In April 1996, I began a course of psychotherapy with a woman named Angela. She came to the first session with vague feelings of anxiety and the need to “find a safe place.” This seemed usual enough for me after 20-some years in practice. Little did I know that our first meeting was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary therapeutic journeys I would ever encounter.
Although Angela had always suspected something was different about her, she did not realize that she had multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder). She only knew that she was filled with fear much of the time and that there were large gaps in her memory.
Early in our work together, Angela had a dream of being in a bicycle repair shop — a wondrous place with huge escalators carrying bicycles here and there to be repaired. After watching many bicycles come in damaged and leave repaired, Angela asked the owner of the shop (me) if all bicycles could be repaired. In the dream, I answered “Yes.” When Angela showed me her own bicycle, which to her seemed hopelessly damaged, my response in the dream was, “There are no bicycles beyond repair.”
This was the message Angela needed to begin her therapeutic adventure. Through the course of her recovery, in which she integrated more than 70 personalities and opened up into one of the most spiritual people I have ever met, I deepened my own conviction that, truly, that are no “bicycles” beyond repair. In other words, there are no souls that cannot be healed and no injuries that cannot transform into a higher level of understanding and peace.
The early part of our work together was simple and straightforward: Angela needed to know that there existed such a thing as “a love that didn’t hurt.” It was hard for her to trust that our therapeutic relationship could be the safe place she was looking for, that she could dare to start whispering family secrets without reprisal, that, together, we could be bigger and stronger than her fears.
Angela began her life as the victim of extreme abuses, as is true for most people with multiple personalities. From the time Angela was 4, her father, whom she trusted like any innocent child would, began sexually abusing her, while her mother stood by in passive compliance. When Angela resisted, her father threatened her, saying the devil would take her away if she did not agree to what he wanted to do and, in fact, if she did not enjoy it. At such a vulnerable age, Angela managed to do the impossible — she held in her screams and learned to say “thank you” and “I love you” in response to these abuses.
As these kinds of extreme torments continued, Angela forced her natural expression of self deeper and deeper down until, one day, she found a new solution: She would “project” herself into a certain picture that was hanging on the wall, a picture of a beautiful angel protecting a little girl and boy. Angela would make herself the little girl and her brother the little boy and bring the angel to life in her mind. She would do this so thoroughly that, for a time, she could live in that picture and escape her torture.
At a certain point in her therapy, Angela felt compelled to chronicle and perhaps publish her story. This served two purposes. First, she would be able to reach out to others — those with multiple personalities and those who simply needed to find their way through emotional struggle. She wanted to offer the help she was finding in her own recovery. Second, sharing her story would be a powerful way to take a stand against the thought that she needed to preserve the family secrets and stay victimized by them. That book, The Bicycle Repair Shop: A True Story of Recovery From Multiple Personality Disorder as Told by Patient and Therapist, became a reality.
In notes that Angela shared with me after the book was published, she provided the rarest of accounts of how the first moment of splitting off (dissociating) occurred:
One day, my father’s touches were worse than ever. His huge body pressing against mine was more than I could bear. … The pain grew greater until [the point of] what I thought was my last breath. I felt as if my arms were being yanked, pulling my body from its skin — my insides were separating from my outside to pull my body from the spot where I sat. My legs felt as if they were bolted to the ground. It was as though someone was trying to pull me from the other end out of my skin.
I was surprised to find myself standing in a picture that hung in my bedroom. A picture of a Guardian Angel watching over two children. Where was I? Who was it that was still with my father? I was not aware of what was going on. All I knew was that I was safe. The memory of what was happening before was successfully erased. That was how “four” was born, my first personality of many.
This remarkable description shows the adaptive function of multiple personalities: When one personality could no longer stand the circumstance of the moment, a new one would take over. This was the strategy Angela would use to grow her “family within” to help her navigate the abuses she was being exposed to.
Meeting Angela’s personalities
Through her therapy, Angela came to understand how each of these personalities was created to fulfill a specific role, protecting her from some unique threat that she could not handle by herself. In this way, she would simply stop “being” Angela and become someone who could better handle the situation.
First, there were “the little ones” — all children — including Four, Six, Schoolgirl and Crystal. Four was the first one I met, an absolutely adorable, sweet little girl who wanted nothing but to feel safe and loved. She was clearly terrified and felt solace only in my presence. When I would go away on vacation, for instance, her pain was so great that she could not tolerate it and would go “underground.”
Crystal, on the other hand, was immune to such pain. She was a beautiful little girl with curly blond hair and bright blue eyes (different in physical appearance than the others). Her strategy was to imagine that she was not, in fact, part of this family. She fully expected that she would be rescued by her “true” family any minute and taken away from the abuses.
Then there was Patrick. He was one of only two male personalities whom I met. In creating Patrick to be gay, Angela was imagining a model of a male who could be gentle, nurturing and safe.
The Boss was the other male personality, and his function was to “control” the children. In manner and even appearance (Angela’s face would change dramatically whenever the Boss showed up), he was like a classic Chicago mob boss. I must confess, I felt rather intimidated by him at the beginning. Later, however, I managed to convince him that I was an ally, someone who could help him find a better way to keep the children in place through understanding and meeting their needs. You can imagine his resistance, but in the end, we became a great team. (At one point, after we became “friends,” the Boss confessed to me in a hushed voice, “I’m working on getting rid of these.” He was referring to Angela’s breasts.) This was one of the rare occasions in which Angela’s external reality and the inner life of her creation did clash. Still, she was working on a “solution” that would enable her to keep her constructed world intact.
Eventually, three personalities came forth as those who would stand “out front”— those who would interact with the world — while the rest stayed inside to manage Angela’s inner experience. Angela, of course, was the primary personality, and she was the one who would take responsibility for handling the affairs of everyday life. Angie, on the other hand, was a party-loving, sexually profligate personality whose purpose was to have a good time and forget all troubles. She was especially skilled at “knowing what men wanted” and used these wiles to get men to do her bidding. At the other extreme was Angel, a spiritual personality who would remind the rest that they were safe and loved in God’s care. Angel would become a most important presence in Angela’s recovery because this spiritual aspect led the way to her final experiences of forgiveness.
At a later point in therapy, a personality was needed to “house” the others in a more neatly integrated whole. This was one of the few times in which I actually witnessed the creation of a new personality. The personality wanted to choose a name for itself that would bring it to life, so to speak, and it came up with Tang — a combination of Todd (my name) and Angela. This, she explained, was the result of my saying to the family, “I need you not to make any decisions without me because I am part of the family” — a necessary prevention against Angela trying to hurt herself or sabotage the therapy in some way.
Tang was a fascinating entity, representing the point at which Angela was 99% integrated. Angela described this sensation as if there were a body inside of her body that almost completely filled her up. There was just “1%” of space between them inside.
She also allowed the little ones at this point to create a magnificent collage. They knew they were about to “disappear” into the one personality that was Tang, and they wanted to be remembered this way. The collage showed what they felt inside: a single body with many faces, some happy, some sad, some shy and some covered with bugs who had been very afraid. Angela once told me that upon my calling Tang’s name, all the eyes of these faces opened up at the same time to look in response.
One by one the personalities came forth to express their need and tell their story. As Angela and I understood their core message, we were able to find a way to meet the need that was more adaptive. This required that Angela bravely face the fears that had been too horrible to withstand in childhood, trusting that it was safe to do so now. Borrowing my strength and trusting my words — that the people and circumstances of these memories could not stop her from standing up to them with my support — she did what she couldn’t dare do back then.
With a new and profound belief in her right to be free, she stood up to the abuses and said “Enough.” One personality even took on the name Shark to show her teeth and “devour” the fear that they represented. As Angela looked at her fears this way, always in manageable doses, she gave herself the message that she was no longer at their mercy, and one by one, the personalities that had been born to manage these fears would fulfill their purpose and integrate back into Angela.
With the right combination of safety and support, Angela was able to discover the great secret of all healing: When we face our fears, they lose their power over us. At worst, we find a problem that now can be managed. Often, the fear disappears completely because it can no longer scare us into running away from it. In this way, we find ourselves to be “bigger” than the fear, and so its illusion is exposed. It was but an imagination, given power by our refusal to look at it, with no actual ability to harm our true Self.
This was the freedom that gave Angela the power to forgive her abusers (there was nothing left to forgive), integrate the personalities (they no longer had a function), and live in a world she now knew to be safe, manageable and, in the end, sometimes even fun.
In writing the book, Angela wanted others to hear the message that facing our fears is the key to freedom, that nothing can rob us of our ability to choose how we respond to life and to declare our right to be who we truly are. With this, we integrate the fractured parts of our own personality and find our own sense of wholeness, completion and fulfillment.
Throughout our work, Angela would repeat to me, “I want to be one of your success stories.” Many times, she felt the way was too difficult, but as I continued to hold a safe place for her, she developed the courage to face her fears one by one, dismantling the entire structure of her constructed “personality” and reclaiming her original innocence and wholeness.
In the end, she discovered that facing her fears made it possible to forgive, not in the sense of merely accepting those who had abused her, but in the much more profound sense of realizing that they, too, were in need of love, and that holding onto her anger and pain simply kept her a perpetual victim of their abuse. Only with this realization was she free to ask for the love she had once known as a little child of 4, and in asking, find that it was, in fact, still available in the world. With this, she was able to integrate that love and become whole again, to replace the path of disintegration into many fragments that she had chosen before. This integration of love, “a love that doesn’t hurt,” awakened a profound sense of spirituality within her. She is now, in fact, one of the most peaceful, loving and spiritual people I know.
Todd E. Pressman has been a licensed psychologist for the past 32 years. He is the founder and director of Pressman and Associates at Logos Wellness in Voorhees, New Jersey. An author and speaker, he co-wrote The Bicycle Repair Shop: A True Story of Recovery From Multiple Personality Disorder as Told by Patient and Therapist with Angela Fisher, who, during the course of her recovery, felt the need to share her story so that it might be of help to “anyone who wants to get free.” Pressman’s forthcoming book, Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey From Fear to Fulfillment, will be available in August. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through toddpressman.com.