Dissociative fugue is a rare dissociative disorder with a prevalence of 0.2% in the general population. Dissociative fugue is a subtype of dissociative amnesia, characterized by memory lapses ranging from minutes to hours, and in rare cases months to years. What makes dissociative fugue different from dissociative amnesia is the element of physical travel. Individuals often adopt a new identity during their memory loss and live completely separate lives from their previous one, in an entirely separate location.
Since this disorder is not well characterized by the scientific community, there are several popular myths surrounding dissociative fugue.
Myth #1: Dissociative fugue is easy to spot.
Fact: Dissociative fugue may be difficult to diagnose at first glance.
In many cases, a person experiencing dissociative fugue appears normal and will not attract any unwanted attention during this period. An individual in a fugue state can easily interact with other people and go about their day as if a major psychological change never occurred. A person may develop a completely separate identity from their previous self and will even adopt information about their “new” home and background based on a false identity. However, fugue states eventually end, whether they last for hours or days. Only at the point when a person recalls memories from their previous life do medical professionals and others discover that something is awry.
An example of a person with dissociative fugue comes from the film The Majestic (2001), starring Jim Carrey. Carrey’s character, Peter, experiences a devastating car accident followed by a period of dissociative amnesia and fugue. Upon recovering from the car accident, Peter has no recollection of who he was, or how he traveled to a new town. Years earlier, a man living in the town lost his son, Luke, during WWII. In an unlikely twist of fate, Peter bore a striking resemblance to the town’s forgotten son, Luke. So much so that everyone in town was convinced that Peter was actually Luke finally returning home many years later. Peter adopted Luke’s identity on this basis, until memories of his life as Peter finally returned, causing quite the conundrum. Thus, until a dissociative fugue ends, it can be very difficult to diagnose.
Myth #2: Dissociative fugue can be prevented.
Fact: Quick intervention following a traumatic event may help reduce the risk of developing dissociative disorders.
Unfortunately, dissociative fugue cannot easily be prevented. By definition, dissociative fugue is characterized by memory lapses involving random and unanticipated travel away from home. However, because dissociative amnesia and fugue are highly associated with trauma, individuals that have recently experienced trauma should be closely monitored for dissociative behaviors.
Individuals diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder may exhibit dissociative fugue symptoms. In rare cases, people using certain medications or substances may also experience fugue states. Thankfully, once medical professionals correctly diagnose a patient with dissociative fugue, people with this disorder can recover.
Depending on the severity of dissociative fugue, the individual’s physical, mental and emotional state, and how long the fugue state lasts will dictate a patient’s treatment plan.
Myth #3: People with dissociative fugue are aware of their condition.
Fact: People are not often aware of their fugue state until they come out of it.
If an individual is in a fugue state, they generally have no knowledge of it. Many people with dissociative fugue may not show any abnormal or irregular behavior. Certain individuals may appear moderately confused, but not enough to warrant concern. Some symptoms of a person in a dissociative fugue state include:
- Unexpected or unplanned (seemingly random) travel to a new location during a memory lapse
- Unable to remember past events, people, places or things
- Inability to recall past identity, or confusion about one’s identity
- Creation of a completely or partially new identity
- Inability to function normally (once the fugue state is realized)
Once a fugue state ends and an individual rediscovers their old identity through recalling previous memories, stress sets in. After a fugue state ends, people report feeling depressed, upset, conflicted, aggressive and suicidal. Most diagnoses of dissociative fugue are made after fugue states end, or if an individual expresses confusion at their identity.
Medical professionals will assess information about the patient before the fugue, how long the fugue lasted, where the patient traveled and the type of life the patient established, before making a final diagnosis. Generally, if dissociative fugue states recur, patients are diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder versus dissociative fugue.
Myth #4: Dissociative fugue requires treatment to regain memory.
Fact: Memories can naturally come back without treatment.
In some cases, an individual can recall their memories without receiving treatment from a medical professional. A person may remain confused about their identity for the entirety of the fugue. For these individuals, it is easier to recall memories than for a person who completely developed a new identity with absolutely no recollection of their previous self.
Most dissociative fugues are short, with only slight impairment. Typically, treatment varies based on whether an individual is still in a fugue state or has spontaneously recovered from it. For individuals who are still in a fugue state, information collected by law enforcement, hospitals, and social workers is vital for determining a person’s true identity. Treatment plans involve determining the underlying causes (trauma or the like) of why an individual entered a fugue state in the first place and how to reestablish a person’s true identity. Drug-facilitated interviews, hypnosis, and psychotherapy are the typical therapies recommended for individuals with dissociative fugue. However, it should be noted that memories while in the fugue state may never be fully recovered despite therapy.
For those living with a mental health condition and a co-occurring addiction, help is available at The Recovery Village. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and co-occurring disorder, contact a representative today to discuss treatment options.