Dissociative Disorder: The Fugue State & The Novel I Am Diving

Dissociative Disorder: The Fugue State

Dissociative Disorder is most commonly known in the popular culture as amnesia. Amnesia has been used by writers of plays, movies and fiction to both tragic and comic effect. Soap opera writers have even used this dissociative disorder as a form of control over their actors. For example, if they become involved in a difficult salary dispute an actor may find her character in an accident resulting in amnesia. The character in such a condition loses their personality, the thing that draws the audience to them, and a strong point in their bid for more of everything. If negotiations continue to be difficult the character may find himself lapsing into a coma, and, sadly, we all know what that means. But mental illness is no laughing matter.

Dissociative Disorder takes many forms. The Fugue State differs from other forms in the fact that it is not based in injury or substance misuse but is the result of complex neuropsychological interactions that are not clearly understood. Fugue can be mild, taking the form of an out of body experience. The sufferer may feel he is observing his live being lived rather than living it. A momentary experience of this type is similar, in a way, to Déjà Vu. Fugue is a rare dissociative disorder that effects memory and personality and directly manipulates personal identity. The fugue state can last anywhere from seconds or hours to days, weeks or even years. Its chief characteristic is, when a sufferer emerges from the fugue state they return to their normal personality without memory of the fugue state. Fugue often arises from stress and there may be amnesia for the stress upon recovery.

The fugue State is defined as:

Sudden, unexpected travel with inability to recall one’s past

Confusion about personal identity, or, the assumption of a new identity

Significant distress or impairment.


Amnesia has entered the public consciousness but fugue has not. But the fugue state has entered the consciousness of the entertainment world. In The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade relates a tale of a man who, after a near death experience, disappeared, only to be found years later with a new family and a new life almost exactly like the one he had left, of which he had no memory. In an episode of Buffy The vampire Slayer, Dawn says of Andrew, `Maybe he’s in a fugue state.’ Rene Zellweger’s character in Nurse Betty goes into a fugue state when she witnesses the scalping murder of her husband. Jack York, the protagonist in my novel, I Am Diving, suffers from a recurring fugue state, with disastrous consequences at the JFK assassination. In real life, a fugue state happened to the author Agatha Christie who disappeared for eleven days in 1926. She turned up in a hotel in Harrogate with no memory for the events that occurred during those days.

Dissociative disorder is a mental health issue that is open to easy ridicule and disbelief. Its victims have been the fodder of talk television and the device of the entertainment industry but for them it is all too real, and, requires further careful study.


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