Mental health

Inside TikTok’s booming dissociative identity disorder community

Influencers who say they have DID, once known as multiple personality disorder, are a vocal — and controversial — presence on the app.

Jonathan Knowles/Stone/Getty Images

When speaking with someone as upbeat and energetic as Asher, a member of the Texas-based TikTok collective The A System, it’s difficult, at first, to understand how such a positive person has attracted so much controversy.

But like many high-profile influencers on the platform, Asher and his cohort have been the target of vitriol. “Being called fake once or twice can be rough, but being called fake thousands of times can eat at you,” says Asher, who is dark-haired and bespectacled. “People have said that we need to be executed.”

Asher, however, is not part of a typical influencer collective. He is one of many members of a 29-person “system,” all of whom share a single body, brain, and life. Each person, or “alter,” in the system is a distinct form of consciousness. This group of identities live together in the body of a 31-year-old man diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder. The A System’s account — by far the biggest in the DID TikTok community — has amassed 1.1 million followers since February 2021.

Asher, who calls himself “the best alter,” acts as the “emotional protector” of The A System. Aged 22, he is what the community calls “frozen,” in that he does not age in the same way his body does. Other members of the system include Alex, the deep-voiced fan favorite, 32; April, a Starbucks-loving female alter who often controls the body during showers, 20; and Art, a young woman obsessed with succulent plants and Pokémon, 18.

The entire system belongs to Chris, the “host” of the system and the person who has been diagnosed with DID. (For privacy reasons, Input is withholding the full names of the hosts interviewed in this story). The A System makes videos with the assistance of Chris’ wife, Sam, who appears in videos on both The A System’s TikTok account and her own, @systemspouse. Sam has different relationships with different alters in the system depending on their age and sexuality, but is only married to Chris.

Art initially started the group’s TikTok account in an effort to meet other people with DID, but Asher has since taken over. “It was very unexpected how fast we blew up on TikTok,” Asher says. “That was a complete shock to everybody. That is why Art no longer does this.”

DID is a rare condition. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013, estimates that 1.5 percent of American adults experience DID in a 12-month period.

Dr. Robert T. Muller, a professor of clinical psychology at York University in Toronto and author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth, explains that DID develops in childhood. “This could be somebody who experienced severe sexual abuse repeatedly from a caregiver or someone who was in a war situation and witnessed ongoing interpersonal trauma,” he says. “Individuals who have sustained experiences of trauma for long periods of time — where they have no control or escape — develop other personalities in order to cope.”

People with DID often have amnesia around childhood memories linked to their trauma, and many are still unlocking these through therapy. Art posted a video a few months back explaining why questioning people on trauma is “not ever a good thing” to do. “This is gonna sound incredibly strange because of our platform, but we’re very private people,” Asher tells Input. He draws a distinction between the public parts of DID influencing (such as alters and switching) and more personal parts (like severe childhood trauma).

Despite its rarity, DID has captured a place in the popular imagination, and has been portrayed hyperbolically on screen. Films like 2016’s Split — in which James McAvoy plays a murderous person with DID who is trying to destroy the world — have been met with disdain by clinicians and community members for their dramatic portrayal of DID patients as deceitful and dangerous. “Most people with DID do not harm others,” says Muller. “The vast majority, if they’re going to harm anybody, are going to harm themselves.”

Other recent, high-profile examples of the disorder include 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord’s revelation of her DID diagnosis, and a feud that erupted between YouTuber Trisha Paytas and the DID community at the end of 2020. Paytas was accused of faking DID and spreading misinformation about the condition.

DID TikTok, meanwhile, has grown dramatically in the last year, with dozens of systems — generally living in the bodies of people aged 30 or younger — posting regularly on the platform, which is used by 48 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29. (It seems that many TikTok creators have taken inspiration from the DID YouTubers who came before them.) Systems often have names for themselves, such as Sage System, The Lavender System, and Ghostghang. Common hashtags include #did (910 million views), #dissociativeindentitydisorder (541 million views), and #didsystem (307 million views).

The online community has not charmed everyone, though, and there is skepticism about DID’s presentation on TikTok. Increasingly, charges are being made — sometimes from within the community itself — that influencers are faking the disorder for fame.

“I get so many comments from people saying, ‘Why does everyone have DID all of a sudden?’” says 28-year-old Chelsea, the Kentucky-based host of A familiar world, a DID system of 12. The system includes three child alters under the age of 10 (Katie, Clara, and Nadine), as well as teenagers AnaGrace, Shelby, Dani, Effy, and Lucy. Their account has attracted more than 172,000 followers since March 2021.

“It doesn’t happen all of a sudden,” Chelsea explains. “We’ve always had it. We just didn’t feel safe enough to come out.” Despite the abuse and scrutiny the systems are often subject to, TikTok is a relatively safe — and freeing — space for the DID community.

The act of switching

Chelsea initially sought out TikTok as a way to explore her system’s DID diagnosis. After watching videos of The A System — and with the encouragement of her supportive wife Lacey, who also appears in her videos — she decided to start posting.

“I was so embarrassed that I acted five,” Chelsea says, recounting early experiences of “switching” with her excitable and horse-loving child alter Clara. “Five-year-olds are whiny and hungry and want to play,” she says. “As an adult, it was hard for people to see me that way.”

Switching is the act of changing between alters who “front,” or control, the body. This phenomenon features heavily in the videos of DID TikTokers, seemingly a key attraction for curious viewers. Sometimes during livestreams — when rapid switches between alters can be confusing for viewers — alters change name tags or clothing to externally signify what’s going on inside each system’s mind.

“We’re not exciting people, but with having DID and how often we switch — we switch 50 to 75 times a day — people are just interested in how we make it through a day,” Asher says.

Making it through the day with DID can be difficult. “Our communication between alters was horrible in the beginning, and it has improved a lot,” Asher says. “We can actually talk now, and we can work better as a team.” This ability for a system’s alters to communicate with each other is called “co-consciousness.” It’s something that is developed in therapy, although achieving it does not completely address the complex problems that systems face each day.

“I’m lucky enough to be in the right gender body,” Asher says of his situation. “That is not a luxury that Art and April get.” April in particular has made emotional videos about her experiences of dysphoria within Chris’ body. For alters like April, whose gender does not match her body, being seen for who she is on TikTok has been life-changing.

Asher has had a similar experience. “I can get on a video right now, not introduce myself as Asher, and people will know who they’re talking to,” he gushes. “The fact that I don’t even have to introduce myself and tens of thousands of people know — they can tell me and Chris apart — is incredibly validating.”

The A System and many others on TikTok view each alter as their own unique person with as much right to a life in the body as the system’s host. They aim for a state of being called “multiplicity,” in which a system’s alters can live harmoniously by sharing the body. Experts and clinicians, however, think that this mindset is unusual — and could be detrimental to the health of people with DID.

“I’ve never worked with someone with DID who has felt it to be an okay way of living,” Muller says when asked about multiplicity. “The DID clients I’ve worked with have found their DID to be a state of profound suffering.” He did not, however, rule out the possibility of multiplicity working. “I would never want to impose a version of self upon somebody that they don’t themselves actually endorse,” he says. “Just because I’ve never seen it, doesn’t make it untrue.”

Areli — the 25-year-old host of The Cloud, a system of eight that has 52,600 followers — feels the stance presented by Muller is an outdated one. “Formerly it was very common that the treatment for DID was to progress towards what we call final fusion, where all the identity states become one,” she explains. “Nowadays, a lot of therapists are embracing functional multiplicity as either a portion of their treatment process or the final goal.”

“Getting medical advice from people on TikTok is not my clinical recommendation.”

Dr. Panagiota Korenis, associate professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, isn’t so convinced by this line of thinking. “Just letting the multiples sort of co-exist within the one body, I don’t necessarily think it’s the healthiest thing to do and I’m not necessarily sure that it’s sustainable,” she says. “Just because you’ve integrated doesn’t mean that you lose out on all those wonderful parts of your personality.

“Getting medical advice from people on TikTok,” Korenis adds, “is not my clinical recommendation.”

Skepticism abounds

Amid all the usual TikTok drama, influencers often deal with something called “fakeclaiming” — the act of accusing someone of pretending to have dissociative identity disorder for the sake of attention. The subreddit r/DIDCringe is one place where users share videos that they claim show DID TikTokers, including the ones featured in this article, do not have DID.

Although all the influencers interviewed for this piece have links to their respective Venmo and PayPal accounts listed on their profiles, they reject charges that they’re doing this to make some cash. “If you’re in it for the money, you better find something else,” Asher says with a laugh. “There’s no way I could quit my job. I have to clean toilets every day.”

Is there a possibility that some systems are faking it? It seems that the greatest scrutiny comes from within the community itself. “Unfortunately, systems do fakeclaim other systems,” The Cloud host Areli says. “I think a lot of it has to do with self-doubt. Like, if I can disprove this other system, then it means that I’m more valid because of our differences.”

“I don’t want to not be who we are just because somebody else might think it’s weird or will not believe it.”

Muller suggests that the act of sharing a DID diagnosis in itself could mean some systems aren’t being completely honest. “When people talk about DID openly, I don’t know what to make of that,” he says. “I would approach that with skepticism.” However, the prospect did excite him. “It would be interesting for me to work with someone like that — if it were true — to see what it means to share it so openly,” he says. “What purpose does it serve for them?”

Korenis also expressed fascination with the DID TikTok community. “I think it takes a lot of courage on the part of the individual to comment and share what it is they’re experiencing,” she says. “It’s not an easy process at all.”

A familiar world host Chelsea says being out about her condition on TikTok has helped her with her struggles. “Having the support and room to let all of us be ourselves has helped our confidence grow immensely,” she says. For Chelsea, who describes her initial diagnosis as “terrifying” and “overwhelming,” this support and acceptance has been key to changing her system’s mindset about DID.

“I don’t want to not be who we are just because somebody else might think it’s weird or will not believe it,” she says. “We are not the same system we were when we started TikTok.”

The bad parts

On DID TikTok, the disorder often comes across like a lighthearted state of being, in stark contrast to the way it is spoken about by clinicians and other people who live with it: Each system presents a cast of colorful characters, often squabbling over the body that they share. On occasion, systems let down their guard and post about the emotional turmoil that comes with DID — but these videos are often not as popular.

The A System’s April addressed the appearance-versus-reality issue in a video posted a few months back. “There are a lot of bad parts that you do not see: the panic attacks, the anxiety that comes with this,” she said. “You see what we’re comfortable in sharing.”

The Cloud host Areli, whose posts often poke fun at the experience of living with DID, says that being on TikTok is a tough balancing act. “If you present a lot of the lighthearted side of DID, then you’re glorifying the disorder,” she says. “And if you show a lot of the serious side of it, then you’re demonizing it — or you’re faking. You really can’t win in that way.”

In May, The A System shared the more serious side of things, revealing that they had been in an in-patient psychiatric ward for treatment. They admitted that the system had been shielding followers from their hardships for a number of weeks. In one video, Asher emphasized that TikTok had nothing to do with the system’s recent hospitalization. “Did social media cause the breakdown?” Asher said, addressing the system’s legion of followers. “No, you guys are great. This is like therapy for me!”

Sadly, the statement has not aged well. The A System recently celebrated reaching one million followers, but with them came more intense criticism. The pressure of fame on social media, and the bullying that comes with it, has led to The A System to develop a new alter, named Alice, in order to help the system cope.

“I’ve dealt with severe bullying my whole life,” Chris, The A System’s little-heard-from host, said in his latest video. “I think people are upset that we’re happy. I think people are upset that we are succeeding. You can live a happy life and have DID. It is not one or the other.”

Chris takes comfort in The A System’s online friendships with other DID systems. He — and Asher and Alex and April and Art and all the other alters — aren’t going to let the naysayers stop them now.