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Deutsche Version

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„My childhood was life-threatening“ –
An Interview with Mary A. Dee

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We talked to author and poet Mary A. Dee. She published three collections of poetry (in German), which she wrote during her psychotherapy. In these poems, she has been dealing with her childhood trauma. We asked her some questions about her mental illness, her therapy and her everyday life.

Content Warning: It is talked about sexual and emotional abuse (mentioned, not in detail), domestic violence (mentioned, not in detail), and Symptoms of PTSD and Dissociative Disorder (described in more detail).

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Queerlig: What’s your diagnosis?

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Mary A. Dee: I have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In therapy, we never really talked much about it, though. My therapist waited until I asked her. She didn’t just say: “Well, you have this and this.” At some point, after quite a while in therapy, it just came up in the conversation. And much later, the term „Dissociative Disorder“ came up as well – But not the “Dissociative Identity Disorder”, people often confuse the two.

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Queerlig: What’s the difference?

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Mary A. Dee: The Dissociative Identity Disorder, that’s the multiple personality. You have different identities who act independently. And one doesn‘t know about the other. One of them, for example, goes grocery shopping, and the other doesn’t know. Then you also have periods of time when you don’t remember where you were and what you did. And if you have the Dissociative Disorder, that’s kind of like one step before that. It’s not yet quite the step of the complete split. You have different personality parts, but they are still connected to each other. And, of course, everybody has different personality traits, mine are just a little bit more.. well, let’s say.. distinct. They are there, but they don’t take over, in the sense of ‘now I’m three years old playing ball in the garden’ or something like that, and later I’m 12 and don’t remember anything. That’s not how it is.

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Queerlig: So your different parts are all children?

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Mary A. Dee: Yes, in my case, they’re all children of different ages and one or two adults.

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Queerlig: What does it mean to get such a diagnosis? Some people are a little critical about that, because it’s like being pigeonholed.

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Mary A. Dee: I guess, for me, it wasn’t like that because I wasn’t told after a few weeks: “You have this and this.” I think, that would’ve made me feel pigeonholed. But in my case, it just came out after I asked, because I was interested in it. And then I knew: Ah, it has a name. And then, I think, it’s a good thing, when you have a term for it.

If you, for example, talk to other people about it, you can say: “I have PTSD.” And you can explain some of the symptoms, and what it all means, instead of saying: “I’m not really well. There’s this thing I have.”

Of course, it can come across very negatively for some people. If they are prejudiced, and you have an actually diagnosed mental illness, they might see it like: “Okay, this one is officially crazy. She’s a certified insane person.“ But you just shouldn’t surround yourself with such people. Or educate them, if you have the confidence to do so, and, of course, if they are open to be educated.

I then also read many books about my illnesses, and educated myself about them, so I could understand them better. The diagnosis helped with that, too.

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Queerlig: What exactly is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

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Mary A. Dee: Well, it is a disorder which is based on a trauma. In my case, there was a very long trauma that lasted years. A trauma is an experience where your life is in danger, and you cannot escape from it on your own. But not everybody who experiences a trauma will also get Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

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Queerlig: That means you had a life-threatening experience? Or several?

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Mary A. Dee: Several. My childhood was life-threatening. What I can and want to say about it is that I’ve experienced domestic violence and sexual and emotional abuse, which started very early, from the very beginning, actually, since I was born. But I won’t go into detail more because that would trigger a dissociation.

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Queerlig: What exactly is a dissociation?

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Mary A. Dee: Dissociating is drifting off. For me. It is, I think, not the same for everybody. Some people, when they dissociate, are somewhere in a different place. I am just gone. Not physically, but internally. I am nowhere. Then I don’t really notice what’s around me anymore, and I also can’t speak anymore. There are gradations, a little bit. When I realize that I’m beginning to drift off. Then I usually could still nod, but not shake my head. And I could – it often happened during therapy – tell my therapist that I’m not fully here anymore. But I could never really stop it.

One could say, that the Dissociative Disorder, at least in my case, is a symptom of the PTSD. We’ve talked a little bit about the different personality parts, but it is much more the “being gone”, the dissociating itself, that constitutes the Disorder in my case.

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Read here the poem „Gone“, in which Mary A. Dee describes her dissociation.

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Queerlig: And why does that happen?

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Mary A. Dee:  It is caused by a trigger. And it has to do with the trauma. Basically, the very first dissociation happened when the trauma happened. It’s an evolutionarily conditioned mechanism. You find yourself in a life-threatening situation and then you have two options: fight or flight. But sometimes, both of these are blocked. And then this kind of “freeze” happens – and you drift away.

That means, back then, this happened, for the first time, as a reaction which saved my life. And that’s why dissociation isn’t a bad thing at all. It is, when you’re an adult, or when there’s no real danger, disturbing. Hindering. Not necessary anymore.

But then the psyche is programmed this way, so to say, so it reacts to certain things with this dissociation. When reminders of the dangerous situation occur.

For me, very often it was sounds. In the beginning of the therapy, we were still in a different office than now, and we could sometimes hear water running into a bath tub from the neighbor’s apartment. And hearing that, I often dissociated. Or when we talked about the topic. When we came too close, I was gone. Or when I watched a movie and domestic violence happened in it. These kinds of things trigger this mechanism, because your mind says: “Danger! Protection is necessary!”.

That’s why content warnings ahead of movies, texts, speeches and such are so important.

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Queerlig: Are there more symptoms?

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Mary A. Dee: Part of PTSD is for example having nightmares. And sleep disturbances. You might not be able to sleep any more, to fall asleep or to sleep through. And, of course, then you’re not very resilient during the day either. Other symptoms are also phobias, panic attacks and anxiety. I, for instance, didn’t drive for years, because I was too anxious.

And, to have flashbacks. That means, you are suddenly thrown back into the traumatic situation. With all the feelings that belong to it. Also caused by a trigger.

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Queerlig: Is that like a movie playing in you?

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Mary A. Dee: That also happens, that you have such kinds of films, or single images, sometimes with sound, sometimes without. Sometimes with color, sometimes without. But a flashback is not a movie playing in you, you much more are in this movie. You have the feeling of being back in this situation – you ARE back in this situation, that’s how one should say it. And it is a form of dissociation.

And I always felt like I don’t have an inner core. That this spot in your center, that holds everything together, that it just isn’t there anymore. And that all in me is just cobbled together loosely. That’s another symptom. As if I was permeable. That I, as a cohering person, don’t exist anymore. It’s really hard to describe it.

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Read here a poem by Mary A. Dee about how she began to feel this inner core again.

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Queerlig: And when did the symptoms begin? There was a gap since your childhood, when the trauma happened, until it all came back again, right?

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Mary A. Dee: The sexual abuse happened in my childhood and stopped when my parents separated, when I was seven. However, the emotional abuse lasted until a few years ago, when I cut off the contact to my mother. And when I was about 30 (I am 52 now), I had depressions and started to self-harm. That’s why I eventually began therapy. At that point, I didn’t know about the sexual abuse. And my dissociations also started later, when we went deeper into those issues.

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Queerlig: How did you find your therapist?

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Mary A. Dee: I found my therapist by going through the phone book and calling all the therapists (only the women, though). And the first one who answered in person was my therapist. And since then, I’ve been going to her. It’s been about 16 years now. I was really lucky that the first therapist was the right one. I think, after the initial getting-to-know-each-other-appointment, I waited for about half a year, and then the therapy began. First every two weeks, then once a week, then twice. Now, it’s every two weeks again.

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Queerlig: So what do you do then, in therapy? Many people might imagine it like in movies, that you lie on a couch and cry.

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Mary A. Dee: I think, many people do indeed lie on the couch and cry. I never lied on the couch, I sit on a chair, or an armchair. And I don’t cry. Another symptom, by the way.

And… hm, what does one do in a therapy session? In the beginning, I used to draw pictures and bring them, because I wasn’t able to speak. And later, I wrote little texts and brought them. And gave them to her. My therapist then looked at them first, and then we talked about them. She asked things like, for example, how I felt when I drew it. And what I wanted to express with it. It went like this for quite a while, because I just couldn’t speak.

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Queerlig: Did you draw images from the flashbacks?

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Mary A. Dee: Mainly what I drew were feelings. How I was doing. And at some point, I started to write little texts. I wrote down dreams that I had, for instance. In the fourth year of therapy I began writing poems. But I always brought something, written words or images, as an entry point that would lead us to the respective topic of the conversation.

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Queerlig: And then you just talked about it?

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Mary A. Dee: What we did in the beginning and for a pretty long time was often just enduring. The enduring of feelings in the therapy session. That we sat there. We often didn’t talk much, and just endured whatever was there, at that moment. That means, we felt it.

So we sat there a lot, and an outsider might’ve been like, “What are they doing there? They’re not talking or anything?“ But it was very intense. I got physical reactions, too. Like, I started shaking and couldn’t stop for the rest of the session.

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Queerlig: Can you tell us more about the poems? How you write them, and why? You must have written so many by now.

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Mary A. Dee: I write poems in order to sort through my feelings. I have written between 1000 and 1500 poems so far. I used to count them but stopped at some point.

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Queerlig: If we read the poems, one after the other, all three books, would we basically be reading your story?

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Mary A. Dee: Yes, I think so. Well, my story, starting in the past and how it developed until the present. Und you’ll notice that some issues have to be worked through repeatedly. The topic “mother”, for example.

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Queerlig: You didn’t keep your poetry to yourself, you published it. Why did you do that?

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Mary A. Dee: For other survivors, if they read it. So they know that it’s possible to find a way out.

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Queerlig: How are your relations to other people?

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Mary A. Dee: I lead a very withdrawn life in my little house. I have my husband and my two dogs. My children are grown up, but we keep good contact. And my sister, who I have a special connection to, because we’ve experienced the same things. Other than that, I don’t have much contact to other people. Seldom I think, in some moments, that it could be nice to have a close friend or so. But most of the time, I am very happy with how things are now.

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Queerlig: Would you say that, by now, you are finished working through everything, and everything’s fine now?

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Mary A. Dee: Well, one is never completely finished with this. That’s what I always worked towards. But it’s just that there can still be incidents that cause me feeling bad again. That nightmares come back or something like that. And then it’s back, but maybe not as long as it used to be or as intense.

And because of therapy, I can handle it much better now. It’s helpful that my therapist keeps reminding me how I can tidy it away. That I don’t have to work though it anymore in the same way I used to, because I have already done that. It just came back, once again, and I kind of have to get through it again, but then I can also put it away again.

I also think that by now, it’s only one thing at a time that comes back. You know, then it’s like a rock in front of you, that you must work through, but no huge mountain anymore. And it’s easier because you know you will reach the other side eventually. I am just not so overwhelmed by these things anymore.

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Queerlig: What’s your everyday life like?

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Mary A. Dee: Pretty normal, I would say. At 5am my dogs wake me, then I take care of them, and I drink a cup of tea. At 6, I go for a walk with them, at 7.30 I water the garden, and then I have breakfast. That’s pretty much the same every day. Then, on most days, I talk to my sister on the phone. Then I take care of the house, and work in the garden. When my husband’s not working, he is home, too, and maybe I cook something for him.

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Queerlig: So now you live with those personality parts, the children? How is that?

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Mary A. Dee: The children especially come forward when I neglect them. So I have to be careful to keep doing things that are good for all my parts. If I, for instance, haven’t colored for a while, or haven’t read any children’s books, then one of the children might reach out. And my bedroom is decorated like a children’s room which most “normal” people might say is a little bit overcluttered. Because there must be something for everyone. I’ve decorated it in a way we all feel comfortable.

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Read here the poem „Normal?“ by Mary A. Dee.

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Queerlig: How do you feel about the term mental “disorder”? (in German, the term is “Störung”, which can also mean “disturbance” or “dysfunction”)

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Mary A. Dee: Generally, I think the term is fitting. In everyday life, if I suddenly drift off and am just gone, that does indeed “disturb” in that moment. In that sense, it really is a „disturbance“ or “dysfunction”, and that makes the term quite accurate.

Just, if it is used by others in a way like “you are disturbed”, then it’s derogatory. I am not disturbed, I am being disturbed, by triggers, for instance, that cause a dissociation.

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Queerlig: Do your inner children disturb you? Or are you glad that they are there?

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Mary A. Dee: In the beginning, I wasn’t very glad, that these distinct parts were there. Because one after the other just appeared, they reawakened, so to say, in me. And that does make you feel kind of crazy. That suddenly, something is there, which I can see and hear and feel inside of me. I especially heard them. I would say, they were disturbing for a long time, because I always heard them. But it’s different than the kind of voices people hear when they’re psychotic.

For instance, I used to hear a baby cry sometimes, and that was my past self, which is still there, because it was “frozen” in me back then. And the trauma, it didn’t end, it wasn’t only one situation. It kept happening again and again, so I also froze, again and again, in different ages.

What happened to me wasn’t good. The people who did it to me weren’t good. My separation in several parts however, is a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t exist (anymore). Maybe I would still be here as a person, zombielike, locked up somewhere. But because I kept splitting off parts of myself, they were preserved, made durable. And that’s why I was able to recompose them – that means, myself – in therapy.

Without this separation I really might have gone crazy. Those parts of me would’ve been gone, and I wouldn’t have ever been able to put them back together. And I don’t know how you survive if you, well, basically, lose your soul.

And now, I can handle them well and I am very happy they are here. They do not disturb me. They are me. All of them together, that’s me, and it is good that I am here.

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Read here the poem „The Dreams of the Clouds“.

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Mary A. Dee’s third book, “Die Träume der Wolken“ is available here (currently only in German). The other two books are being revised right now and will be available again in a while, so keep your eyes open for them 😉

However, please be careful when reading them. Some of the contents are quite heavy and can be very triggering. If you’re underage, it would be best if you didn’t read them alone but with somebody who’s a little older than you.


If you experience domestic, emotional or sexual violence or notice something of this sort happen around you, here’s a list of resources to find help:

www.domesticshelters.org/national-global