I have this recurring fantasy where I just pack up and go. Change my name, leave town, never be heard from again. There’s all this stuff in my life. Due to some bad decisions not made by me I had to return home and help take care of my family. I’ve got this stupid amount of debt. It’s all become such a burden that I think I’ll only be able to escape from it if I just walk out the door, and I can’t stop thinking about doing just that. Should I chuck it all over, and start anew?
I think I was twelve when I first read about the fugue state. I had run out of Babysitter’s Club novels in my tiny rural library so I moved on to psychology textbooks. And since then I’ve been envious of the people in the case studies who at times of great stress just checked out entirely. They dissociated completely and walked out the door to open a hardware store 300 miles away under a new name. And the wonderful thing about it is that they don’t remember their previous life.
It completely takes away the responsibility of the decision to walk out the door. You couldn’t help it! Fugue state! It’s your pesky unconscious making the decisions, you had no control over it. Every time I’m packing to move, or in times of tumultuous transition, I pray for a fugue state to take me over, so I can simply wake up six months later on the other side of whatever it is. Maybe suddenly named Frank. With a hardware store.
Because here’s the thing: unless you do go into a fugue state and suddenly have your consciousness wiped clean, you are going to carry around that stuff in your head, no matter where you go. Or, as my own personal bard Brian Eno puts it, “In another country, with another name/maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same.”
There’s a fugue state in Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse. All of her stories in that collection deal with the aftermath of one thing or another. In her version, it’s literally a dirty bomb going off in a city, a zombie plague, an environmental disaster. But feel free to metaphorically swap in whatever’s going on in your life. But in her telling, things don’t suddenly get wiped clean when the bomb goes off. It’s the end of the world…and your teenage daughter is still a pain in the ass. The ecosystem is on the verge of collapse…and you still have to pay the rent. Even the kid in the fugue state has a family that shows up on his doorstep, insisting his name isn’t what he believes it is. They are going to drag him home whether he remembers them or not.
Burdens like the ones you listed feel like having a god’s thumb pressing you down into the earth. No wonder you want to squirm and break free. But just walking out the door is not going to do the trick. You have to work through this emergency state to get to the other side. Because even after the apocalypse we have our obligations to carry.
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Illustration by Thea Brine.