From Pieces to Peace
By Terre Seuss
At age 60, Josie Decker is beating the odds.
From her small town beginning, through a turbulent childhood, on through two failed marriages, Ms. Decker has battled sexual and physical abuse, social prejudice, alcohol abuse, mental illness and those who have said she was too old to overcome her past. Recently, I sat down with this incredible woman and talked about her journey, her bright new life, and her thoughts on the future.
Josie's earliest memories are of a loving home filled with her mother's piano music and a strict but loving father. She tells stories of various relatives and friends who lived with the family through tough times. Her mother suffered various chronic illnesses-- some related to unsuccessful pregnancies-- others more serious. Josie fondly recalls her Aunt Ellen who often cared for Josie and her siblings.
Josie recalls to me the absolute joy of jumping off the cattle chute, feeling as though she were flying-- as though she were floating on air and would never touch the ground. But her childhood was also overshadowed with dark moments, filled with pain, sadness and crushing guilt. Early in life, Josie often felt like an outsider in her family and in her community.
Unbeknownst to her parents, Josie was sexually abused by one of her uncles while working on his farm each summer. In a time and place where no one talked about such things, she felt isolated and different from other children. Subjected to the damaging litany delivered by her uncle, Josie felt guilty and "bad", believing she had caused his harmful behavior.
As her own judge and jury, Josie had convicted herself in the death of a playmate. Josie and a few older children enjoyed playing in the train yard. A younger child who often tagged along was killed in a tragic accident when he fell from a moving train and was crushed on the tracks. In Josie's mind, even more proof that she was bad.
At age 12, she began drinking to numb the pain. At first, she drank only once or twice a week. By high school, Josie was drunk every day. Thus fueling the fires that would allow the townspeople to brand her as the "bad girl" she believed she was.
As a misfit in her own community, Josie hung out with the rough crowd from a neighboring town. Believing that she might as well live up to her dark reputation, she often engaged herself in extremely dangerous activities. Drag racing on country roads, scaling the city's water tower to get drunk, and unchecked promiscuity became routine and held no threat of harm to her. Stealing cars, damaging property and other illegal activities were her prime source of entertainment. She believed she was invincible. And should that somehow not be the case, who would care if she died? Surviving a collision with a bridge abutment while traveling 90 miles an hour only reinforced her beliefs.
Josie's unchecked promiscuity led to her rape by a local boy. She became pregnant as a result of the rape. Her parents forced her to put the baby up for adoption.
Josie's first love was a young teenage girl. Josie recounts, "In a small town in the 1950's you just didn't have those kind of relationships. Gay activity was simply not accepted. Queers were sick... crazy... someone you didn't want to be around. Nell and I would have been completely shunned if anyone had known about us."
The relationship lasted nearly three years before the young girls were caught kissing. Their parents were told. Each girl's parents insisted that they not see each other. Under the strain and embarrassment following her parents' discovery of the affair, Nell drowned herself in a local lake. Again, Josie blamed herself for the death of a friend.
From that point on, Josie attempted to live life as "the good girl". Feeling that she owed this to her parents for all the trouble she had caused them, she married Carl, a young man from a large, nearby city. Two children and 16 years later, she divorced him. When asked what caused the breakdown of the marriage, Josie answered, "Sometimes I still wonder that myself. Carl was a good man. He took good care of his family and treated me like a queen. Anything I needed, he gave me. I had all the freedom I wanted. Maybe he was too good to me. I wasn't used to being treated that way by men."
Influenced by pressure from very concerned friends, Josie quit drinking. Sober and restless, Josie decided to look for work. Carl did not approve of her attempts to find work. He left when she was hired to drive a city bus. Josie explained, "He was a polish immigrant who strongly believed that women only work when their husbands aren't able to support them. It was a blow to his manhood when I got a job". The 16 year marriage ended.
When asked about her second husband, Rick, Josie simply replied, "It was a disaster." She married a man ten years younger than herself. After helping him secure custody of his two children, the relationship turned sour. Rick became physically, verbally and emotionally abusive. He often beat Josie into unconsciousness. Feeling trapped and hopeless, Josie worked longer hours in order to spend less time at home. An unplanned pregnancy ended in abortion. Josie was terrified of bringing another child into this dangerous situation.
Six years into the second marriage, Rick's children were taken away. Rick was convicted of sexual assault on a minor. He had abused both of his children and subsequently spent two and a half years in prison. Convinced by Rick's daughter that the family could be salvaged, Josie entered family therapy. When the therapy was unsuccessful, Josie divorced him.
Deeply in debt from paying Rick's legal expenses and the therapy bills, Josie again buried herself in work. After divorcing Rick, Josie's life was totally out of control. One of her children was going through a difficult divorce, and Josie felt as though she could not survive without Rick. She went into therapy again, looking for peace, and a chance to start over. But most of all, looking for explanations.
More and more, Josie had been suffering from what she thought were blackouts. Josie explained, "I would leave home, intending to go for a little ride. Driving relaxed me. Then I'd realize that I had been gone for a couple days, had used two tanks of gas, and didn't know where I had been. I just thought it was stress, and maybe damage done during my years of heavy drinking."
She found herself angry and hostile, even violent nearly all the time. It was commonplace for her to punch holes in walls, often harming herself. On one occasion, Josie became irritated with a driver who appeared to be ignoring a "no left turn" sign during rush hour. Angered by the infraction, Josie jumped out of her truck, stomped up to the driver and demanded that the driver open her window. When the confused motorist complied, Josie punched her in face, then returned to her own vehicle and left the scene. Shaken by the incident, and afraid she would be arrested, Josie called her therapist and was admitted to the psychiatric unit at a local hospital.
For the next several years, Josie continued her therapy. She also moved through several incorrect diagnoses. Doctors speculated about Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, and Manic Depression; even a suggestion that she might have Schizophrenia. Regardless of the diagnosis or treatments, Josie's "blackouts" and violent outbursts continued. Her risk taking behavior from her teen years was alive and well--frequently putting her in harm's way.
Finally, after a particularly frightening incident while on the job, driving a city bus, Josie was referred to a psychiatrist who was able to zero in on a correct diagnosis for Josie. At age 53, Josie was told she was suffering from a Dissociative Disorder, Multiple Personality Disorder ( or MPD, currently referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder, DID).
DID a rare form of dissociative disorder, is often caused by severe trauma experienced as a child. Memories are repressed by the victim and alternate personalities are "created" to deal with the pain and emotions caused by repeated severe trauma.
A truly rare disorder, DID allows the survivor to be totally unaware that these separate and functioning people exist in her own mind. Thus creating "lost time," apparent blackouts and often confusion over stories told to the sufferer by friends who have witnessed the behavior of alternate personalities. Acceptance of the diagnosis itself is an incredibly difficult hurdle.
Thus began Josie's therapy in earnest. Doctors and therapists didn't hold much hope for Josie. On several occasions she was told that therapy would be difficult, if not impossible, at her age. She was told that she had lived with the disorder so long that it would not be likely for her complete the intensive therapy required to deal with the effects of the abuse she suffered, or the way she had learned to deal with it.
But Josie Decker didn't give up. She had survived years of unhappiness with no explanation. She had lived through humiliating and confusing situations with no clue as to why they had happened. She had large blank spaces in her memory that she desperately wished to recall. Though some of those blackouts could have been attributed to her drinking, many could not. It frightened her to have such little control over herself. Josie could not recall the births of either of her children, her own high school graduation, or her first wedding (which she was very late for after being called away from a poker game by her father). People would speak to her on the street and Josie would be frustrated at not knowing who they were, though they obviously knew her. She was confused about clothing in her closet that she had no memory of buying, let alone wearing. But most of all, that hot, red rage that overcame her at the slightest provocation, terrified her.
For nearly two years, Josie continued her therapy with Dr. Nichols, and Marie, her therapist. Unfortunately for Josie, this course of therapy became harmful, even abusive at times. Dr. Nichols and her staff had rather unorthodox methods for treating DID. Josie participated in a day program, run by Dr. Nichols, where she met a large number of patients who were also diagnosed (some misdiagnosed) with DID. The doctor had very rigid ideas about how therapy should be done, including the insistence that her patients quit their jobs, apply for disability and devote all of their time to getting well.
Frequent hospitalizations, individual and group therapy several times each week were ordered. Josie was continuously told she would never get well and would not even be able to keep herself safe without the Nichols program. As a result of this Josie lost her job with the bus company after 18 years of service. Even with the help of an attorney Josie was not able to retain her job. When it became impossible for her to pay her therapy bills, the doctor insisted that she take out a loan, with the hospital as a cosigner, in order to pay for the mounting debt.
Eventually, Josie left the care of Dr. Nichols. Deeper in debt and convinced that she had been misdiagnosed in order to finance Dr. Nichols unhealthy program, Josie sought out another therapist. In addition to the childhood traumas, Josie was then faced with the task of undoing the damage inflicted by Dr. Nichols. Her first order of business was to clear up the misunderstanding about her MPD diagnosis. Much to her disappointment, the new therapist confirmed the diagnosis.
With the help of her new therapist, Josie eventually took the hospital to court and was discharged from the loan the doctor had insisted she apply for. The hospital backed off when it was discovered that Josie had been coerced into taking the loan.
With the new therapist, Josie was able to deal with her Multiplicity in a safe, healthy way. She recalled the traumas of her childhood. She learned to recognize and deal with the unhealthy behaviors she had learned as a result of those painful situations. With the help of the new therapist, she was able to participate in a healthy support group. She even convinced a few patients from Dr. Nichols program to join this new group, in an attempt to heal the wounds created by that situation. She came to understand the reasons for her drinking and began to fill in the blocks of lost time. After two years of hard work and a serious commitment to becoming whole, Josie integrated all of her alternate personalities into one strong, vital woman. Her new life could begin.
Josie fell in love with someone she describes as "a brilliant, talented and loving woman." They have lived together, happily, for the past five years. She has worked hard to return to gainful employment and is no longer on disability. In her spare time, she builds doll houses--something she never imagined she could have the patience for. She supports her son's motorcycle racing hobby and loves to travel. Josie is sharing the parenting duties for her partner's two children. She enjoys her two grandchildren immensely and is pursuing new interests with passion and gratitude. She's proud to be able to say, "This time around, I will remember it all; the joy and the pain. It is truly a wondrous to feeling to know where you've been and to dream about where you're going".
I asked Josie if she had any words for someone who's dealing with DID-- most particularly those who begin therapy late in life. She said:
"Find someone who knows how to deal with DID in a very gentle, understanding way; someone who doesn't force you to remember, but gives you time to take it in small pieces and allows you to keep yourself safe as you remember.
No matter how long it takes, it's worth it. If you can find somebody who is willing to take the time with you, it's definitely worth it. Don't let someone tell you that you have to quit your job, or that you're disabled. Multiple Personality Disorder is about being functional; not handicapped. If it weren't, you would never have made it this far. It's worth the long hard fight to finally have peace of mind instead of a mind in pieces."
Copyright by Terre Seuss
Reprinted with Permission
Dedicated to all those travelers
Death & Grief
Panic & Anxiety