TW: Descriptions of self-harm and scars
COVID-19 hitting the UK coincided with my contract ending in a job I loved in the Space Industry. Of course, this was not renewed and I found myself unemployed, and looking for work in the midst of a pandemic. I had worked in the Space Industry as a Thermal Spacecraft Engineer for the past six years, it’s a pretty niche job and there was not much demand for this skill in April 2020. After getting over the shock of my unemployment, and being reassured by my partner’s furlough, I decided to take some time to think about what I really wanted out of my next role. Looking back at the jobs I have had, I realised I loved the research side, the designing something new, and the ability to explore my academic curiosity. This is what convinced me it was time to make that a full-time role – so I applied for a PhD in Energy Storage and started at The University of Southampton in October 2020. It has been the best decision I ever made.
I’ve been self-harming since I was around twelve years old, although I never fully thought of it as self-harm. I would wake up in the morning with new scratches or cuts on my body and think I must have done them in my sleep. As the years went on, the scratches and cuts got more severe. I would black out, and when I ‘woke up’ I would be bleeding, and terrified.
It took years of not trusting myself, not understanding myself, and a ten-week stint as an inpatient in a psychiatric unit to find out what was going on. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – formerly known as multiple personality disorder. So, when triggered, I, Nicole, dissociate, and other parts of my consciousness ‘front’ and control this body. One of those parts self-harms, I call them Stripe. Another part is quite young, likes to play with our cat and order food online – I think their name is Kay.
I only received this diagnosis in 2019, and am working hard in therapy on compassion, communication and understanding of what I am living with – and have lived with – for most of my life.
Commencing Graduate School
Starting my PhD, I was scared about revealing my diagnosis, but I was more scared about Kay taking over in the lab, or in emerging in a meeting with my supervisor. The thought was (and is) so embarrassing: What would they think if they saw me ‘acting’ like a child – would they take me seriously? What about Stripe? What if I’m in the lab and Stripe decides it’s time to self-harm? That could be incredibly dangerous for everyone around.
Another worry was that I just wouldn’t be able to keep up with the workload. It is just me, Nicole, doing this PhD. But my condition means I have less time than other people, as I am somewhat sharing this body with others. It is not just the time lost to other parts, it’s the other symptoms too – the exhaustion, the anxiety, the tension headaches, the depersonalisation, and the time recovering from any wounds that need medical care.
Since starting my PhD, there have been many days ‘lost’ to my condition, being unable to work. Every one of those days I would think that I made the wrong decision, that I’m never going to complete this PhD if I can’t go a week without spending a day in bed or losing time or dealing with the amnesia that comes with dissociating. In December 2020, due to COVID-19 and Brexit, I couldn’t get my SNRI medication for three weeks. For those three weeks I did nothing but sit in a frozen state of anxiety and dissociation. After that I was pretty convinced that the academic world was not for me – that maybe the whole concept of having a job wasn’t for me.
At this point I decided to disclose my condition. My body and face have many scars from the self-harm, and I wanted to own the narrative instead of causing worry to others or have them speculate behind my back. In disclosing, I was able to apply for to Disabled Student’s Allowance, which offers extra support in terms of equipment, software and mentoring to disabled students. There is also a budget for taxis if I am too ill to drive or take public transport, which has made me feel more confident about travelling to campus to carry out work.
Having told my supervisor about my mental health condition, it was such a relief when he was understanding and supportive. When I had to take three weeks off due to my medication mix up, he said that I was on track and making great progress. He said not to work until I felt better. And I believed him, which meant I really could focus on looking after myself.
Disclosing my condition also meant that I now feel safer in the lab environment because people are aware of the risks if Stripe or Kay happen to come up. This hasn’t happened yet, and the thought still fills me with dread and embarrassment, but keeping everyone safe feels more important.
The dread and embarrassment is something I will have to work on in therapy. I have never met the other parts that share this body. I can only report on what I have been told from others. For example, my partner has ‘played’ with Kay or found Stripe in the midst of a self-harming episode, almost in a trance. My partner knows more about my condition than I do – he experiences all of me, whereas I just experience lost time or a black out.
The idea that my supervisor or a colleague might end up interacting with other parts scares me. I have no control over how these parts behave, and, depending on what others’ feel comfortable telling me afterwards, I may never know. As I mentioned though, this hasn’t happened yet, and may never happen, but the anxiety it causes is something I work on often.
Living with DID
DID is often a condition ‘given’ to a villain in TV shows or films. It is often a homicidal ‘alter’ or ‘part’ that is focussed on. But most people with DID, and any mental health condition, are more likely to hurt themselves than others. I don’t mind if you don’t understand the condition – I don’t either, I still occasionally worry that I have made the whole thing up. I don’t mind if you find the condition fascinating – it is, the human brain has so many brilliant ways to deal with trauma and dissociation is one of them. I just want to be accepted as a whole, not ‘just’ Nicole, but also Kay and Stripe and others I am not aware of yet. I talk in first person because it is only me, Nicole, writing this, but we are all here in this body. I identify as a woman but have no idea what the others identify as. I use They/Them pronouns to acknowledge my multiplicity, and my ignorance to the genders of other parts.
I don’t ask for your understanding, but I ask for your acceptance and respect.
I am eight months into my PhD and have already submitted a paper to a journal. I know that I am more than capable of completing this degree. My condition has taught me efficiency in my work, and acceptance for my limitations. I have been lucky in that my supervisory team and peers are accepting and supportive. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, and it hasn’t always been the case for me in previous jobs.
I also run a little non-profit, providing support to those in the UK who struggle to get mental health care through the NHS. It’s new but we are growing slowly, so check us out.
If you know someone living with DID, or any disability or mental health condition really, my best advice is to just believe them. If someone says they can’t do something, you don’t need to question it – disclosing is difficult and people are unlikely to lie about something so stigmatised. If I tell you my limitations, I’m not looking for motivation or positivity. I don’t see my limitations as negative, they are a fact, and I’m telling you so we can work together to get around them. For me, my supervisor listened, believed me, and worked to help put things in place to support me. There was no battle with him – just a pragmatic response and a true desire to enable me to do the work he knew I was capable of.
Nicole Melzack is a Postgraduate Researcher at The University of Southampton and The Faraday Institution, where they are looking into energy storage alternatives. Their work focuses on aqueous aluminium-ion batteries, and their charge storage behaviour. Nicole is also focussed on assessing the environmental impacts of creating energy storage systems – as we need to ensure a sustainable solution for the future of global energy provision. In their spare time, Nicole plays with her cat and enjoys aerial acrobatics. Nicole is living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and runs a non-profit which provides practical support and workshops for those living with mental ill-health.