One of the first writing tips most people hear is ‘write what you know’. But I’ve never been very good at sticking to that.
Perhaps it’s my appetite for learning, for stretching to place myself in the shoes of someone different to me. It’s what I did in The Silent Chapter, after all. I’ve never lost someone close to suicide, or lost a child, or indeed been married. I’m not even straight, like almost all the characters are. But with a hell of a lot of research from endless sources, I think I got there. I hope I did. The wonderful Molly of Briony Molly Media said in her review, ‘the amount of research and respect that has gone into writing this book is in itself a 5-star rating’, after all!
I decided to repeat that process with my upcoming book, The Summer We’ve Had, which is coming out in just under two months. This time I pushed myself even further, and decided to write about a mental health condition that most have not even heard of: Dissociative Identity Disorder.
“Why?” I hear you ask. “Why, when you don’t even have it yourself?”
Before I explain that, I should explain what Dissociative Identity Disorder is. I should also stress that I am not a mental health professional. All the information I impart, here and within the book, is from what I have learnt from several years of research, and has been verified by two clinical psychologists.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a type of complex-PTSD stemming most often from sexual abuse or other trauma, usually repeated and usually in childhood. It is characterised by at least two distinct personality states – or alters – coexisting within the brain and body of one person. Alters take control of the body (fronting) in a process known as switching, which is often accompanied by dissociation: feelings of being detached from reality, amongst others. More information can be found on the NHS website and through organisations such as First Person Plural.
You may have heard of DID through watching the 2016 film Split, starring James McAvoy. In Split, a man with DID kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls. I cannot stress enough that this is a damaging portrayal of DID. While some types of alters can be destructive, it is uncommon, and in fact, from what I’ve learned, they are much more likely to harm themselves than somebody else. Split only served to increase the stigma around and demonisation of DID (and other related mental health conditions).
There is little representation of DID elsewhere in the media. There are some other films about this condition, all of which have also been criticised for inaccurate and over-sensationalised portrayals. (That said, I recently read a thesis by Rebecca Cortez of the University of South Carolina, who argued that this is largely the fault of ‘indiscriminate diagnostic criteria … of inclusion rather than exclusion’. Well worth a read if you’re really intrigued.)
I first became aware of DID in 2017 thanks to the Oprah Winfrey Show, who in 2010 featured a British artist called Kim Noble, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Although the only video I could find of Kim was five minutes long, I was instantly intrigued by this condition of which I had never heard. I bought and read Kim’s autobiography, All of Me, released a year later in 2011, and delved down Internet rabbit-holes reading all about other Dissociative Identity Disorder systems. But I could find no fiction books about, or featuring, it. So I resolved, one day, to write one.
I started my first attempt in mid-2019. It wasn’t particularly good, or particularly accurate – but to be fair, I was just turned sixteen. It was set on a remote island off the coast of Croatia, and it was all a bit bizarre really… but the evolution of The Summer We’ve Had is a topic for another blog post. I scrapped ‘Sitting On A Secret’ (which was its working title) just before the first COVID lockdown, and sat down a few weeks later to start all over again. And the result, after much pruning, processing and editing over the last couple of years, was The Summer We’ve Had. It’s a sunny Sapphic romance in which a woman, Cass, submerged in depression following the death of her mother, moves down to Cornwall and meets her next-door neighbour Felicia, who she soon discovers has DID. When they meet and fall in love… well, what could possibly go wrong?
I was anxious to do it right this time, to present DID as accurately and sensitively as possible. That was why I enlisted the help of two clinical psychologists (Dr Lisa Nolan and Ms Anna Perrin, both of whom I found through Cheshire Psychology) to sensitivity read the book, and tell me whether I was doing it right, and how I could improve. I couldn’t be more grateful for their feedback, because now I feel much more confident that I’m doing the DID community a good turn, rather than a disservice like some other examples of DID in the media.
I acknowledge that this is not a foolproof method. I’m sure that there will be some who think I can improve on, or they may even disagree with, my portrayal of DID. But I’ve done the best I can with the resources I have – especially given that I don’t know and have never met anybody with DID – and I have to go with whatever my sensitivity readers say with regards to whether it’s accurate and beneficial. I have put a full disclaimer to this effect at the start of the book (as well as the full version of the DID debrief I gave you earlier in this post).
On a personal note, yes, it is scary. Never have I been more aware of the power of the written word. But I have to try. Nobody else seems to want to. One of the other most common pieces of advice handed out to writers is ‘write what you want to read’. That has been my guiding principle throughout all of this – I have combined one of my favourite genres (lesbian fiction) with one of my favourite topics.
I just hope it pays off.
The Summer We've Had: A Sunny Sapphic Love Story is available to pre-order as an ebook now! It will be released on January 14th, electronically and as a paperback. Sign up to my newsletter to read an exclusive sneak peek at the end of this month...