What Is Dissociative Fugue? Definition, Symptoms, Treatment
Dissociative fugue is a rare condition that is thought to affect 0.2% of the general population. Dissociative fugue is a part of the dissociative amnesia diagnosis in that both involve the inability to remember important personal information and/or events. A dissociative fugue, however, is differentiated as it occurs specifically when a person takes leave of his or her normal surroundings and goes on a journey of some kind.
Define Dissociative Fugue
Dissociative fugue used to be its own diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) but it now seen as part of dissociative amnesia. Dissociative amnesia is a blocking of critical information about the self, events, other people or specific times such that it cannot be explained by general forgetfulness.
Dissociative amnesia is generally centered around a trauma.
The dissociative fugue is, essentially, the active state of amnesia wherein a person is doing things he or she will later forget. A person in a dissociative fugue will suddenly, and uncharacteristically, travel from the home or work with a purpose in mind but without memory of some or of all of one's past. The definition of a dissociative fugue indicates the person is not confused or dazed, but rather he or she seems to be running away from something from which they are not aware. Another symptom of a dissociative fugue is a confusion over one's identity or, possibly, even taking on a new identity. A person in a dissociative fugue may be violent and homicidal but is not generally suicidal.
Dissociative Fugue Cases
Dr. Neel Burton has written about a possible dissociative fugue case experienced by famous author, Agatha Christie. According to Dr. Burton,
"The celebrated mystery writer, Agatha Christie, disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England, on the evening of December 3, 1926. Her mother, to whom she had been close, had died some months earlier, and her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie (Archie), was having an affair with one Nancy Neele. Archie made little effort to disguise this affair."
"Before vanishing, Agatha had written several confused notes to Archie and others: in one, she wrote that she was simply going on holiday to Yorkshire, but in another that she feared for her life. The following morning, her abandoned car was discovered with headlights on and bonnet up in Surrey, not far from a lake called Silent Pool in which she had drowned one of her fictional characters. Inside the green Morris Cowley, she had left her fur coat, a suitcase with her belongings, and an expired driver's license."
". . . In fact, Agatha had checked into a health spa in Harrogate, Yorkshire, not under her own name but –significantly – under that of 'Teresa Neele'. Her disappearance soon made the national headlines; several people at the spa thought to have recognised her, but she kept to her story of being a bereaved mother from Cape Town.
"Only when, on December 14, the police brought Archie up to Harrogate could she be reliably and conclusively identified. As Archie entered the spa, Agatha simply said, 'Fancy, my brother has just arrived.'"
In a first-person account of a dissociative fugue case, Ms. Hannah Emily Upp talks about "waking up" after a dissociative fugue state:
"I went from going for a run to being in the ambulance . . . It was like 10 minutes had passed. But it was almost three weeks."
In the case of Ms. Upp, she was rescued from the waters off the southern tip of Manhattan, floating face down in the water after being missing for 19 days. Ms. Upp still remembers nothing from those 19 days but she was caught on security feeds in Starbucks, in an Apple store and at a gym. Ms. Upp even logged into her email while at the Apple store but there is no record of emails being sent or read during that time. Doctors think she did it on muscle memory alone and then didn't recognize the person everyone was writing to and, so, logged out. In the Apple store she also spoke to a fellow university student who asked her if she was the missing woman and she replied "no."
Dissociative Fugue Treatment
The treatment for dissociative fugue is the same as it is for other types of dissociative states: therapy and medication and, likely, hospitalization if the person doesn't know who he or she is. Psychotherapy aims to unlock details about the person's history and identity while medication may help ameliorate some of the symptoms of dissociation.
Last Updated: 16 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD