In some rare cases, people forget who they are, move across the country, and assume a completely new life. What could cause something like that to happen? In this lesson, we'll look at dissociative fugue, including diagnosis, causes, and treatments.
Many people know Agatha Christie as one of the most famous mystery writers in history. But what some people don't know is that in 1926 she had her own real-life mystery. Her husband Archie was having an affair, and Agatha was upset and stressed out. And then one day, when Archie was out meeting his lover, Agatha disappeared. It was 11 days before the police identified Agatha as a woman staying in a spa under an assumed name.
But here's the real mystery: Agatha Christie couldn't remember who she was! When she saw Archie again, she thought he was her brother. She had no memory of being Agatha Christie, famed mystery writer. It was as if she had actually changed identities. Agatha Christie might have been suffering from dissociative fugue, a rare psychological disorder that involves forgetting who you are, assuming a new identity, and traveling away from home. Let's look closer at dissociative fugue, including diagnosis, causes, and treatment.
In order to diagnose patients, psychologists turn to a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. In this book, psychological disorders, like dissociative fugue, are described in detail, and each disorder is given a checklist of criteria for diagnosing it.
The DSM is on its fifth edition; however, the fourth edition is more commonly used. Let's look at the diagnostic criteria for dissociative fugue from the DSM-IV and compare that to Agatha Christie's symptoms.
1. Sudden travel with the inability to recall one's past.
Dissociative fugue patients often end up in new towns, sometimes even new states, and they can't remember who they are or their life before the fugue began. Agatha Christie ended up in a spa in Yorkshire, on the other side of England from her home in Berkshire. Not only that, but she checked in under a different name and didn't remember that she was Agatha Christie. Since she traveled away and didn't remember who she was, she meets this criterion.
2. Confusion about one's identity.
People with dissociative fugue often end up assuming a new identity and live out a new life. For example, Agatha Christie told everyone at the spa that she was a grieving mother from South Africa. She was obviously confused about her identity, so we can check this one off.
3. Cannot be explained by another condition.
Sometimes, people experience symptoms similar to those in dissociative fugue, but they are really suffering from another psychological disorder. Drug and alcohol abuse and other medical conditions can also cause symptoms like those of dissociative fugue.
But there's no evidence that Agatha Christie was suffering from any other psychological or physical disorders, or that she had been drinking or doing drugs before she disappeared. She meets this criterion.
4. Causes distress or impairment.
Distress is any emotional reaction, like anger or sadness, and impairment is when a person can't live her life normally, like if she loses her job or her relationships are affected. While we don't have any information on whether Agatha Christie was suffering from distress or not, we can reasonably assume that she had occupational impairment, or problems with her career. After all, she was a celebrated author before the fugue, and during the fugue she didn't have a career. Since she meets all the criteria, if Agatha Christie was our patient, we would diagnose her with dissociative fugue.
Causes and Treatment
What could cause dissociative fugue? How could a popular, famous author suddenly forget who she is? Usually, a trauma or very stressful event is a trigger that leads to dissociative fugue. War, rape, and even positive life events, like marriage or kids, can cause a person to go into a dissociative fugue. In addition, victims of sleep deprivation are susceptible to fugues.
Remember that Agatha Christie's husband Archie was cheating on her and had left to go meet his mistress. Perhaps this was a stressful event that led to her fugue. Other stresses in her life, including work stress or other tensions, could also have contributed.
Whatever the cause of a fugue, it is usually treated with talk therapy. With a psychologist or other trained mental health professional, the patient can attempt to recover their memory of who they are and return to their previous life.
Unlike some other psychological disorders, dissociative fugues are generally relatively brief. They often last only a few days and rarely last more than a few months. And they often clear up on their own. However, if a fugue patient does not seek help for the underlying issues causing the fugue, additional episodes might occur.
Dissociative fugue is a rare psychological disorder that involves amnesia, assuming a new identity and traveling away from home. It is often triggered by trauma or stress, though sleep deprivation can also play a part in the onset. Dissociative fugues are often brief, lasting from a few days to a few months, and usually clear up on their own. However, talk therapy is often a key element in treating the underlying cause of the fugue to prevent future episodes.
After finishing this lesson, you should be prepared to:
- Define dissociative fugue and summarize the symptoms
- Describe the causes and treatment for dissociative fugue