Linda Hegg can't remember how she ended up in a homeless shelter three months ago. (AP)
You are Linda Hegg. Your home state is Delaware. You have a degree in linguistics and served time in the military. You are the subject of a three-month missing persons search and it's time to go home.
Missing woman joins search for herself
If someone told you this, it would sound as foreign and unreliable to you as it did to the 56-year-old woman living in a Toronto homeless shelter. Only for Linda Hegg it was true.
Three months ago, she arrived at a Canadian shelter with $20, a paper bag stuffed with shredded paper, and only the knowledge of her first name. Who she was and how she got there was as much a mystery to case workers as it was to Hegg herself.
On Tuesday, Toronto police pieced together Hegg's identity with the help
of concerned family members and an anonymous web sleuth, who linked
Hegg's online trails to the missing persons report. Hegg, a former Naval Officer, had traveled to Canada by bus with an expired passport, according to the Toronto Star, and walked into a Toronto homeless shelter where she remained until this week.
The early signs of memory loss
"When I told her who she was, she actually clapped her hands and said, 'Yay, time to go home,' " Toronto detective Roger Caracciolo told a press conference on Tuesday. "[And yet] she doesn't know where home is," he added.
Her condition has been described by Hegg's own father as Fugue Amnesia —a rare psychological disorder believed to be triggered by traumatic events and an underlying mental disorder. Fugue Amnesia overlaps with another rare condition-—Dissociative Fugue, also believed to be triggered by trauma, and in some instances drug or alcohol abuse. Both related disorders are marked by bizarre symptoms, namely, complete loss of memory and identity, as well as a likelihood to wander long distances.
Hegg was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996, according to the Toronto Star. She had traveled, her identity still intact, throughout the country over the years, and was living in Indianapolis when she disappeared. Her mother, concerned about her lack of contact, enlisted the police for help. After a North American search both online and on the streets, she was found by her family, though not her own mind.
Hegg's case is as rare as it is baffling. In recent years, only a handful of other cases have been publicly identified—the subjects raging in age from their early 20's to their early 60's.
Recognizing the signs of mental illness in your family
Not all patients linked to the mental state were pre-diagnosed mental disorders, and not all recover their memories, their personality, or the same likes and dislikes they once held fast.
All, however, are marked with confusion about how they arrived in a distant location with no memory of the impulse to get there.
In 2008, Hannah Upp, then 23, was discovered by Staten Island Ferry deckhands floating face down in New York's Harbor, burned and calloused from a month of wandering without purpose.Hannah Upp (AP)
In the weeks leading up to her discovery, the city was papered with missing person pictures of the young Harlem-based Spanish teacher, last seen jogging alongside the Hudson River. During her disappearance, Upp was spotted checking email—though sending nothing—at the Apple store, and showering at a local gym. In interviews she claimed to have regained her identity after she was rescued, but couldn't recall the month she disappeared.
"I went from going for a run to being in the ambulance," Upp told the New York Times in 2009. "It was like 10 minutes had passed. But it was almost three weeks."
At least two psychiatrists who specialize in fugue states, but who did not treat Upp, commented on her curious state of mind, which has been called into question by some critics.
"We tend to experience our identity as a thing, as if it's a constant," Dr. Richard Loewenstein, who has treated five patients with the disorder, told the Times. "But it's a lot less stable and has less unity than we want to believe."
Jeff Ingram's plea on the Today Show for his own identity. (MSNBC)
Jeff Ingram, 40, suffered more than one bout of amnesia in his life. In 2006, he appeared on a the "Today Show" to ask for the public's help in finding himself.
He was on the way to Canada to visit an ailing friend when he was discovered wandering through the streets of Denver. From their home in Washington, his fiancé caught word of the news and came to collect him. Months later he was patching together his life, sometimes differently than it once was. He now loved green peppers, a vegetable he once hated. He discovered the Police song Roxanne for the second time, as if he'd never heard it before. His motor memory was intact, including those embedded survival lessons (don't touch a hot burner), but his emotional and intellectual memory remained in a delicately malleable state, according to multiple profiles of Ingram.
He approached pop culture warily, as once-familiar icons were a struggle to process all at once in his clean slate mind. Even the woman he proposed to months before his disappearance was unfamiliar to his naked eye—though he did tell the "Today Show" he recognized her heart.
So many of these missing persons rely on viral connectivity and the help of outside intervention in order to once again belong. Sometimes, they never do.
A man named Benjamin Kyle, who currently exists as both missing and found, is the subject of a new documentary along with a campaign to re-establish his citizenship rights in the United States.
Kyle, whose real name is not known, was found unconscious behind a Burger King in Georgia in 2004. He had no identification, and no recollection of his name or personal history. After fruitless research by government officials, he gave up on trying to figure out his old life in order to begin a new one. Now an artist, who stippled his portrait to raise awareness of his strange case, has launched a petition to get Kyle a new social security number in the hopes that he can start again. In the process of raising his newly established profile, Kyle has faced plenty of critics accusing him of playing a hoax and profiting off of other people's generosity.
"You'll find a lot of people who say it's all bogus, that I'm faking it for whatever reason—but one thing's for sure: I'm not getting rich out of it," Kyle told ABC news. "I'm 64. I'm trying to get on with my life as best as I can. I figure I've got 10 more years to live considering my social and economic bracket. I can't make any long-term plans other than try to get along mostly day to day."
According to the Cleveland Clinic, fugue symptoms can lead sufferers to create new identities. "Outwardly, people with this disorder show no signs of illness, such as a strange appearance or odd behavior," the hospital's web resource for the disorder states.
Because cases are so rare and causes vary from person to person, treatment is vague. Patients are tested for physical ailments as contributing factors, as well as pre-diagnosed mental conditions. In cognitive and psychotherapy, patients focus on identifying the initial trauma that may have triggered the memory lapse, as well as developing new coping methods.
For Linda Hegg, who is currently being treated in a Delaware hospital before she is released to the care of her family, collecting 56 years of memories will require patience. As of Tuesday, she could not remember who she really is, aside from what she'd be told. Although some patients do recover swiftly from memory loss, what must remain is the knowledge of how loosely your tastes, opinions, emotions—or 'soul,' as it were—are stapled to your body, and how easily they can peel away. That, alone, isn't easy to forget.