Vivian Conan was just a teenager when she started talking to different faces in the mirror. She felt unreal and disconnected, and went to a trusted teacher for help.
That was the start of the Brooklyn-born writer’s attempts at an explanation for symptoms that have plagued her since childhood.
In her debut book Losing the Atmosphere: A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood, Conan documents her journey through family trauma, mental illness, misdiagnosis and her eventual diagnosis with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
Conan grew up in Bensonhurst in a large Greek-Jewish family post-WWII. She had a problematic relationship with her parents, craving their affection and empathy, but found a saving grace in her relationships with her grandmother and cousins, she said. By the age of 5, she developed an imaginary world that she called the atmosphere.
“The atmosphere was populated by anybody who I thought was a kind person. It could be a fairy godmother in a fairy tale. It could be a teacher who was nice to me. It could be anybody,” she said. “I had all these imaginary people and they weren’t really in bodies they were just floating loose, I didn’t know at the time that this was symptom, I just knew that this was protecting me and this was making me feel better.”
As a teenager, Conan would stand in front of her bedroom mirror and talk to faces that weren’t her own, and she said she always envisioned the people in the atmosphere listening and watching.
“I realized there was something wrong talking to the people in the mirror, but I didn’t realize the atmosphere was a problem,” she said.
“The thing about multiple personality disorder is that it’s very adaptive. When you’re in a traumatic situation, it helps you deal with it, dissociation helps you partition off what is upsetting, so the other part of you that doesn’t know about the trauma can still get dressed and go to school and have friends and be a regular, normal person; so I looked like a regular normal person.”
But even as a teen Conan said she didn’t feel normal, and she wrote a letter to her English teacher describing the faces in the mirror. Despite promising not to tell her parents, the teacher told Conan’s mother, and that was the start of her time in therapy.
Over many decades Conan was misdiagnosed, including with schizophrenia, put on numerous medications, and hospitalized for a mental illness that remained a mystery to her, and her therapists. She maintained a successful professional life, but said at “the same time the other half of me was ragingly crazy and sick”.
“It always made me feel like something was missing, I felt like there was a giant plexiglass wall that stretched from the ground to the sky, and I was on one side of it and the rest of society was on the other.”
It wasn’t until Conan was 46 years old that she discovered she had dissociative identity disorder, and the breakthrough came as she watched the film Sybil, based on a character with multiple personality disorder, and related completely.
Her therapist confirmed the diagnosis, but didn’t have the experience to work with her, so she did research to find the right person to work with. Along the way, she found many therapists were turned off by disorder, or didn’t believe in it. “That was a big journey, and once I’d found the right person then I had to dismantle the whole structure that I’d lived with my whole life, and you can’t do that all at once, you have to do it little by little.”
Conan said many people were afraid of the mentally ill, especially those with multiple personality disorder, in a large part thanks to the media sensationalizing it in crime stories. In reality, she said, people with the disorder had a lot of coconsciousness, and had a lot of trauma they needed to deal with.
“I wanted people to see that it’s very difficult to live with a mental illness and live in the world,” she said. “I’m just a regular person, I’m a person who might be in line in front of you in the supermarket, I might be sitting next to you on the subway, and I’m trying to live my life, I’m not a scary person.”
Conan said her biggest fear with the new memoir was coming out to her family, but their responses had been overwhelmingly positive. “My nephew, who is in his 30s, told me he had always heard that I was quote institutionalized unquote when I was young. He said now he understood it, I found it was very, very clearing for me to let my family read it.”
Losing the Atmosphere: A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood, printed by Greenpoint Press, will go on sale on September 1st. For more information visit VivianConan.com.
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