaction." Ross' therapist, Ted Barnes of Santa Ana, believes it is a sophisticated defense mechanism that intelligent children adopt to handle continuous terror or pain. "No one could take it all and remain sane."
Their system of walling off conflict reduces stress that otherwise might lead to a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, which Barnes believes is more difficult to treat than multiple personality. Though multiples are commonly confused with schizophrenics, they differ in that the different personalities deal with the real world while schizophrenics create their own separate reality, he said.
In general, multiple personalities hold themselves together "with spit and baling wire," unknowingly leading multiple lives for two or three decades until amnesiac blackouts force their separate lives to collide, or flashbacks bring back the past, said Barnes, a licensed counselor, certified hypnotherapist and member of the UCI study group. Barnes, who holds an MS degree in counseling from Cal State Fullerton, is president-elect of the Orange County chapter of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists and president-elect of the California Society for the Use of Hypnosis in Family Therapy.
Like other multiples, Nancy Ross has lost chunks of her own history. She knows there was physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She remembers times in her childhood when she would hear familiar footsteps nearing her bedroom and would lie on the floor hoping to be mistaken for a lump of clothes. She remembers hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy and hearing her stepfather scream at her to stop bleeding. And she remembers she was repeatedly struck at school by nuns who told her horror stories of what happened to children who didn't believe in God.
Pursued by the Actress