What Is Dissociative Amnesia with Fugue State?
Dissociative disorders develop as the mind attempts to protect us from unbearably traumatic experiences, but new dangers arise in the process. Through dissociative amnesia and a dissociative fugue state, a person not only loses a grip on their memories and identity, but they also create physical distance from the trauma by traveling in this confused mindset. Early comprehensive treatment to rehabilitate the dissociation is the best and most secure road to recovery.
When we accidentally touch a pan on the stove or something else extremely hot, our bodies react immediately by pulling us away from the source of injury and pain. Our brains involuntarily create distance—a barrier between us and further trauma. Similar reactions are also possible when the trauma is of a psychological or emotional nature. The brain has a way of creating distance and limiting the mental injury we experience in the face of a traumatic event. This protective reaction might arise in the moment, or it might surface sometime later to dissociate us from the traumatic memories.
Dissociative disorders effectively distort a person’s sense of reality, perhaps disrupting their memories, untangling the understanding of their own identity, detaching them from the physical world around them, or otherwise separating them from the pain they face. Just as it protects us from burns and other physical injuries, the brain has the best intentions by building these walls against traumatic experience. But these walls also block the individual from processing the pain. Dissociative disorders trade in one challenge but introduce a new range of side effects and suffering.
When the brain muddles our ability to remember, it’s called dissociative amnesia disorder. Not related to organic causes, such as injury to the brain or seizure disorder, dissociative amnesia seriously disrupts a person’s ability to function in daily life, to relate to their past experiences, and perhaps even to relate to their own sense of identity. Every instance of the disorder is unique as it is influenced by an individual’s particular experiences. In some cases, dissociative amnesia is accompanied by a fugue episode, which can involve actual travel or confused wandering when the person is overcome by dissociation. Dissociative amnesia with fugue state can have particularly dangerous consequences and calls for the early intervention of comprehensive and compassionate treatment. It is possible to help an individual safely reconnect with themselves and to move through the source trauma for a freer future.
Understanding Dissociative Amnesia with Fugue State
Whereas dissociative disorders create distance between a person and their experience of trauma on a mental level, dissociative amnesia with fugue state also creates literal distance. People going through dissociative fugue exhibit unplanned, unexpected travel—sometimes to very far away. The person may not appear to be acting strangely to unfamiliar people around them, not at first. Within the context of amnesia symptoms, they are not remembering some or all details of their past and their identity. In some cases, an individual will assume a new identity and even establish a life in the place where they land in their travels.
But more often, they become confused days or even hours after leaving their familiar environment. And they are caught in the middle of a journey that they do not understand in the least. They may still be experiencing symptoms of memory loss, but they are now able to recognize that they don’t know where they are or how they got there. This confusion and distress compounds with any continuing experience of dissociative amnesia.
This act of fleeing, of running away from one’s past and home environment is not intentional with dissociative fugue. It is the mind’s desperate way of creating distance from a traumatic event or traumatic memories. The source trauma is unique for every case of dissociative amnesia with fugue state, but some common precipitating conditions include abuse, natural disaster, witnessing violence, war, or even intolerable stress in life or work.
Dissociative fugue typically does not persist for very long—usually not more than a few months, but the risks of travel when someone is not functioning with their grounded memories, reasoning, and judgment are high. They may be more prone to injury, victimization, and further emotional distress when they realize they don’t know where they are or even who they are. Early treatment is the answer to mitigating these steep risks of dissociative fugue. The complications of dissociative amnesia will likely take longer to reconcile in treatment, but comprehensive therapy can address all aspects of a client’s distress at once.
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Treating Dissociative Amnesia and Dissociative Fugue Comprehensively
For clients with dissociative amnesia and dissociative fugue, the road to recovery is one of reintegration: therapists act as guides to help them reintegrate their memories, including the traumatic ones, and to reconnect with their identity, confidence, relationships, responsibilities, and hopes for a thriving life. Medications may help to relieve some of the symptoms of this dissociative disorder, but the primary mode of treatment is psychotherapy.
Whether the provocative trauma occurred recently or long ago, dedicated treatment will be imperative to help a client process the original experience and all of the reactions, emotions, and dissociation that followed. In a long-term residential treatment program, they can develop trust in the community environment and their therapists—and in themselves—with healing as the collective priority. Especially for long-term recovery, clients need to develop effective methods of coping with any trauma that may resurface throughout their lives. In a compassionate treatment environment, they can practice getting in touch with and expressing their direct experience of the trauma, ideally bypassing the mind’s desperate need to dissociate.
Holistic treatment embraces the whole person. A care plan is personalized and may include a combination of individual therapy modalities, group therapy, family therapy, diet and nutrition, alternative medicines, adventure and recreation therapy. By way of structured treatment, clients gain powerful support systems through the peer community, their team of clinicians and therapists, and their family and friends who will play an integral role in future recovery. Those with dissociative amnesia and fugue episodes can rediscover their sense of self and empowerment. They can live the life they want without being controlled by trauma and uncontrolled reactivity.
Hanbleceya is a long-term residential treatment program for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-area program and how we can help you or your loved one begin the journey toward recovery.