A new memoir gives readers a glimpse into a Brooklyn woman’s mental health journey.
78-year-old Vivian Conan was born and raised in Brooklyn and knew from a young age that something was different for her. It wasn’t until she was 46 years old that Conan finally learned that she had dissociative identity disorder (once known as multiple personality disorder), or DID.
Her new book, “Losing the Atmosphere: A Memoir, A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood,” explores Conan’s journey to finding the correct mental health diagnosis while hoping to break down some of the stigmas behind those with mental illness.
“People are afraid of the mentally ill,” said Conan. “It’s often oversensationalized in the media. For years I felt ashamed of who I was, even though people saw me and thought I was successful. I wanted to show that mentally ill people can behave in an ordinary way.”
From the time she was 5 or 6 years old, Conan had an imaginary space in her mind that she called “the atmosphere” which served as a place where Conan manifested adult figures in her life as the best possible versions of themselves, giving her the support she didn’t get from those figures. She also began to notice that she had alternate identities, also known as alters, who would come and go.
“I didn’t know it was something that wasn’t good,” said Conan. “When I was a teen, I saw faces in the mirror that weren’t mine. There were parts of me that acted ‘normal,’ but I knew in my teenage head that something wasn’t right.”
In the book, Conan describes her experience in coming to terms with her “atmosphere” and confiding in her teacher as a teenager, who ultimately told Conan’s mother. This ended up kick-starting Conan’s mental health journey, even though she wouldn’t get a proper diagnosis for years.
According to Conan, those with DID often aren’t correctly diagnosed for seven years. In the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which came out in 1962, there was no entry for DID. It wasn’t until 1983 when the third edition of the DSM was printed that had an entry for multiple personality disorder.
In her own mental health journey, Conan found that she was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia, however she knew that something was still off.
“When I first went into the hospital when I was 25, they thought I was schizophrenic – that’s what they had that fit at that time,” said Conan. “I didn’t find out that I was classified as schizophrenic until I requested my hospital records in my 40s. I always knew that something was wrong and my therapists weren’t getting it.”
In the book, Conan recounts how as she got closer to a diagnosis, her therapist at time had a hard time understanding her disorder. It wasn’t until Conan saw the 1976 film “Sybil,” which is based on a book chronicling the true story of a woman living with DID, that something clicked in Conan’s head.
“I had read the book years prior and hadn’t connected to it. I rented the film and watched it while I was home alone, and it blew my mind,” said Conan. “I asked my therapist, ‘Could there be more people like that out there?’ and we watched the film together. My therapist told me that she was uncomfortable with the idea of multiple personalities, so I had to find someone who wasn’t scared of it.”
Conan eventually found another therapist who wasn’t intimidated by DID and ultimately found out that her diagnosis also had an attachment disorder with it, as well as her journey to start to trust real people instead of the people in her “atmosphere.”
“Children are very vulnerable and have their own ways of dealing with abuse,” said Conan. “Many of them cannot escape from their environment, even though it may be their providers causing the abuse. Some escape internally, and once they grow up and are not in that abusive situation anymore, it becomes a liability and prevents them from interacting fully in the world. Even though it’s no longer needed, it’s hard to get rid of. That’s why it’s so important to find the right kind of therapy and the right therapist for specific mental health needs.”
“Losing the Atmosphere: A Memoir, A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood” will be available on Sept. 29. For more information, visit vivianconan.com.