I was aware that I was different from other people from the time I was 5. I have not been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), and I don’t think I have it. But it feels to me like I have two different personalities, a division connected with abuse that started when I was young. I later named those parts of me Strong Joanna and Soft Joanna.
Soft Joanna was the default when I was young. I could enjoy playing with other children my age without needing protection. Strong Joanna came out to deal with our parents’ abuse. She could handle being hit and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind when she was being blamed for something that wasn’t her fault.
My stepfather abused all of the children, but I got the worst of it because I was not his biological child. It felt like no matter what I did, I was wrong, and that made me feel worthless. Strong Joanna came out whenever my stepfather’s abuse turned physical, which happened about once a week. Slowly, she became more of me.
Strong Joanna also cared about education; it was she who did my schoolwork. During recess, Soft Joanna, smiling, ran around and played kickball. But in class, Strong Joanna took over. She often finished her work first in the class and had the answers to the teacher’s questions. Strong Joanna is a perfectionist and overachiever; I was often called a “know-it-all” or “teacher’s pet.”
When I was 16, I got pregnant, and my mother and stepfather grew more violent. Strong Joanna stepped up to protect the baby. To escape my parents’ abuse, I ran away from home and ended up in a foster care group home for pregnant and parenting teens.
There, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder. Doctors prescribed medication, which I refused. I wanted to get rid of my depression by keeping myself busy doing things I liked or by journaling.
I was also worried about how the medicine would affect my unborn child. But the psychiatrist and staff from the group home said I should be medicated because I was always upset and angry. They said if I didn’t take the medication, Child Protective Services would take away my son. So I took it.
Medication Shut Part of Me Away
That medication did not help me feel better, and it shut Soft Joanna away. So I ended up being Strong Joanna 24/7, which was a strain. I couldn’t connect with others without access to Soft Joanna, and I withdrew and lost friendships. My only focus was graduating from school and protecting my son; when I wasn’t doing those things I was often depressed and in bed.
After I had Xavier, at age 17, I had to focus on mothering a child; a complicated relationship with Xavier’s father, who is still my partner although we don’t live together; family court, and foster care. On top of the medicine’s numbing effects, responsibilities piled up. With Strong Joanna in charge, I lost access to happiness and trust, which was Soft Joanna’s job. It grew harder to think or feel anything but depression.
On the upside, Strong Joanna was a straight-A student. I could focus on school no matter how much pain I felt inside.
Soft Joanna only came out when I forgot to take my medicine. When she was in charge, I had a lot of energy, like a sugar high. People commented on the change and often assumed I must be happy about something coming up.
About a year ago, I got a new therapist, Breean. I could talk about more things with her and she helped me create structures for my life during the pandemic. I was doing better, but then I began seeing a new prescribing psychiatrist. I described the changes in my feelings and energy levels (but not the two Joannas). The psychiatrist said I had a mood disorder. He switched my medications to Abilify, which is an antipsychotic used to treat major depressive disorder as well as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Then, I began to feel suicidal. I burned myself and took many pills at once. A psychiatrist I knew from before told me to discontinue the medicine, so I would stop self-harming.
I was off my medication for two months, and Soft Joanna reappeared. I did more chores and generally moved a lot more during that time. I felt like I was getting better, less depressed.
But then, in September of 2020, I was raped by a friend in his hotel room. When I got home afterward, I felt my mind shatter. For weeks, I was unable to focus on school and my other responsibilities. I stayed in bed most of the time and left Xavier with his grandmother (my partner’s mom) in New Jersey. I wouldn’t eat and I refused to cry.
Strong Joanna kept me somewhat numb. It was hard to focus on assignments, but she managed to keep my grades up. She tried to fake being cheerful around Xavier.
A few weeks after the rape, I finally let myself grieve, and Soft Joanna came out. Only then did I try to stop blaming myself for everything that has happened to me. Then I ate and cleaned the apartment more. I felt more positive from day to day.
As Strong Joanna, I felt angry with myself, like I should’ve known not to go to his hotel room. Things like this had happened before, so I felt I should have known my friend would rape me. Blaming myself made me want to self-harm.
But I also wanted to get better. That desire to escape the trauma brought Soft Joanna out. She made sure we were eating healthy, exercising, decorating, and cleaning the apartment. This helped me feel less stressed. I brought Xavier back home and took care of him again.
I didn’t talk to anyone, including my therapist Breean, about the rape and still haven’t. Even writing about it here feels triggering, and that’s all I want to say about that at this point.
While looking for information on journaling online, I found something called shadow work. It’s a process of digging into the past to better understand yourself and your actions. I told Breean about it, and she gave me prompts to write on so we could discuss them in our sessions.
After answering some prompts about my parents, I took it to the next level of writing letters to myself. I realized there were two different writing styles, two tones, two people writing to each other. Strong Joanna is “I” and Soft Joanna is “you.” Soft Joanna is princess, and Strong Joanna is a queen. Here are samples of their dialogue:
Hey there princess, just wanted to let you know that I graduated high school. It wasn’t as cheerful as I thought it would be. I started writing for a magazine as well. Who knew my writing would improve enough to be accepted in a magazine? I’m a mother now; never thought it would happen so soon but it has. I was raped and I’m not sure how to keep pushing. I feel lost, as if it was my fault. – Strong Joanna
Hey there queen, I am so excited for you to be writing in a magazine. Maybe you should start writing your books again. You have the talent to write. I’m proud of you for graduating. It’s a big milestone.
You always wanted to be a mother. You practically raised your little sister. It’s OK that you feel a little lost. Just know that it wasn’t your fault and you should know better than anyone that you’ll keep pushing because you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. – Soft Joanna
Breean described a difference she saw. “One of your letters actually sounds genuinely happy and proud of your accomplishments, while the other is just stating them with no pride,” she said.
The letters helped me understand the split. I told Breean about having two personalities back when I was younger. I said, “Soft Joanna came out to care for our siblings and spend time with my elementary school friends. She was energetic and happy. As I got older I felt like I had to hide her to protect her from mean people.”
I asked Breean, “Do you think other people could see my personality changes?”
She considered it. “I believe I met Soft Joanna a few times, like when you were setting up Xavier’s birthday party. You were excited, moving around getting things ready for his birthday. And then the next day your mood switched completely, and you ended up in the hospital.” (I was admitted for self-harming.)
But then Breean said, “I would call them moods, not personalities. I don’t want to put a label on you.”
For Now, This Works
I don’t quite agree with her. Soft Joanna and Strong Joanna have their own likes and dislikes. It seems like more than moods, so I consider them personalities. I created a list of our traits for myself and people close to me like my friends and my partner. People I showed the lists to were more understanding than I thought they would be.
Strong Joanna is intelligent, educated, and cares more about other’s needs and wants than her own. She is withdrawn, cautious, and a perfectionist. She is responsible for work-related things.
Soft Joanna is energetic, proactive, emotional, polite, playful, caregiving, neat, and organized. She pays more attention to our needs and wants and is responsible for self-care.
Strong Joanna is depressed and doesn’t trust anyone. She often stays in bed, only getting up to do what she must. She works hard enough to get A’s in college and she protects us from pain. She’s also the go-to personality for working in a professional job setting.
But that’s all she can do. She gets annoyed and overwhelmed easily; she locks herself in the bedroom to avoid lashing out at people. She can go for days without eating.
Soft Joanna is energetic. She enjoys being outdoors and on her feet and is generally positive. She does self-care like wearing a face mask, exercising, going out for daily walks, and getting her hair and nails done. She holds a lot of excitement in her voice. She eats normally, but feels so energetic that she doesn’t get tired. In this mood, I don’t sleep enough.
Together, we take better care of ourselves, and we have made a journal that documents what we have done or what we plan to do. We still don’t have control of when we switch, but we make sure to take care of each other’s needs. Soft Joanna makes sure we eat and I (Strong Joanna) make sure we sleep. Strong Joanna is mostly writing this article, but it’s Soft Joanna who describes Strong Joanna.
I was struggling to do a lot on my own and struggling to stay positive about life when I was only Strong Joanna. Soft Joanna helps me feel less suicidal and less like self-harming, but she’s very emotional and can’t handle pain. She is also too energetic to sit down to complete classwork.
Do I want us to be unified? For now, this is my coping mechanism and it helps keep me as healthy and productive as I can be. I take an antidepressant and anxiety medication that treat my PTSD, depression, and panic disorder. Managing the different parts of myself doesn’t feel like a medication issue, but something to work through with therapy and writing.
I’m trying to gain control over the switch, but I’m not there yet. The shadow work is helping me heal from my past, but so far it’s not bringing the two sides of me together.