Dissociative fugue is an extremely rare mental health condition most psychologists will probably never witness although dissociative fugue case studies are often newsworthy enough to make the headlines.
What is dissociative fugue and what are the symptoms?
Dissociative fugue is one of four different dissociative disorders and the word “fugue” derives from the Latin word, fugere, meaning “flight”. The condition is characterized by a sudden and unexpected trip to a new location, miles away from family and home. It is a more severe form of dissociative amnesia and the patient often has no recollection of his or her immediate past or personal identity. In some cases, the person takes on a whole new identity and starts again with a new home and life. However, in most cases, the person quickly becomes confused and distressed and begins to comprehend that something is seriously wrong after a few hours or days.
Once the patient recovers from the episode of dissociative fugue, their memories of life prior to the episode returns, but all memory of what happened during the fugue is lost forever.
What causes dissociative fugue?
Patients diagnosed with dissociative fugue are often reacting to an episode of extreme stress. This can be the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or in one documented case, post traumatic stress caused by a terrorist attack. Such overwhelming stress and trauma can cause the patient to “run away” and attempt to block out their immediate past, if only for a short period of time.
Examples of dissociative fugue case studies:
- The first recognized cases of dissociative fugue were described as The Mad Travellers. The first documented case dates back to 1887 and was that of Albert Dadas, a part time clerk and repairman, who was subjected to irresistible impulses that caused him to travel to distant places. When questioned, he had no explanation for his bizarre urges to travel. There are also many other reported cases of dissociative fugue cases from this era.
- In 2003, a 35-year-old businessman was discovered living in Virginia after disappearing from home six months previously and having left his wife and children behind with no explanation. It transpired that the man had narrowly escaped death in the Twin Towers atrocity in 2001 and was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. He was only found after an anonymous tip off led local law enforcement officers to his door.
- The disappearance of crime novelist Agatha Christie is a very famous case of dissociative fugue. The author vanished on December 3rd 1926, only to show up in a hotel in Harrogate, England, eleven days later. When questioned, she had no explanation or memory of what had happened during her missing eleven days.
- In 2005, David Fitzpatrick found himself in London with no recollection of who he was or his former life. He was officially listed as a missing person while local police tried to discover his identity. When his family were tracked down a few days later, elation turned swiftly to disappointment when David still had no recollection of who he or they were. His remarkable story was featured on a television documentary as he tried to recover his former life and move on from his episode of dissociative fugue.