Dissociative fugue is when a person’s mind detaches from reality, causing a state of temporary memory loss. Often, people in this state will go somewhere else and later have no memory of how they got there.
In some cases, the person may leave their home or job, or assume a new identity. Sometimes, dissociative fugue may put someone in danger.
The word “fugue” means “to flee.” The term “dissociation” refers to a sensation of disconnection from one’s body, experience, or reality. Most cases of dissociative fugue occur due to a mental health condition.
Read on to learn more about dissociative fugue, including the symptoms, triggers, and treatments.
A dissociative fugue is an altered mental state that causes memory loss and wandering. People who experience it may be unable to remember who they are or important details about their life. They may wander off without knowing why, or travel with purpose to a specific place.
Someone in a dissociative fugue might suddenly leave their house or office, or even travel far from home. Later on, they may struggle to remember how they got there, or why.
Dissociative fugue is not the product of forgetfulness or an inability to remember. People who dissociate have memories, but during a fugue state, some or all of their memories may be inaccessible. Sometimes, people recover memories later on.
A person may experience a dissociative fugue if they:
- suddenly realize they are in an unfamiliar place
- cannot remember how they got there, who they are, or other important aspects of their life
- feel very confused
- do not know why they do certain things
To others, a person in a dissociative fugue may look lost or confused. If they ask them questions, they may find they cannot tell them basic information, such as:
- their name
- where they are from
- why they are here
- who to contact to bring them home
Dissociative fugue is reversible, though. A person may regain awareness or memory with time or mental health treatment.
An example of dissociative fugue could be a soldier returning from war, and then wandering away from home with no memory of who he is.
Alternatively, a person in a violent relationship might flee to escape in a dissociative fugue, and then later not remember how they got there.
There is also speculation that the novelist Agatha Christie may have experienced dissociative fugue.
In 1926, Christie drove some distance away from her home in the south of England and abandoned her car. A search effort found her in a hotel in the north of England over a week later, staying under a false name.
Christie appeared not to remember the events leading up to her disappearance, but some sources claim she disappeared on purpose. Whether she was aware of her actions is unclear.
Dissociative amnesia describes any type of memory loss that occurs due to dissociation. It does not always cause a person to travel elsewhere. The memory loss is not always as pervasive as it is in a fugue state.
Dissociative amnesia can be:
- localized, meaning a person has difficulty remembering a specific event or time period
- selective, meaning they have difficulty remembering specific aspects of an event
- generalized, meaning they have difficulty remembering their entire life history or identity
Dissociative fugue is less common than amnesia on its own. It is possible for people to experience both.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a specific mental health condition that causes a person to dissociate and manifest two or more distinct identities. These identities are known as “alters.” They may have a different name, voice, or personality.
Some people with DID are aware of their alters and remember what they do while they are in control. Others cannot remember, which may be similar to a dissociative fugue. However, the two conditions are different.
Medical professionals believe that the cause of dissociative fugue is trauma. Trauma is an event, or series of events, that are profoundly distressing or threatening.
A person may experience dissociation as a direct result of experiencing a trauma, either during or shortly after. But if they experience post-traumatic symptoms, they may also experience dissociation later on in response to certain triggers.
However, because a fugue state can develop quickly or without warning, a person may not remember the trigger. There may be reasons only the individual is aware of before they develop memory loss, such as realizing it is the anniversary of a traumatic event.
Dissociative fugue is not well understood. It may be an unconscious attempt to “escape” the trauma, but more research is necessary to better understand the mechanisms behind it.
The key priority when finding someone in a fugue state is to get them to safety. Healthcare professionals may try to determine the person’s identity, find out where they came from, and contact a friend or relative who can take them somewhere safe.
If the fugue state was brief and occurred due to a specific situation, such as a car crash, the person may recover with support alone. Many people experience traumatic events with no long-term symptoms.
However, a person may need treatment if the fugue state is more severe or recurs. Treatment usually involves psychotherapy and possibly medication, depending on whether the person has other mental health conditions.
Asking others to help fill in gaps in memories can be useful, as it can help a person regain a sense of self and rebuild their life narrative.
In some cases, it may be a matter of urgency for a person to recover their memories. In these cases, doctors may consider techniques such as hypnosis. However, this can risk the person reliving traumatic events when they are not ready.
Anyone who suspects they may be experiencing dissociation or dissociative fugues should discuss this with a doctor or mental health professional.
Seek care for someone else if they:
- do not know who they are
- cannot identify any friends or family
- seem lost and confused
- wander away from home and appear not to remember why
- do not have money, a bag, or other resources with them to get back home
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Dissociative fugue is a rare alteration in a person’s mental state. It causes a person to go somewhere else, but they may not know why. Temporary memory loss, such as not knowing their name or life experiences, is also a feature.
Dissociative fugue is one of several types of dissociation, all of which are usually the result of a mental health condition. Treatment focuses on getting a person somewhere safe and addressing the underlying cause through therapy or medication.