Dissociative Fugue: Definition, Treatment & Symptoms

Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Explore the condition psychologists call dissociative fugue. Learn about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of dissociative fugue, then test your understanding with a quiz.

Hannah, a young school teacher and graduate student from New York City went for a run along her favorite route on August 8th. The next thing she knew she was waking up in an ambulance being rushed to the hospital. She had been pulled out of the waters of New York harbor by a ferryman and his crew. She was sunburned, dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, but had no physical signs that she had been assaulted. She was very surprised when they told her that the date was September 16th.

Hannah's family and friends, as well as the police, had been searching for Hannah for weeks. They could only guess that she had been kidnapped, assaulted, or worse. Hannah's ID, wallet and cell phone had been left in her apartment. Where had the weeks gone?

Dissociative Fugue

Hannah had no recollection of the weeks she spent wandering New York City. It was as if she had simply lost her memory of the weeks in between. It is still unknown where and how she slept and ate, although some security camera footage clearly showed that she was awake, aware and unharmed. She had been living a life, but it was one that was not her own. During her time in the hospital, Hannah was diagnosed as having suffered a case of dissociative fugue.

Dissociative fugue is a mental condition characterized by a sudden and unexpected travel away from home and normal routine followed by a lack of memory of the time away. Hannah's experience was a clear case of this very rare state. Even when she watched the security videos, she had no recollection of being in those places and talking to people as normal. A great way to think of the term 'fugue' is like a 'fog,' in which the affected person is walking around, unable to see herself clearly.

Symptoms of Dissociative Fugue

Although Hannah did not appear to have traveled far, some people who experience dissociative fugue have been known to travel up to thousands of miles, sometimes over international borders. The fugue state can last from hours to years, if not discovered. It may sound impossible, but people who suffer from dissociative fugue are often confused about their identity or assume a whole new identity during the episode of fugue. Most people who experience a fugue state do not show signs of illness or abnormal behavior, so they often do not attract attention. This often lets the fugue state continue until their lack of memory or self-identity is noticed and they are brought to a hospital.

Diagnosis of Dissociative Fugue

Psychologists categorize dissociative fugue in the family of psychotic disorders. Psychotic disorders are a group of disorders classified by a loss of contact with reality. In dissociative fugue, the sufferer loses contact with his or her own personality for a period of time and sometimes creates and lives a new identity. At first glance, this may sound similar to dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. However, people who experience dissociative fugue are very unlikely to ever have another episode. This distinguishes it from multiple personality disorder in that multiple personality disorder is a continuous and consistent presence of two or more distinct personalities.

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