How childhood abuse led to a head teacher living with multiple personality disorder

Ruth Dee was a successful head teacher for nine years
when she had a catastrophic breakdown. It was only then that she admitted to the appalling abuse she suffered as a child and extraordinary coping mechanism she use to hide it all her life

Less than seven years ago Ruth Dee, aged 50, was the head teacher of a large special-needs school in the Midlands, chairing meetings, managing a staff room and troubleshooting the stressful problems that come with educating children outside the mainstream system.

With years of experience behind her, she was respected for her clear thinking, for her ability to be both decisive and considered, and for the way she found it easy to form a connection with and control the often severely disturbed children in her care. She had a husband, three almost grown-up children, stepchildren, friends, a house. Ruth Dee had a life, although all that was about to end. As she recalls now, she came to see her catastrophic mental break-down in 2002 as a "time for her to pay the bill" for the fact that all her life – all 50 years of it – her body had found an extraordinary, almost unbelievable way of allowing her to survive the trauma and abuse she had suff ered as a child.

At the age of three-and-a-half, Dee was raped by her grandfather. This continued throughout childhood, added to by her paedophile father and his ring of friends. For all the pain and the horror of these barbaric acts, it was the mental cruelty and unpredictability of her manic-depressive schizophrenic mother that left her and her four siblings in the grip of terror. She beat them, strangled them until they were unconscious, locked them in a dark and tiny cupboard under the stairs, terrified them with threats of poisoning their food and roasting them alive, and continually told them she hated them, that they were rubbish and no good. Still, even before this Dee can pinpoint exactly the moment during that first rape when her personality fractured off into fragments so that she would become a mass of different personalities, each one either storing the emotions and pain or allowing her to function as

At that very moment, Dee developed Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as it is called today. She was never "whole" again. In the days leading up to my meeting with Ruth Dee, I had been given a set of strict instructions by her publishers. Ruth Dee is not her real name and all locations in her forthcoming memoir, Fractured: Living Nine Lives to Escape My Own, have been skewered so as to protect her identity (other details, such as her profession, are accurate). This presents a massive irony: a book written by a woman who could never be herself, now trying to be herself but not allowing herself to be named. ("I cannot identify my siblings," she tells me. "I wrote this book so more people would learn about MPD, not so I could tell everybody about my abuse.") At the end of our meeting I am to check all the information in case she has slipped into another "alter" while talking to me, an alter who is locked into another period of her life and who might give me the wrong information.

Ruth Dee is sitting before me now, a homely lady with a rosy face. She constantly looks to either side of her, sometimes moving her hands in those directions: "Are you 'you' now?" I ask her. "Are there any others with us now?" "They're always with me," she says, "and yes, they are here." She points to thin air.

MPD remains a largely unknown condition even among mental health professionals, one of the chief reasons Dee gives for writing the book. It results from extreme trauma or severe abuse in early childhood and is the brain's clever way of saving the body, saving the child. It is particularly common in traumatised children under the age of four, whose brains are not yet mature. When a child of this age experiences trauma, the mind and the body disconnect. All the feelings and memories and thoughts about that experience are shelved in a separate area of the brain so that the child can continue to live as if the trauma had not occurred. What happened in Dee's case was that the child experiencing the rape effectively became somebody else.

Not all severely abused children develop MPD, but those who do are considered the lucky ones. "It saved my life," she says. "I was there during that attack but not there. I was watching that little girl on the bed, but it wasn't me. I can remember I had lacy socks and a silver buckle on my shoe, but nothing of the emotions and terror. Nothing of the feelings. That little girl on the bed, who I came to call Jenny, took all the hurt from me, that was how I coped. I came 'round' much later, sitting on a stair." Dee notices the look on my face, the tears of horror and sadness filling my eyes. She reaches over calmly and says: " Would you like a break?" The situation is bizarre and deeply embarrassing. I've heard such stories before, but never like this. Dee is devoid of any emotion. Perhaps I am weirdly compensating for her.

"No, I don't feel emotion about that," she says. "When I did have to start talking about it, all sorts of professionals would say: 'You are very matter of fact,' and I was. That little girl was me, but not me. I haven't got a me," she pauses. "I don't know what I am, I don't know what is me because I am made up of everybody, all my alters. There is no logic to it – when you have this, you do not question it, you do not even have the language to explain it or question it."

"Jenny" was one of nine recognisable "alters" who were both visual and aural hallucinations. This is unusual for MPD sufferers. Dee saw – still sees – every one of her alternative personalities as if they were sitting round the face of a lock, and as she moved through her life new ones appeared, although the little ones such as Jenny and two babies would remain stuck in their own periods of time, often shrieking inconsolably in times of stress. This is very difficult to understand, but, unlike a schizophrenic, she knew they were both real and unreal: there was six-year-old Liz, who comforted her and dealt with her siblings when Dee's mother was absent; Alexis, the angry teenager; Kathy, the loving mother who arrived when Dee had her three children with her first husband; and Jean, Carol and Val, who helped her do her job and become such a respected head teacher.

Whenever Dee "became" one of the alters, she experienced massive lippages of time, unable to account for where she had been or what she had said. The rest of the time she was in constant dialogue with them, bargaining, second-guessing them, trying to shush them down. What is so amazing is that she managed 50 years without being found out. "Yes, I am very lucky," Dee says."

The younger ones wouldn't appear when anybody else was there, and it was difficult for me to even know the difference in all the adult alters, so that neither of my husbands knew." How exhausting, I tell her, being all these different people and bargaining with them the whole time to keep quiet. How could she do her job? "Yes," she sighs, "I am permanently tired. My immune system is shot to pieces. It is very difficult for me, very difficult, because I know I am an intelligent woman and I know my alters are not real, but my therapist who I have been seeing for six years has made me talk to them. I say to her: 'You want me, an intelligent woman, to talk to people I know and you know are not real? ' And she says: 'They are real to you.' People at work could not believe it when I became ill. Others say: 'Of course you're not mad.' I say to them : 'Look, I'm on the highest level of mental healthcare that you can get – I must be mad.'"

Ruth Dee laughs at the thought of the thing she feared most of all, becoming like her mother. It became her father's favourite refrain, a taunt to belittle her: "You're mad as a hatter, just like your mother." Sitting before her now, I have to say she seems very un-mad, very intelligent, exactly the kind of woman who might run a school and a home, which is exactly why she
lasted 50 years before the strain of living nine lives brought them all crashing down on her.

For the purposes of the book, Dee was born in southwest England. Her childhood was divided between two diff erent locations in the south, bar a short stay in Scotland after she was born. Her family, working class by roots, was deeply aspirational – better houses, better jobs, better Christmas presents than everybody else. Her father was in business management and her mother was the kind of woman preoccupied with appearances. The girls went to ballet, rode horses, went to elocution lessons and went for walks wearing white gloves. To the world, Dee's mother put on a huge show – even her voice changed – but behind closed doors she behaved like a monster, partly to do with her initially undiagnosed schizophrenia, partly, one presumes, because she had had an abusive childhood herself, and partly, Dee maintains, because she was "a bit of a nasty person" . Dee says this sounding, for the first time in our meeting, just like the school head- mistress she was.

There were five children, two girls and three boys, now all traumatised adults with mental health problems in their various different ways (although Dee is sure the boys escaped the sexual abuse). Dee will not talk about her siblings except to say one brother is in denial and that she is very close to her sister "Mary", and that Mary, like her, has grandchildren (Dee has two, a third on the way). Despite the sexual and physical abuse, nobody ever asked any questions about the children, even though Dee says her situation would be obvious today. She was hospitalised on one occasion and screamed and screamed, refusing to let a doctor examine her.

On another occasion, a teacher asked her at school if everything was OK and if she got on with her dad, but left it at that. The house was constantly filled with screaming and shouting, and her mother – despite all the pretensions – once walked down the road stark naked, screaming: "Come on, you fuckers, rape me!" but nothing was said. "I think people were too uncomfortable to think about it," Dee explains."

If something of that sort was going on in our home, in this nice comfortable area, then it would shatter our neighbours' idea of the kind of lives they led." When her mother was finally sectioned, Dee took over looking after the children until they were all packed off to various diff erent boarding schools. Dee's was austere and, of course, resulted in the appearance of more alters" to help her cope. She was often referred to as a chaotic learner, sometimes good and full of potential, sometimes bad and disruptive. That, she explains, is because she was diff erent people, even then. Still, she got herself to university in London to study to be a teacher, where she met the man who was to be her first husband. He hated expressing emotions and worked hard, a combination that suited her. Sex was never a problem, as "Jenny" had taken the negative associations away.

At her first teaching practice she was observed as being unreliable but with potential. When she finally qualified they moved to the Midlands and she switched to special-needs teaching: "I wanted so much for kids like me to have rights. Special needs still isn't that great and it wasn't then. Children were isolated, tucked away in corners – it was appalling." She remained married for 11 years – her husband did not suspect a thing – and she revealed nothing of her past. "Kathy", the mothering alter, ensured she was a kind and loving mother, and the professional alters steamed ahead at work, ensuring she rose to the top of her profession. Her children thought she was eccentric sometimes, befuddled or lost, but that was all. "The adult alters were a bit different," she explains.

"I couldn't see them so much; they were more like shadows." Her marriage broke up – she later became her husband's boss – but she moved on and finally met her second husband, "Jamie", who left his family for her. Jamie was and is the love of her life, she says. Still she said nothing, until in the months preceding her breakdown in 2002 it all started going wrong for her. She began to lose concentration in meetings and came up with all sorts of coping strategies, such as asking colleagues to "recap" and getting secretaries to take minutes. Sometimes, she would often "come to" and find herself running away from something, her heart pounding. Sometimes she'd find herself in her car, miles from anywhere. She was constantly suicidal. On one occasion, Jamie found her in the bottom of a dark cupboard, screaming.

On others, he noticed that she switched into a strange voice and used childish vocabulary. She finally told him about her past and together they went to see a psychologist who diagnosed MPD. "It was a relief," she says.

But in 2002 Dee's life collapsed under the strain of the condition. After thinking she could take short-term leave – her colleagues were aghast but supportive – she became so ill she could not get out of bed. She was in and out of psychiatric units, day centres, on vast cocktails of drugs to keep her from suicide, while Jamie was fi ghting for the right kind of therapy for her, which, at the time, was considered too high a risk. And then Jamie had a heart attack from the strain. "We've been through a lot, both of us, and we've had our ups and downs, but hehas always been there for me," she explains.

Does he ever wonder who his wife was during those early years, I ask. "Yes, he has asked me that. But they were, are, all me in a way. As I said, I haven't got a me. It's the same with my children. They wrote me beautiful letters saying what a fantastic mother I was. They haven't really taken it on board. They just think I am me. When I was very, very ill, I was careful to only let them see me for 10 minutes at a time."

Finally, with Jamie's recuperation and constant pushing for the right kind of care, Dee was referred to the therapist she sees today. She began with twice-weekly sessions, which are now down to one, in which the alters are "brought out" and spoken to, bargained with, in the hope that Dee will get co-operation and communication with them so that they can be integrated into her "whole". "I've said to my therapist that I do not want to know if she fi nds new alters. It freaks me out, it really does. Since therapy I can sometimes see me switching into another alter."

Fractured, she says, has been born out of that experience of therapy. She did not intend to write it, but started putting together odd bits of writing because it made her feel better seeing it on the page. She then realised that she could never sustain a narrative because of the slipping in and out of alters, thus making it impossible to recall any clear, detailed memory at a distance. This, I tell her, was the biggest question I had about her memoir. How can a woman with no sense of self, no proper memory – she likens MPD to those brief and terrifying moments normal people have of driving a car, drifting off and then "coming to" and thinking: "

Who drove the car down that road?" – make sense of a structured life story? What she says next makes sense of the project, but is deeply spooky. "Because I then rigged up a camcorder in the back bedroom," she explains, "and I'd fi lm myself telling bits of stories in all the diff erent alters and then play it back later and transcribe it."

It was the first time she saw herself as her "alters" – she hates mirrors and photographs – and she admits in her deadpan way that it could be very upsetting. She wanted the chapters of her life presented in chaotic order, just as they had presented themselves to the video camera as she moved in and out of each alter, but her editor was clear that readers would be too confused. The book does contain the voices of some of her alters, like Jenny who talks in baby language.

This language, Dee assures me, has been lifted straight off the camcorder. She actually spoke those baby words in the back bedroom. Isn't it amazing, I say to her, that the alters were all kind people, because surely one could have been "a bit of a nasty person", to use her own phrase, the sort of person who might have killed her mother or father out of revenge or rage? "Yes, yes," she says, "it worried me for a very long time that that might happen. But my therapist has said that she has never seen a destructive alter except self-destructive, ie suicidal, and my husband has said the same.

I get angry, but that tends to be towards myself. When you have been told you are no good all your life, it comes back on you the whole time. But I am
getting better. In the last two years many of the alters, certainly the children, are now fully integrated into my personality. But the others are still with me, although I can be calm when the voices are not there; my anxiety levels are a lot lower. Life is nice. I don't want life to be great fun and full of everything
– I just want it to be lacking in fear. So now that it is calmer, I do like it."

Nobody in Dee's birth family knows she has written the book, apart from her sister. Her father is dead and her mother is very much alive, and as destructive as ever, losing friends and consumed by unhappiness (Jamie will not let her near their house or their children). Dee was estranged from her for years, but then, post-breakdown, has made contact again. For heaven's sake, why? "Because I don't want to be like her, and she is a sad, lonely lady who has never, ever been happy and has told me that she doesn't know how to love. Also, it is complicated – a very small part of me, I suppose, is always hoping that she might find something in me to finally like."

Her honesty is heartbreaking. She tells me she has never asked her mother about the past and does not intend to. She is adamant that she would have prosecuted her father if she and her sister thought he'd got to other children too, but there is no evidence. Her own children have been given copies of the book, but only out of respect for the fact that they deserve to be told alongside all the potential readers. She will be very happy if they don't read it: "There are some things you shouldn't know about your mother, don't you think?"

• Fractured: Living Nine Lives to Escape My Own, by Ruth Dee, is out in paperback (£12.99, Hodder & Stoughton)

Louise Carpenter

The GuardianTramp

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