Time Loss, Black Outs, and Co-con

“As an undergraduate student in psychology, I was taught that multiple personalities were a very rare and bizarre disorder. That is all that I was taught on ... It soon became apparent that what I had been taught was simply not true. Not only was I meeting people with multiplicity; these individuals entering my life were normal human beings with much to offer. They were simply people who had endured more than their share of pain in this life and were struggling to make sense of it.”

― Deborah Bray Haddock, The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook

Time Loss, Black Outs, and Co-consciousness

Image: "Time Lost" by Matt Gibson

CC BY-NC 2.0

Time loss is defined as a period of time that one or more alters cannot account for due to another alter having been active in the body or mind in their place. This is a unique form of dissociative amnesia that is only found in parts-based dissociative disorders, specifically dissociative identity disorder (DID) and some cases of other specified dissociative disorder, subtype 1 (OSSD-1). Time loss can span from a few seconds to a few years but may not be complete. For example, if Alter A is the host from ages 7-9 and Alter B is not present at all during this time period, Alter B may have no idea of anything that occurred during this period when they become active again at age 10. On the other hand, once Alter B has awakened, they may be able to access Alter A's or another alter's memories in order to get some idea of what transpired in their absence. It is also possible that while they were not active from ages 7-9, Alter B may have gotten flashes of information about the outside world within this time period. Dissociative barriers between alters are not tangible, literal things, and more information can bleed through them than some might expect.

A specific form of time loss occurs when an alter is blacked out. A black out is when one or more alters are unaware of anything while one or more other alters use the body. Some alters may have a vague sense of time passing or feel as if they're trapped in darkness, but many may experience a complete episode of time loss in which they do not exist. Time loss in the form of black outs can be frightening for many to notice. Often, black outs are perceived as overwhelming evidence that one has either DID or some non-traumagenic but likely neurological problem. Black outs can feel confrontational and may induce episodes of denial in which the individual or alter cannot accept that they have DID, were abused, or are anything other than a liar, fake, or "crazy".

On the other hand, alters that have blacked out may not recognize or acknowledge that they have lost time and may become aggressive or distressed if confronted with evidence of blanks in their memory. Amnesia can cover amnesia, leaving an individual convinced that they never lose time up until the moment in which it becomes undeniable. Evidence of time loss can include: finding possessions, art, or writings that the individual does not recognize but that could not have been bought or created by other household members; being called an unknown name by strangers who act in a familiar manner towards the individual; or being confronted about supposed actions that the individual cannot remember or does not believe they would ever do. Sometimes, an alter might experience dissociative fugue and suddenly find themself in a different location with no explanation of how they got there. This could be as simple as "coming to" in another room or as drastic as learning they have somehow traveled to another state while unaware. The individual might suddenly "wake up" in the middle or end of a conversation or activity. There might be periods of their life that they can’t recall. Their entire childhood might be blank, or they might suddenly realize that they cannot remember anything before they left their house at age 18.

Though all alters that are blacked out are losing time, not all alters that are losing time are blacked out. An alter may not be aware of the outside world for a period of time but still be to some degree active and aware in an internal world. As internal worlds do not always run parallel to the outside world, an alter may spend what feels to them like a week inside only to return to the outside world and find that months have passed in their absence. In such a case, the alter does not feel like they were completely unaware of anything, but they were not aware of the outside world or its happenings.

Not all switches lead to time loss. Many systems have developed some degree of co-consciousness, or the ability for two or more alters to remain present in the body or aware of the outside world at once. Alters that are co-conscious, or co-con, with each other might have varying degrees of control over the body and may or may not be aware of each others' thoughts and feelings to varying degrees. Some systems are naturally more co-conscious than others. Some may need to work for years to achieve a working state of co-consciousness between a few highly communicative alters while others may find that they can so easily become co-conscious that they have a hard time not going into denial that they ever lose time at all. In some cases, generally high levels of co-conscious may actually help to mask black out switches because individuals become complacent and stop keeping an eye out for gaps in their memory or signs of unremembered activities.

Even within one system, co-consciousness is not necessarily extended to all alters. It may be that Alters A and B are always co-conscious with each other, but only Alter A can be co-conscious with Alter C. Meanwhile, Alter D may be able to watch the other alters although the others are not aware of Alter D and their activities in return, and Alter E might not be aware of any of the other alters nor any of the other alters aware of Alter E! Finally, Alters F and G might be co-conscious with each other but have to leave post-it notes for the rest of the system in order to communicate, and Alter H might be co-conscious with Alter A only some of the time or under certain conditions while Alter I has the ability to allow or not allow others to be co-conscious with them as they choose.

A specific form of co-consciousness is known as co-fronting. When two or more alters are in control of the body at the same time to varying degrees, they are said to be co-fronting. Alters may be aware of each others' actions or own each others' actions as their own to varying degrees.

When two or more alters are mutually present but one alter is not fully aware of this, the individual may experience "partial intrusions" without knowledge or understanding of where these originate. This may manifest as: hearing internal voices, conversations, or crying; being shocked by actions or speech that one did not intend or realize they were about to do; feeling compelled to act or speak in an uncharacteristic or ego-dystonic way; or experiencing thoughts or emotions that feel external to oneself or that seem to "come out of nowhere." In some cases, the individual may also experience temporary identity confusion or alteration in the form of suddenly being unsure of what they are really like, who they really are, what their preferences and opinions are, and even what their sexuality or gender is. To the individual or untrained clinician, these experiences may be mistaken for psychosis, but the origin of these symptoms is dissociative in nature. Once the individual is more aware of their parts, these experiences may be perceived as less frightening or jarring (because their origin is understood) or more frightening (because they can no longer be rationalized away).

Being co-conscious or co-fronting does not guarantee full memory access for any of the involved parts. Sometimes, alters may find that information is blocked from them when a part is present that is not meant to know of this information; for example, specific trauma details may not be retrievable when bringing these details to memory could make them known to a host part that could not tolerate them. Similarly, information may sometimes be lost to parts when they are no longer in contact with another part; if Alters A and B are both present for a stressful event, certain details of this event may remain known only to Alter B after the event has ended. Additionally, if an alter lacks knowledge or skills, their presence may make this information difficult or impossible for other alters to recall. This could present as an individual suddenly being unable to recall how to do a basic work task, their address, or who their spouse is because of influence from a much younger part. To the contrary, individuals may find that they suddenly gain information that they would have sworn they do not have, such as being able to speak in a language they had not used since early childhood. Finally, some alters can deliberately block knowledge from other parts or even remove access to memories. The individual may find their mind going blank or suddenly being forced onto a different mental path if they try to access this information.

It must be noted that not all memory issues are necessarily associated with distinct alters. Sometimes, individuals will have gaps in their memory due to alcohol, other substance use, a head injury, or a neurological disorder. Strong dissociation in the forms of derealization or depersonalization can also impair memory encoding, which is different from how DID can impair memory retrieval for specific alters. Memory encoding may also be disrupted by cognitive distraction, fatigue, or physical pain. Finally, dissociative amnesia in response to traumatic events may occur even in individuals without DID; although the memory can be said to be stored in a dissociated part (specifically, an emotional part), this part may contain only the traumatic memory and not qualify as an alter. In this way, even individuals with OSDD-1 who do not otherwise experience amnesia may have amnesia for childhood or adulthood traumas.

The DSM-5 contains some information about memory in DID. The paper "A New Model of Dissociative Identity Disorder" by Dell goes into more detail about partial intrusions from alters, complete co-consciousness between alters, and different manifestations of amnesia. More information is provided through Dell's work on the Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation (MID).

A quote attributed to Wizard which reads: "It's weird when another alter is influencing me. Being co-conscious with someone else acting is even weirder. It can be almost like being a puppet - watching your body doing things you have no intention or desire to do."

"It's weird when another alter is influencing me. Sometimes I get enough of a sense of them to realise who it is but very often I think it's just me thinking or feeling something. Then later I'll look back at things I wrote or did at the time and it's so obvious to me that those things didn't come from me at all! Being co-conscious with someone else acting though is even weirder. It can be almost like being a puppet - watching your body doing things you have no intention or desire to do. Sometimes it's scary but other times it feels sort of dream-like and later it's hard to remember what happened.

A quote attributed to Wizard which reads: "When I first learned that I had DID, losing time made me quite agitated, but I think it gets a little easier once you know and trust your alters and have a bit more communication with them. It helps if different alters cooperate enough to make sure we have a vague idea of important things."

I've never been able to remember my childhood but I didn't have the ability to think about the fact or why it was like that or whether it was normal. Now I know that in its self was part of the dissociation as much as the memory loss was. When I first learned that I had DID, losing time made me quite agitated, but I think it gets a little easier once you know and trust your alters and have a bit more communication with them. You have to get good at bluffing your way through things when vital information is missing, but it helps if different alters cooperate enough to make sure we have a vague idea of important things like where items have been left or whether we have taken our medications yet that day."


“The odd sensation I had while cooking would often last through the meal, then dissolve as I climbed the stairs. I would enter my room and discover the homework books I had left on the bed had disappeared into my backpack. I’d look inside my books and be shocked to find that the homework had been done. Sometimes it had been done well, at others it was slapdash, the writing careless, my own handwriting but scrawled across the page.

As I read the work through, I would get the creepy feeling that someone was watching me. I would turn quickly, trying to catch them out, but the door would be closed. There was never anyone there. Just me. My throat would turn dry. My shoulders would feel numb. The tic in my neck would start dancing as if an insect was burrowing beneath the surface of the skin. The symptoms would intensify into migraines that lasted for days and did not respond to treatment or drugs. The attack would come like a sudden storm, blow itself out of its own accord or unexpectedly vanish.

Objects repeatedly went missing: a favourite pen, a cassette, money. They usually turned up, although once the money had gone it had gone for ever and I would find in the chest of drawers a T-shirt I didn’t remember buying, a Depeche Mode cassette I didn’t like, a box of sketching pencils, some Lego.”

― Alice Jamieson, Today I'm Alice: Nine Personalities, One Tortured Mind