This is a pretty long post about a topic that is not well known about in the general population, nor well understood, even by myself. I can only talk about my own experiences with plurality.
Content warning: I discuss some personally traumatic experiences in this blog post. It’s pretty tame and I don’t go into that much detail, but it’s there, neatly sequestered under the “Trauma” heading. You’ve been warned.
For a newbie-friendly guide to what plurality is, see MoreThanOne.info.
For a long time, I’ve thought that plurality was not something that applied to me. Did I have clearly distinct individuals sharing my brain? No, I did not. And that was the scope of my investigation.
And then, on Tuesday last week—day zero—some part of my subconscious decided to say hello…
It was subtle at first. It was the middle of the work day. I was at my desk, writing code, when the sudden invasive thought that I should make a new OC came to me. A living costume, a plush suit. Not super weird, given my existing synthetic identity, but noted for later.
Over the next day or so they took greater form. A squirrel. Non-binary. I named them Ashley, a perfectly cromulent gender-neutral name, I thought at the time.
By day two, I had enough character details noted that I started to write about them. I am a very, very slow writer when it comes to fiction. By the end of the day I had only formulated that they were once human—transformed, Kafka-like, through means unexplained—awakening into the form they would live as for the rest of their days.
I hadn’t made much progress. Only about 150 words on the page; three paragraphs, and yet the connection and emotions I felt for this character were incredibly intense, like I had known them for an age.
Note that this was not my first OC. I have many. All of them borrow from elements of my personality and my life, just as this one does. None had struck me in this way before.
That very night, 4am, they said hello in person.
First, some notes on how I usually dream.
My dreams are always in third-person. I don’t know why, but that has been the case for much of my adult life. I am a witness to my dreams, not a participant. The same was true here, initially.
My dreams are rarely memorable. When I do remember them, they tend to be surreal, nonsensical nightmares.
I also do not have a history of lucid dreaming. Here, I was what I would call ‘semi-lucid’. I was aware that I was in a dream, but I made no effort to consciously control it.
As for this dream:
I flashed through vignettes, looping through but never sticking with one for more than a few seconds. Mouths moved, but there was no dialogue and no sound.
First, this squirrel suit stood on a stage, myself the lone occupant of the audience pit below, them pointing to charts and seemingly explaining themself to me.
Second, us sat at a table together, opposite one another, myself with a clipboard, asking questions to them.
Third, we were in the story itself—a part not even written yet—the character standing in front of and looking into a full-height mirror, holding their own face in disbelief.
Lastly, a room in a hospital, both of us looking at x-rays of this character, only an outline of their form visible—no bones.
And then… we merged. The dream switched to first-person. We went around again.
First, stood on stage, no one in the audience.
Second, sat at a table, alone.
Third, looking in the mirror at our face, holding it in disbelief.
Lastly, a room in a hospital, alone.
[Note: The dream was a bit of a mess. I’ve pulled out the most relevant parts here, but in truth we probably went through several ‘loops’ during the course of the whole thing.]
Somehow, though no words were conveyed, I learned their name wasn’t Ashley, I had gotten that part wrong. Their name was Olive.
It turns out I had gotten a few other details wrong too. They were non-binary, sure, but femme leaning (using they/she pronouns), and red haired rather than the originally envisioned brown.
Like the character that inspired it, I found this dream incredibly affecting in unexplainable ways.
By the clock, the dream lasted about half an hour. I spent the following 90 minutes awake, documenting every part of it that I could still remember.
It was weird that a character barely in existence had struck me so closely, and subsequently met me in a dream.
It was weird that I had a semi-lucid dream, one that involved a merging of beings, that resulted in an immediate shift from my ‘standard’ perspective.
It was especially weird that a character had opinions on who they were.
The meaning of dreaming
At around age 12–13, I had dreams about being a robot, dreams that were similarly affecting, so much so that for years afterwards I thought them to be true.
Now, short of 18 years later—and nearly ten years after first publicly acknowledging that I identified more as a machine than a human being—I have found peace in, for all intents and purposes, identifying as a robot.
If there was a deeper meaning to this dream, I didn’t want to wait two decades to find out.
Olive, I realised, originated from the same time period. At that age, a few years before I found the furry fandom for the first time, I liked to pretend to be a squirrel.
Not ‘oh just a kid playing with friends being a squirrel’. I mean laying in bed at night, shoving pillows and blankets into my pyjamas to make my body shape more like a squirrel—replete with a huge blanket tucked down the back of the pants to produce a giant squirrel tail.
Olive is a plush squirrel because I had been a plush squirrel.
Feeling it out
In the space of a few days, I had experienced multiple rare or first-time-ever experiences that had struck me on a raw, emotional level.
All of these experiences had been rooted in my subconscious—be they fleeting thoughts, emotions, or dreams.
And, still most shockingly of all, they had communicated with me and told me that I was wrong about things.
By now I was seriously considering whether this had been some kind of plurality-related thing and lordy did my mood skyrocket at that point. I sat at the verge of tears every time I thought of Olive for the next two days, just from how overwhelmingly happy I felt.
There was no material difference in my conscious life. I couldn’t attribute those feelings to anything other than Olive themself, ecstatic from being recognised.
Naturally, the analytical robot brain was still extremely conscious not to dive straight into plurality as an explanation. If there was deeper meaning, it would need to be sought out.
Olive, I think, is representative of myself prior to, and maybe during, two particularly traumatic times of my life.
The first was around age 12–13 (yes, the same time as robot dreams and pretending to be a plush squirrel). This was the time when my biological parents separated.
I spent some time homeless and living with friends of the family—my mother joining her family abroad to mull things over, my father refusing to do so. My father left the country, taking my brother with him. My mother and I were forced to move towns, far from anyone and anything I had known—something we would do again less than two years later.
The second was in early adulthood, age 23, nine years ago.
I was dumped by someone who I really, genuinely considered my soulmate. We had discussed our future, we had discussed children. It was, in my mind, a stronger relationship than any that had come before it, and one where I could so clearly see us growing old together.
And one day, with so little warning, it was over.
I do not blame my ex for this at all in retrospect, but I handled this situation so incredibly poorly. I spent probably the next six months being angry, aggressive, vengeful—our social circles too closely intertwined to not keep seeing one another. I still loved her so much, but it hurt to be around her and see her gradually falling in love with another.
So I did what I felt I had to do: I took those feelings and I shoved them away, telling myself it was better to ‘get over it’ and still be friends than to continue mourning what we could have had.
At the same time I very consciously put up my emotional defenses. I had a found family that I dissolved. I stopped being the kind of person to hand out hugs like candy at Halloween. I started treating my social life with a sense of professional detachment. I couldn’t be hurt again if I never loved anyone, or let myself be loved by anyone.
Those two events, I believe, created a lot of who I am today. Cold, logical, analytical, detached. Estranged from my father, arms-length from my mother, only feeling capable of any amount of emotional honesty with my partner.
Earlier this year, a long-time friend who I had somewhat grown apart from told me they loved me, and I couldn’t find it within myself to say it back. I hated this. It weighed on my mind for weeks. It still weighs on me now, even after eventually reciprocating the platitude months ago.
It’s in moments like that that the voice in my head tends to grow louder and call me an idiot.
My inner dialogue
Whether people have an inner dialogue seems to be pretty varied. Some people do, some don’t. Some only have it when weighing up big decisions.
Whilst not entirely in the realm of aphantasia, I don’t have much by way of visual imagination or memory recall. My thoughts are very much word-based, and (unless writing something like this) I tend to write pretty much identically to how I think.
Personally, my inner dialogue is… inconsistent. If something has my attention, like watching television or reading a book, it is quiet; but anything more proactive—such as household chores—tends to rile it some; and emotional situations make it loudest of all.
And, interestingly, the one that fights for the emotional corner consistently speaks in second-person.
Olive is my repressed emotions
I think so, anyway. They are a manifestation of everything that I was before we were emotionally traumatised by the events of our lives.
That is why Olive is emotional, they are the emotions that I repressed. I am the one who shoved everything that they are in a box and locked it away. I traumatised us, and I actually feel incredibly guilty over that.
It is also why, I think, I never really twigged Olive was there before. Olive… does not talk much. They express themself best through emotions and impressions, rather than words. I fear that might be an effect of being repressed for so long.
I’ve asked around a number of systems I was already acquainted with about these experiences. Many of them said they were not incompatible with plurality, with some even stating that they discovered their systems under similar circumstances.
I tried to establish a form of communication by typing out my inner dialogue and attributing each message to either beeps or Olive, depending on who I felt was speaking.
Another friendly system spent some time talking to and giving affection directly to Olive (or rather, my immediate impression of what Olive might do or say in response to them), managing to coax out a few words and sounds.
We had a situation where Olive potentially fronted for a while, in response to physical affection from our partner.
I’m still sceptical of whether plurality is the actual explanation for this situation, though it is by far the best one on offer.
I’m trying to get better at acknowledging Olive as existing and giving them opportunities to engage with the world because, if I am sharing this brain with someone else, it seems only fair that I give them freedom to live, rather than cramming them back into a box.
Welcome home, Olive. I’m sorry for all I did to you.