Fugue States: What Happens When You Forget Your Own Identity

What happens during a fugue state is as mysterious as it is distressing. This sort of dissociative amnesia can be triggered by trauma or seemingly happen at random, and causes people to completely forget their memories – including their personalities. It can happen for hours, days, or even months. In rare occurrences, it can last for years.

One of the weird things about fugue states is that they can involve changes of identity. During a dissociative fugue, a person might suddenly flee to a new place, where they'll begin living as a completely new individual. Once they come out of the state, they may feel confused, disoriented, or even angry. Their personality essentially resets as if nothing had ever happened.

Information about fugue states is still being uncovered, but as disturbing as some of these cases may be, it's important to learn the facts. Otherwise, very real occurrences of fugue states might enter the realm of pop-psychology myths.

  • Your Memories Will Temporarily Vanish
    Photo: dhammza / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Your Memories Will Temporarily Vanish

    A fugue state, also called a dissociative fugue, messes with your mind. When a fugue state hits, you will suddenly be unable to recall your name, your family, the faces of those you know, or anything about your life. In the blink of an eye, it all just disappears.

    Experts explain that your memories are not actually gone; they're temporarily locked away. As long as the fugue lasts, you won't be able to access them, but most people recover their memories once the fugue has ended.

  • Your Personality May Change Completely
    Photo: CariSometimes / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Your Personality May Change Completely

    With this sort of amnesia, not only do you lose your identity, but you also gain a new one. When your brain misfiles your memories, you still need to be able to function, and so you often fill in the blanks as a defense mechanism. This means that you may spontaneously give yourself a new name and a new backstory, and may take your life temporarily in a new direction.

    Since your new persona isn't informed by past experiences, the kind of person you are may change entirely. Those who have experienced these dissociative episodes explain that they do things during the fugue state that they would never normally do.

    Anyone who meets you during this episode might as well be meeting a stranger.

  • You Might Get Some Really Strong Wanderlust
    Photo: baskua / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    You Might Get Some Really Strong Wanderlust

    People experiencing fugue states tend to run away, perhaps because they're trying to flee traumatic surroundings. In fact, the word "fugue" comes from the Latin word for flight. An individual in a fugue state may wander towns or cities away, or even hop a plane to a more remote location.

    The majority of people who have prolonged fugue states remain in that condition for so long because of their distance from home. Sufferers often report coming back to themselves while in strange places, like out in a field.

  • They Can Last Days Or Even Months
    Photo: Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    They Can Last Days Or Even Months

    In most cases, people who suffer fugue states only do so for short periods of time. They may forget who they are for hours, sometimes weeks, and in rare instances, perhaps even months. During that time, they will likely assume a new identity, complete with a new name and lifestyle, and will appear to behave completely normally.

    There are very rare occasions, however, in which fugue states go on longer. Jody Roberts was a reporter for the News Tribune in Tacoma, WA, when she suddenly vanished in 1985. It was 12 years before Roberts resurfaced under the name Jane Dee. She had a new life and she had no memory of her past. Although experts initially thought Roberts was faking it, they eventually came to believe that she had had one of the longest fugue states ever recorded.

  • You'll Suddenly Remember Everything Again
    Photo: Toni Fish / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    You'll Suddenly Remember Everything Again

    Even the longest fugue states end, whether with medical assistance or on their own. When they do, they typically include an abrupt return of memories in their entirety, as if you'd never forgotten them.

    One man who suffered from a fugue state found himself in New York, and had no idea he was even in a fugue state at all. It wasn't until he had to sign his name to check into a hotel that he realized he didn't know his name. He went to the hospital, and a doctor talked with him, trying to get him to remember, when the man suddenly remembered everything:

    "All of a sudden, I knew, I remembered. I jumped up and shouted. I yelled, 'I know – I can remember! I remember my wife’s name. It’s Mildred. We live in Boston. I can even tell you the address. And my name is Uhlan. Walter Uhlan.'"

  • There's A Chance You'll Get Super Angry Afterwards
    Photo: Domiriel / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    There's A Chance You'll Get Super Angry Afterwards

    Following a fugue state, you may feel afraid or depressed about things you've done, and it can take some time to readjust back into your real life and personality. In particular, you may experience something referred to as post-fugue anger.

    This feeling of rage may require additional treatment by a health care professional.