Reporter: David Richardson

Paula Hanlon is under attack, fighting something, someone, inside her who is trying to get out and take control -- and Paula is losing.

Paula has dissociative identity disorder -- or DID -- the attack is being waged by one of 90 personalities inside her and it's been happening for years.

Paula looks like a healthy, 47-year-old woman; but inside her live a small army of personalities she calls "alters", different people created after a shockingly traumatic childhood she prefers not to discuss.

She had a central alter who organised everything, named Patricia; there was a five year old child called Cindy; and a woman who obsessively cleaned named Barbara. There was a nun; a personality who loved a drink and a woman who smoked and partied. "I had an alter who smoked and then whenever I would come back I'd be vomiting for about two hours afterwards because I do not like cigarette smoke. I've got clothes in three wardrobes I have never worn -- I don't even know how to wear them", Paul said.

But the whole time Paula was taken over by one of her alters, she would not have a clue. She would literally disappear inside herself while her "alter" took over, awaking later with no memory of what had occurred. It was only when she discovered strange clothing in her wardrobe and local business owners calling her other names, that she realised something was amiss.

Fearing something was terribly wrong, Paula sought psychiatric help. It took seven years and countless hospital stays for doctors to work out what was going on, that she was dissociating from herself -- just like the character in the 'United States of Tara'.

The hit show starring Australian Toni Collette is a virtual mirror image of Paula's own fight for sanity. During our filming, Paula vanishes in a second to be replaced by Cindy. It takes her close friend to drag Paula back which is terrifying to witness - its even more terrifying to experience.

"The alters were created to help Paula survive. The brain is a wonderful organism, they split to help Paula survive", said Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Dr Warrick Middleton.

"It's something that's actually a useful way of surviving what otherwise would be an abusive and rejecting environment, that might push someone to suicide of psychosis", Dr Middleton said.

Dr Middleton has spent 16 years investigating DID and says there's more people like Paula than you would possibly think. "Something in the order of 1.1% of the general population suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and another significant percentage suffer something that is a variant of the condition. So in a population of 22 million, you're talking 220,000", he added.

Like her poem 'Cascading Tears', Paula still faces a daily battle to keep the genies in her bottle. She now works in mental health -- helping others cope with their battles, showing others how to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzles of their minds, how to live with a united states of personalities. "I really think that is the meaning of life, to find some way to use your own life experiences to help other people, to help the world, to be part of the world. That's what it's all about", Pauls said.

Mental Health Week begins on Sunday October 7th to the 13th. For more information on DID and other mental health issues visit the website at: www.mentalhealth.org.au .