Portrait of a Hydra

Guest article by Kiya

When I was in my mid-teens, I went looking for a nickname, a handle I could use that felt like me. After a while of pondering, I found one; it suited. But as I turned the thing over and over in my mind, I came to the conclusion that it was inadequate: there were things it missed. So I came up with more nicks, more handles, trying to get all of myself into the shape of something named, that I could point at and say existed.

Sometimes I would recognise myself as more in one mode than another; at times that this was particularly strong (or I thought people needed warning, as not all of me are pleasant), I would sign off with one of these other names. Some of them were more frequent presences than others; some more likely to appear as public faces, others in private. I thought about those aspects, noted music that suited each one, used them to explain myself to other people.

I was in my twenties before I considered the possibility that this was a form of plurality.

I had met a functional plural system that was out and activist about being plural; they talked about it occasionally in a forum where I largely lurked. At one point they mentioned a friend of theirs who used the word "singtuple" as a self-description, and I said, "Hmm," and wrote to them asking for resources and information. I got some links about the dissociative continuum, a little discussion, and aimed towards the plural community.

I was still pondering whether I thought this was a useful way of conceiving of myself when something happened that I could only really explain as an experience of multiplicity.

To tell this story, I will have to introduce you to two of me.

First, meet Darkhawk. If you know me, this is likely the name you know me by; Darkhawk has been my use-name and internet handle for a good long time. The hawk is a distant observer, circling overhead, largely uninvolved; Darkhawk prefers to be uninvolved, a watching presence, the voice of analysis and logic, as well as a major source of language. She is almost always present in the fronting awareness, and considers herself a defense mechanism for the "real person", rather than being a person herself. (We disagree with her on this.)

Now, meet Stormy. Stormy is very elemental and instinctual, and communicates in body language rather than words. (Any attempts Stormy makes at communication have to pass through someone else to become verbal.) She is fiercely loyal, has a finely tuned sense of both heirarchy and who makes an acceptable leader, and extremely sensitive to things that strike her as invading her territory. When she was first named, she was associated with rage, but we now understand her to be much more complicated than that.

So, the story.

I will begin in the middle: Stormy had near-sole front, and was in a state of outrage. The world had no peripheries; the vision was narrow, red-tinged, focused only on the target. Hands alternated between fists and crooked into claws, the body's breath was shallow and quick. Adrenaline surged in the bloodstream, keeping the muscles full of twitch-energy.

"That's interesting," said Darkhawk. "I'm hyperventilating."

The rage was gone. As far as I could tell, the adrenaline was gone. The hands were confused, not sure why they were twitching, and relaxed. There was a discontinuity there; while I could remember why I had been angry, I could not bring the anger back into my mind. It was as though I didn't have the right equipment to run the memory, and could only get back a tinny version or something out of an unpaid-for cable channel. Stormy knew how to experience that -- but Stormy was no longer front.

"Fascinating," said Darkhawk. "That looked plural."

By combining recollections and observing the system for a while, we worked out how it works: most of the time, consciousness is very fluid. It's very rare that one personality has sole front; generally there will be between two and four being major contributors to who "I" am at any given moment. These will ebb and flow continuously; someone pulls out of the scene, drifts off to the side of the stage and goes back into the wings, or someone emerges from the curtains and starts taking part. There's always some level of synthesis when there are multiple aspects sharing front; if there is a 'core self', it only makes sense to us to think of it as the play rather than the actors.

(AC wants me to point out the raisins-in-gingerale metaphor too, 'cause she likes that one better. If you drop raisins in gingerale, you see, the bubbles catch in the wrinkles, and some of them go up until the bubbles come off, and then they drop down. And some raisins don't go up and down at all well, and some float pretty well. And 'front' is whatever's in the top however much of the glass. See?)

That's under normal circumstances. Under stress, we get one of two responses.

One of those is what happened with Stormy and Darkhawk -- someone has sole front until replaced. Others may want to claim some piece of front, but cannot do so; shifts between selves are abrupt and unintentional, generally in response to internal triggers or pressures rather than things in the outside world. Ideally, whoever has front in this situation is someone who has the right tools to deal with it, who can go out and soliloquy or perform whatever action is needed.

(AC: I don't know how to . . . oh, yes I do. You get the raisin stuck in your straw, right? It's not bobbing up and down, and you suck on it and suck on it and suck on it and then wham it comes unstuck and you get a different raisin there.)

The other stress-response is, effectively, that nobody has front; if there is no immediately obvious plan of action, nobody who is clearly suited to deal with the situation, then all the thought processes go around in circles somewhat hysterically. (I cope with this by trying to at least anticipate the bare bones of situations so we at least know who's going to be stuck dealing with them. Also, some folks in our life know that when this sort of breakdown happens it's a good idea to give simple declarative instructions about how to respond to things.) "Self" turns into a chaotic mess that mills around until it fetches up by accident against a solution.

(AC: I guess that's flat gingerale? All the raisins sink to the bottom of the glass?

Darkhawk: This metaphor needs work.)

I titled this piece "living as a hydra". I've used a number of ways of trying to express this sense of self, and this was the one that stuck. ("Facets of a gemstone" lost its lustre with the sense of the depth and nuance of each of me; facets are kinda flat.)

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to have distinct boundaries on the concept of self, to have a clear internal sense of self that isn't a perpetual emergent process. The hydra has many heads, but it is one creature; the inputs and actions of all of them are tied back into the whole. There are some traits or preferences that may be applicable to the whole system, and some that may be associated with the heads, but where the edges go between the two is complex; neither the whole nor the individual exists meaningfully in isolation.

I find it difficult to imagine what it is to be singlet, these days, despite having spent most of my life thinking of myself that way. (I am sure that other plurals are familiar with things like, "Oh, everyone has parts of themselves that show in some situations and not others". That is, after all, how I thought of it for a long time -- which did no good trying to deal with situations where the fact of different heads on the hydra mattered.) Everyone has aspects, perhaps, but that doesn't help when the "aspect" in front loses control and the system has no means for graceful replacement because "aspects" can't be imagined as having panic that's independent of "I", or when one "aspect" needs to communicate and needs the help of another "aspect" to do so . . .

I think my imagination gets stuck on it, trying to imagine not having facets; I suspect that's wrong, that what I need to do is imagine being singlet like the crystal I used to imagine as myself. (And to answer the "But what happens when. . ." questions with, "That probably doesn't happen to singlets." I don't know.)

I have an equal difficulty imagining what the experience of non-median multiples is like, though. We have no strong boundaries between "me" and "not me" in here; we are all "me". Sometimes I will refer to one self in the third person; sometimes as "I". I can usually pull out threads and point at who originated them, but sometimes the only sensible answer is "me" -- perhaps I integrate and unintegrate constantly, in ever-shifting patterns . . .

(Darkhawk: Integration is, of course, the mathematical term for the sum of the areas of arbitrarily small steps along a curve. It seems entirely appropriate as a metaphor for that fluid process of identity where self depends on the sum of all previous momen--

AC: You turn *everything* into math.)

. . . and add that up into a self.

I hear about systems losing members or gaining members, and I can't imagine what that's like -- the identity I have depends on everyone. They don't go away. (I did discover a new head on the hydra once -- but we call her Mama, and she wasn't terribly active when the body was fifteen and the rest of us found handles. It's only as adulthood has happened that she's had anything much to do.) The hydra, if someone cut off one of its heads, grew a new one, after all; it was all one creature.

I've been told that the idea of me as a plural system, as the hydra, provides a structure that appears to make me consistent. Apparently, my responses are erratic enough to be difficult to anticipate, but clearly systematic enough that there is a sense of a pattern there, if not what the pattern is.

(Darkhawk: What was actually said was that the scattering of points didn't appear to describe anything useful, and the plurality added the third dimension that let him see they were all on the same plane.

AC: Alllllllllllways math with you.)

The idea of the hydra -- the single multiplicitous creature -- is the thing that makes the consistency clear. Everything is part of the same thing, it all intertwines; not multiple selves, attempting to figure out how their independent lives have to fit into the constraints of a single body -- not a single self, consistent as an individual -- but one/many coexisting, all of us all one and the one only making sense as all of us.


Who do you want to be today? Who do you want to be? - Oingo Boingo)

Another experience of being median, by Adriel

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