A lot of people are very frightened of us until they meet us," says Kim Noble in a flat south-London accent. "But we've been in treatment now for 10 years and actually we don't behave as if we've got 50 heads!"
This is my first interview with Kim Noble, and I confess that I am a little apprehensive myself - what does a woman with 20 personalities look like? What if she "switches" midway through the interview? Kim's appearance gives nothing away; she is a tiny, almost frail-looking woman with a thick mane of copper hair framing the most startlingly clear blue eyes. The rest of her face is almost incidental, but high cheekbones and delicate features under clear bronze skin all make the picture quite lovely.
There is no trace of disturbance in her voice either - she is breezy and animated. She could even pass for normal if you met her on the street but Kim, 45, has spent the last 10 years coming to terms with the condition dissociative identity disorder (DID) and in the last two, she and 12 of her "alters" have started painting in acrylics after a short time with an art therapist.
Despite no formal training, all the artists have developed their own distinctive styles, colours and themes and she has had seven successful solo and seven group exhibitions. She is now artist in residence at Springfield University Hospital in Tooting, south London, and wants to show the positive side of her condition to explain her art. This is the reason for our meeting.
"We're doing something really worthwhile and we've also brought up a healthy, well-loved daughter," she says. The use of the plural personal pronoun is strange but Kim talks so quickly, I don't have time to reflect.
"Being diagnosed with DID was the best thing that ever happened to us," she says. "From the age of 14 I'd had spells in psychiatric hospitals and had been diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to depression, hysterical amnesia, anorexia and bulimia. It's a lot to take in when you're first told - I used to think I just had a bad memory because of all the blank periods. Or I put it down to drinking. I was sectioned many times and told I'd have to take medication for the rest of my life.
"Now I don't take any medication and haven't been in hospital for a decade. I just have therapy twice a week and a support team who come over occasionally to help out. One was an art therapist. That's how I got into painting. We just started out doing it on the back of wallpaper two years ago and we loved it."
In just two years, Kim has painted over 200 canvasses, getting up at 3am to start work so that she has time alone in her art room before daughter Aimee wakes up at 6.30am. Of course, it's not always Kim doing the painting.
"I have no memory at all between the personalities so when I come back, I don't always know who's been around. The best way to tell is to look at what painting is out at the time. Or Aimee will tell me. Since we started the artwork, there's actually been a lot more control in my life. If they're painting, they're achieving something and when they don't, they get very restless."
To all intents and purposes, each of Kim's personalities is an artist in their own right: Patricia paints the solitary desert landscapes, Bonny's pictures often feature robotic dancing figures or "frieze people", Suzy repeatedly paints a kneeling mother, Judy's canvasses are large, conceptual pieces while Ria's work reveals deeply traumatic events involving children.
These disturbing images are at the root of Kim's extraordinary condition; DID is a creative mental survival strategy whereby the personality splits at a young age due to severe and chronic trauma. The number of personalities that exist often depends on how long the trauma lasts. But Kim herself has no memory of being abused as a child; she has been protected over the years by her alters.
"I've been told I was abused and to me at this moment in time, it's too much. It goes in one ear and out the other. It's no good retraumatising me and telling me something I don't want to know - in any case, there would be a switch."
Kim has good reason to fear learning about her past as it's possible that if she acquires too much information, she won't be able to cope and will "disappear". It's happened twice before. (omega)
This is where it gets really weird - for Kim isn't Kim at all. The personality I am interviewing is Patricia and it is she who manages her and Aimee's lives, but Patricia wasn't always the dominant personality. Before Patricia took over, Bonny held the fort and two years previous to Bonny, it was Hayley.
Kim watches me closely as she explains: "You see Kim is just the 'house', the body. There isn't a 'Kim' at all - she has completely split. So we answer to the name Kim but really I am Patricia. When people call us 'Kim' I suppose many of us just assume it's a nickname, but once people know you they don't use your name very often in conversation."
Of the 20 or so personalities who share "Kim", some are easily identifiable: there is 15-year-old Judy who is anorexic and bulimic, maternal Bonny, religious Salome, depressed Ken, sensible Hayley, Dawn, Patricia and elective mute MJ. There are also a handful of children "frozen" in time. A few of the alters know about the DID but many are unaware - or refuse to accept it.
"Judy doesn't believe in the DID," explains Kim. "She's only a teenager and she calls our therapist a nutter when she tries to explain it to her. She's so young, she doesn't even think Aimee is her daughter. She knows about me and she thinks that I'm a terrible mother because I'm always leaving Aimee. To her, it's totally normal to keep coming and going. She probably thinks that you come and go too."
There are certain "triggers" that can force a change and gradually Kim has learnt what they are in order to avoid them - but it doesn't stop her switching up to three or four times a day.
"I don't really get any idea when I'm about to go except occasionally a feeling of drifting. Mostly it's instantaneous. I can lose six or seven hours but if you were asking another personality now, of course they'd say they lose days. So we haven't got much of a sense of time - I'm always in a panic to get things done.
"It means that Aimee's time gets interrupted. If a younger one comes out they can be playing for hours and nothing will get done. Aimee can get me back again but if she's on to a good thing she won't. I came to in the hallway once and there was paint spattered everywhere. Aimee just looked at me and said: 'Well, it wasn't my fault, was it?'
"To Aimee, all of this is normal. She's grown up with it and she knows all the personalities better than anyone. She misses Bonny quite a lot because Bonny used to be her main carer and now she's not around so much. Sometimes she asks if she can speak to her and I let her. Now that she's older she's getting a bit cheeky. She asked me for a kitten yesterday and I said no, then she asked Judy and she said yes. But it's me that has the final say, so she's not getting one."
This playing-off between the personalities mimics the actions of a child trying to manipulate two parents to their advantage.
"Oh, I think Aimee's very lucky in some ways," says Kim. "There's always plenty of people for her to talk to and have fun with and we never get angry at her. If we're beginning to get frustrated then someone else will take over. I'm not saying (omega) it's always easy for Aimee - she gets stressed about getting to school on time because if I'm not around, maybe one of the other personalities won't know they have to get her ready. But the school are aware of the DID and are very supportive."
It is a testament to Kim's strength that she is a mother at all as Aimee was taken away by social services at birth to be put up for adoption. Kim took her fight all the way to the High Court and was assessed by two independent psychiatrists in the process - they both confirmed she was no danger to her child.
"DID is all about protection so I know that Aimee will always be safe - we all love her and take care of her together," says Kim. "At first, social services were worried I wouldn't remember to feed Aimee, or overfeed her. But luckily the trend was to feed on demand so we just fed her when she was hungry. It's the same for me - I tend to just snack as I don't know who's been out recently or whether they've eaten. I have to listen to my body. I let Judy do the eating."
Kim lets out a loud, throaty laugh - despite the day-to-day difficulties, she is the first to point out the ludicrous nature of her situation. "All the personalities have different taste in clothes so sometimes I can end up in five different outfits in one morning. And I lose things all the time because another personality might move my mobile and I'll have no idea where it's gone. I lost the computer once! It was broken and I was taking it in to be fixed but then I lost time and when I came back there was no computer. I went to the repair shop and just sort of hung around, waiting for them to say, 'We've got your computer.' I didn't want to just ask them - it would have seemed crazy."
Can she not communicate with the other personalities?
"I leave notes for them sometimes but usually get rude replies back like: 'Mind your own business.'"
According to leading psychology professor at UCL, Professor John Morton, Kim has the misfortune to represent the British "gold standard" over genuine dissociation. In the last four years he has conducted extensive tests on Kim and found there is no memory at all between the different personalities.
"Even when DID patients reported no memory between the different personalities, our tests usually showed massive leakage between them," he says. "Kim shows no leakage at all. She is proving existing memory theories wrong. She's doing things which we would say are impossible."
On our second meeting, I discover more about Aimee's origins. "One of us was seeing a guy and got pregnant but he wasn't everybody's choice so he left. It was Dawn who had Aimee. But because she was taken away at birth and we only got her back when she was six months old, Dawn didn't recognise her, so she's always looking for her baby."
For all the personalities, this appears to have been a major trauma in their lives. Now single, Kim says she doesn't want a relationship as it would be too complicated and she couldn't imagine all of them marrying one man.
I ask where the treatment is leading - could the personalities one day integrate, allowing Kim to lead a more "normal" life?
"That always used to be the aim with DID sufferers, but not anymore," she says. "And I wouldn't want it. It's a bit like killing someone else, isn't it? Perhaps it will be me who's never around and Bonny will take over again. Apparently that doesn't happen but I can't even imagine what it's like. Also, if I integrated I'd lose the artists too. We'd all mould into one style and which style would that be? No, I don't want integration at all - my goal is managing it."
For our third interview, Kim's therapist is present at her request - it means I can meet the other personalities under controlled and safe conditions. Judy comes out at lunch so that she can eat. The change occurs almost immediately - Patricia closes her eyes for a second and then when she opens them again she looks bewildered and a little embarrassed.
The therapist explains who I am and Judy grunts in greeting then starts picking at the white trousers she is wearing.
"What's these?" she says to no one in particular.
Her therapist replies: "You don't like them?"
Judy snaps back: "I don't like white. It makes me look fat." She pulls a cushion over her legs then we carry on a halting conversation while she pokes at her chicken in lentil sauce.
Judy is sullen and defensive - she's never seen lentils before and announces they look like "rabbit poop".
Eventually, we get onto the subject of DID.
"Did? I did what? I did it! What Katy did," Judy plays with the words.
I ask her if she believes in DID.
"No!" she scoffs. "What? When I'm not there, somebody else is there talking to me? Eh?"
So how is it she's wearing trousers she doesn't like?
"I've always got bizarre clothes on that belongs to some other idiot," she says.
When her therapist tries to point out that this isn't usual for most people, Judy shoots back: "I've just got a bad memory. I probably put these on."
I ask: "How old are you, Judy?"
"Old enough to know better! I'm 15."
The therapist gently says that she was 15 when they met 10 years ago.
"But you've never been good at maths. You told me that."
Judy seems to have a brilliant arsenal of weapons to protect her from the truth: she has a bad memory, or her therapist is a terrible mathematician. As the meal ends, Judy leaves the sofa and in the middle of crossing the room, she stops, there's a jerk in her spine and she slowly turns around. It is Patricia again - she smiles warily. She has no idea what has just happened and looks at the empty plate: "So she ate all her food then? Was she all right?"
Later on, Bonny comes out - Patricia's head bows for a second then she looks up slowly and shyly. Bonny is altogether different from Patricia and this is reflected in the tension in her face - she is a softer, more serene character and even begins to cry when she talks about missing Aimee.
"I just don't get to see her," she says sadly.
When Patricia is back again, we tell her what Bonny has said. She is resentful: "Yeah, but I don't get enough time with Aimee."
I leave the interview tired and amazed; there was no trace of Kim/Patricia in either of the two alters. Though I cannot even begin to imagine horrors Kim faced as a child, I am struck that neither the abuse nor its devastating consequences have destroyed this woman's spirit, humour or capacity to love. She may not have 50 heads but there is nothing normal about Kim Noble; she is one terrible, exquisite and beautiful work of art.
Kim Noble will be exhibiting at the Raw Arts Festival in Valencia in October and at the London Art House, Islington, in January. To find out more about her work visit www.kimnoble.com