Understanding Dissociative Fugue
Wed, April 21, 2021

Understanding Dissociative Fugue

On December 3, 1926, celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England. Her disappearance sparked one of the largest manhunts ever mounted / Photo by: Electric Egg via Shutterstock

 

On December 3, 1926, celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England. Her disappearance sparked one of the largest manhunts ever mounted. Before vanishing, she had written several confusing notes to her husband Archie Christie, a former First World War pilot and serial philanderer, and others. For instance, she wrote that she was only going on a vacation to Yorkshire. But in another letter, she said she feared for her life.

According to reports, more than 1,000 policemen were assigned to Christie’s case and over 15,000 volunteers helped in looking for her. For the first time, aeroplanes were also involved in the search. The day after her disappearance, her abandoned car was found in Surrey, not far from a lake called Silent Pool in which she had drowned one of her fictional characters. She had left her suitcase with her belongings, fur coat, and an expired driver’s license. However, her body wasn’t found.

Some speculated that Christie was drowned or committed suicide. Little did they know that the writer was staying in a hotel in Harrogate during the days she disappeared. Things then only got stranger. Christie stated that she remembered nothing and couldn't provide any clues to what had happened to her. Bizarrely, she checked into the hotel under a different name, Theresa Neele. During her stay there, she did nothing to arouse suspicions. It seemed like she was living her normal life. 

After Christie was found, she never provided the public and even her family the answers of what happened when she disappeared. Her husband stated the writer had suffered a total memory loss due to the car crash. It was later concluded that Christie might have suffered dissociative fugue, a rare form of dissociative amnesia. This disorder is triggered by a traumatic event, prompting a person to embark on an unexpected journey that may last for up to several months.

During this trip, there is memory loss and an assumption of another identity. In the case of Christie, her failure to recognize herself in newspaper photographs and her adoption of a new personality were signs that she had fallen into a dissociative fugue. 

Causes and Symptoms of Dissociative Fugue

The term “fugue” is a Latin word meaning “flight,” reflecting the nature of dissociative fugue that involves an element of running away from one’s present situation. Reports show that this condition is rare with the rate being around 0.2% of the population. It is more common in adults compared to kids. Also, it is more prevalent in people who have been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder.

According to WebMD, the leading source for trustworthy and timely health and medical news and information, people with this condition lose their sense of personal identity temporarily. They also impulsively wander or travel away from their homes or places of work. Usually, they don’t exhibit strange behaviors. The length of the dissociative fugue may last hours, days, weeks, months, years, or even longer. It is caused by a situation that gives the person extreme emotional stress, which might be a result of various traumatic events such as disasters, accidents, abuse, war, or extreme violence that they have witnessed or experienced. 

Dissociative fugue is a person’s way of escaping from the stress that they have a hard time dealing with or coping with. Other causes include extreme feelings of shame or embarrassment, torture, long-term emotional or physical abuse in childhood, kidnapping, and more. The type of memories that they lose are sometimes referred to as autobiographical memories.

According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance for mental health, some of the symptoms that may occur during a fugue state include appearing to be unsure about your past, confusion about your own identity, and feeling confronted if challenged about your own identity. After the fugue state ends, they may experience periods of grief, feelings of depression, discomfort or anger, feeling as though they have lost time, and more. 

Medical professionals usually diagnose dissociative fugue by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Diagnosing this condition will not require lab tests, however, doctors might recommend various diagnostic tests. These tests might include blood tests, electroencephalograms (EEGs), and neuroimaging studies. 

The term “fugue” is a Latin word meaning “flight,” reflecting the nature of dissociative fugue that involves an element of running away from one’s present situation / Photo by: AlexVH via Shutterstock

 

Treating Dissociative Fugue

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for dissociative fugue due to the rarity of the condition. But treatments usually have two main goals: helping to recover their identity and developing coping strategies to prevent the same thing from happening again as well as helping them to come to terms and cope with the original trauma that triggered the episode.

According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information, the treatment may include creating a safe environment, helping to reconnect to life prior to the trauma, regaining normal life functions, gradually discovering, dealing with, and then managing the trauma that originally caused the condition, and strengthening and improving relationships. These can be achieved through several types of therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and dialectical behavior therapy.

Dissociative fugue is difficult to spot immediately. One needs to know the symptoms first. Sometimes, the fugue cannot be diagnosed until the person abruptly returns to his pre-fugue identity. This leaves them feeling more distressed than ever. Nonetheless, support from family and loved ones is important during these times.