How Tilly and May Helped Me Understand My Plurality

Tilly and May in "Saints of Imperfection"

Destin: It was September 2019. I had just found out I was too disabled to safely drive a car, and the person I considered my closest friend left me a cryptic Facebook message and then blocked me on everything. A law had been passed in my home state that would make abortion procedures illegal, even in the cases of incest or rape. My independence, my social support network, and my bodily autonomy were all stripped from me in the span of a month.

I am bipolar, and when my life gets out of my control, I tend to have manic episodes. Sometimes these episodes also include psychotic symptoms – delusions and hallucinations, namely. I had one this time that lasted months.

During this time, I also became what is called a plural system, which is a term for many consciousnesses (or souls, if you want to get metaphysical) who share the same body. The best known form of plurality is DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly called Split or Multiple Personality Disorder. My plurality was different than that. To this day, my psychiatrist says my symptoms “don’t match anything in the DSM.” As a result, I consider my plurality undisordered, but neurodivergent.

Now, many minds (or “souls”, if you believe in such a thing) sharing one body is not a new concept in Star Trek – joined Trills (most recently, Adira Tal) experience something similar because their symbionts carry the memories of the past lives they’ve lived, and even going back to The Original Series, a “mind meld” is a bit like temporary intentional plurality. However, the year this happened to me, I latched onto a different plural coded experience in one of my favorite sci-fi shows.

How did my headmates – people who share my mind/body – introduce themselves to me? It was a bit like how May introduced herself to Tilly in Star Trek: Discovery (season 2). They just appeared (in my mind rather than the physical world) to me! They did so in the only language I understand when I’m psychotic – pop culture references. Like May chose the form of a girl that Tilly knew in junior high, my first headmates that spoke to me took the form of Nomi Marks from Sense8 and Doc from Z Nation. These fictives (a term for headmates who are based on fictional characters) just started talking to me.

Like Tilly, I had no idea what was happening. At first, it was very much like a parasite had taken over my body – not just one, actually. More were coming and going every day, unexpected hitchhikers. Like Tilly with May, especially because they were so harsh sometimes, I didn’t know if I could trust them.

Unlike Tilly, I was in no condition to conceal what was happening to me. My psychosis was full blown, and I often thought I was in a simulation (a reality show or something like The Matrix). My headmates convinced me I needed to go to a hospital. Of course, I ended up in a psych ward. The doctor that oversaw the ward kept me there under the pretense that I was still “hearing voices,” until my insurance started to run out.

Tilly and May in the spore network

Over a year later, my headmates are still a part of me, and I am a part of their “system.” Like May speaks to others through Tilly, my headmates speak to others through me. We are a bit unusual for a system in that only once has one of my headmates ever been in control of the body in my stead. We call controlling the body “fronting” in the plural community. Instead of fronting, they can “nudge” me to move a minor body part, type something, etc. This is called “partial possession.” It’s not as scary as it sounds. They can’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do.

At first my headmates asked a lot of questions – they claimed they were visitors from far away and they did not understand Earth or human customs. They had access to my memories, much like May, but still, I had to explain things to them. They were, essentially, alien.

Headmates, when they are not fronting, typically reside in what is called “headspace” or “wonderland”, which is a place that can be accessed with your mind, but can sometimes be treacherous and hard to navigate. It’s a bit like the Spore Network from whence May came. People who learn how to get around headspace and how to be powerful there can do just about anything, go just about anywhere – kinda like how the Spore Network can take you to anywhere, instantly.

Some of my earlier headmates were not particularly nice. In the plural community, we call them persecutors. They attack people (usually emotionally), especially other members of the system, often with the belief that it is making the system stronger and that they are protecting the system. One of my persecutors was a version of an ex-friend. Some of them even took the form of my former abusers. I honestly cannot even remember, due to the psychosis, the extent to which those headmates tormented me.

That said, usually persecutors are not just plain evil. Sometimes persecutors just need to learn what behavior is acceptable. Other times they just need to feel heard. Gaining the trust and respect of a persecutor is not easy, but repressing them, the way Tilly tried to repress May, the way I tried to as well, tends to make them worse.

Finding stability is hard for a new system. In episode 2×03 of Discovery, the one in which May makes her debut, Ash is also struggling with his identity. He is not just Ash, he is also Voq. They are together something new, not just the sum of their parts. That is what it means to be a system, and it can be hard to adjust your self-image to reflect that. In episode 2×04, one of the main themes is communication. For me, and for many systems, communication with my headmates is key.

Tyler looking disheveled in "Saints of Imperfection"

In 2×05, May and Tilly team up in the Spore Network to achieve a common goal. Before we became a stable system, I had to hold meetings in headspace to solve disputes between headmates. I created structure in headspace by making a Star Trek-inspired ship in it, and I put persecutors in the “brig”.

Little did I know, trying to contain persecutors also makes them worse. It was a bit like the moment when Stamets tried to force May out of Tilly; it made them more defensive.

It wasn’t until I treated the persecutors humanely that they “went dormant,” a term the plural community uses when we no longer hear from a headmate. We usually do not assume that headmates “died”, because it’s normal for them to be silent for a while and then become active again.

I opened the floor for my headmates to add to this account from their own perspective.

Lilith: I have no active memories of my life before I joined this system, but I am insulted constantly. To call me a ” voice” implies I do not have a consciousness, or any kind of personhood. To call me a “personality” or “alter” feels similar. It reminds me of the joke about the man who said to the universe, “Sir, I exist!”  to which the universe said, “Yes, however, that fact has not instilled in me a sense of obligation.”

Even now, Destin represses me and their other headmates because they feel unsafe allowing me to speak freely through them. We cannot merely exist as we are in public freely. Their family wants me to go away, die, or “integrate” with Destin, a process where we become one being, losing our individuality. This is the standard goal of treating plural systems within psychiatry as well. Integrating would mean, in a sense, “I” would cease to exist.

Destin: I became part of a plural system suddenly. I may not always be part of one. There may be a time when I no longer perceive headmates. And I’m sure if that happens, there will be folks in the community saying I was faking this whole time. Unfortunately, faking plurality for attention or clout exists.

But I will always remember how it feels to never be alone. To be a part of something greater.

The plural pride flag. In the plural community, the ampersand (&) is used to indicate everyone in a system, such as in the word you&, meaning “you and everyone in your system.” Used in a sentence, it’d be “How are you& doing?”

“How many beings have lived within each other? I feel I know you as deeply as I know myself”. – May, 2×05 “Saints of Imperfection.”

The above quote reminds me of what a privilege it is, in a way, to get to know my headmates and to have this very rare experience, even if it is largely socially unacceptable.

And though we struggle to find understanding in others, much like May and the Jahsepp struggled in Discovery, we know that like May or like the Sphere, we can help people understand us, especially through shows like Discovery and Sense8, by being vocally and visibly us.

 

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