Fight or Flight? Why Some People Choose to Flee Ever have the urge to just... disappear? A British man deeply in debt faked his own death and turned up five years later with "amnesia." A runaway bride stressed by her wedding plans left town to avoid taking her vows. Why do people run?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And joining us now is Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. Of late, we've been talking about several stories of people who wanted to run away from it all. We all remember the case of the run-away bride. In recent days, there was the case of the man who disappeared in Britain five years ago, only to reappear claiming he'd had amnesia. And Amy Dickinson notes that there are almost a universal impulse in many of our lives at some point or another to want to just vanish. Of course, few of us act on it, though all of us may feel it.

Has there been that moment in your life where you just wanted to run away and drop it all? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Amy Dickinson joins us today from Chicago. Amy, always nice to have you on the program.

Ms. DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. You know, I feel like Frasier Crane today. I'm listening.

CONAN: I'm listening. Has there been that moment in your life where you said, you know, Bali might be nice this time of the year?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I'm actually - from here I'm headed to the dentist. So can I just say, not so much? I don't really feel like doing that. But, you know, I've never had that impulse. And one reason I'm so fascinated by this very extreme reaction is that it actually is - in its most extreme form it's pretty rare, but it's a fairly common feeling. And basically, it goes straight back to the lion and the wildebeest, it's just a fight-or-flight reaction - a very, very primitive reaction to stress.

CONAN: That hot-under-the-collar moment of panic.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Although people who flee tend to - there's a little bit of forethought put into it and people who flee actually tend to develop patterns of flight through their life. Like, when you look back at people -these extreme cases, this kind of hypersensitivity to stress where people actually disappear, there are signs usually that they are headed in this direction.

CONAN: Well, John Darwin, the man in Britain who faked his drowning in a kayak and then reappeared five years later, turned out, then pictures showed up of him and his wife in Panama over the years. That obviously, he said, look, I was overwhelmed with death, but this obviously involved a fair amount of planning.

Ms. DICKINSON: Planning and, in his case, fraud as well.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: And so I would say that his case because he did - from what I've read about it, and what about that name, huh, Darwin? But what I've read about his case is that he actually - when you look at his behavior before this disappearance, he was grandiose. He was sort of inventing sort of larger-than-life details about his life. And it sounds like he got trapped in his own web.

CONAN: And if you want to think about consequences of this just for a moment, the couples' two children, having been lied to by both of their parents about this for five years, now want nothing to do either one of them.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Not surprisingly.

CONAN: Not surprisingly. And, again, we're encouraging listeners to call. Has there been that moment in your life where you felt the impulse to just bolt and get away from it all? 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And Michael(ph) is with us on the line. Michael calling from Flagstaff, Arizona.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I had that experience on when I was about 19. I got down to school. Most of my friends were going off to college and kind of feel like I'm, you know, I needed to go at that time. And I got my stuff and hit the road and have traveled all over America. I went about 45 states in about two - a little over two years. And the only people who knew about it was my mom. And that was about six months after the fact I took off.

CONAN: And…

MICHAEL: And - go ahead, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Well, it's okay. I was just going to say that calling her after six months, I mean, overcoming that is not easy.

MICHAEL: Yeah, the worst thing I could ever do to my mom. You know, put her through that and I didn't realize at the time. And one week turned to two weeks and to a month. And then months go by and I finally did call her from Florida and I grew up in Colorado.

Ms. DICKINSON: Hey, Michael, can I ask you a question?

MICHAEL: Sure.

Ms. DICKINSON: Can you describe how you felt before you left? Did you feel…

MICHAEL: I felt…

Ms. DICKINSON: …like there's buildup?

MICHAEL: …overwhelmed with everything, and just from getting out of school to hanging with my friends to my job. I just felt like it was too much for me to handle. I didn't want to go into the military or anything, and I knew I needed to grow up just being stuck, you know, being a young rebel-type kid in a little town. And I knew, you know, I needed to change my life. And once did that, I came back and everyone just couldn't believe how different I was. And I am a more positive person, more goal-driven. And that's the best move of my life that I have made.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's just fascinating. Actually, every year, there are - I see at least two or three stories about college students who disappear. Sometimes they can only reemerge after they've decided to sort of fake their own abductions. And my theory on this is that it's this buildup of stress, you know, when you're in college and when you're actually that age even not in college, you really lack some of the maturity to cope with just the buildup of stress. And so it's fascinating to hear from you how you felt, like, this feeling that you're being sort of crushed and overwhelmed and had to take off.

MICHAEL: Right.

CONAN: Well, how's…

MICHAEL: Yeah, and I went - it's funny, I went to a concert, a lady took my picture. My aunt saw it, you know, in Phoenix, send it to my mom. That's the only way she actually knew I was alive, and then three months later, I turned up there in Georgia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what was it like when you first went home?

MICHAEL: Oh, it was different. I was nervous about seeing my family and I was - I knew my mom was upset and she raised me by herself as a single mother. And I just felt her anxiety, her, you know - all these thoughts that I never would thought of as I was on the road. You know, begin to become more realistic in my life and at that point.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right, Michael, you point out that - psychiatrists say that fleeing is an extreme reaction to anxiety and the people who flee tend to have kind of a heightened worries about people disapproving of them, criticism and rejection, which is…

MICHAEL: Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: …which is pretty typical for young people anyway, but it sounds like you were - was just a really extreme case.

MICHAEL: Right, right.

CONAN: How are you doing now, Michael?

MICHAEL: Oh, I'm doing great now. I'm done with school and going to get my masters now in a year. And I'm having a great time. I'm good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

MICHAEL: Hey, thanks a lot. Have a good day.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go now to - this is Crystal(ph). Crystal with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

CRYSTAL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

CRYSTAL: How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. How about you?

CRYSTAL: I'm good. This subject kind of, I don't know, it makes me a little nervous because I actually just opened up a shop. I'm only 25. And I don't know, like, something tells me - I have this urges to just actually just want to - to leave. And I'm trying to wait until my lease is over. But it's just like at certain times, I think, I don't have children - I'm a makeup artist, by the way - and I've gone to other cities and gotten really great responses from just testing with photographers and people there, and just got a really great response. And sometimes, I just want to just not even pack up anything, just take like a bag and just get on the next plane, because really what holds us here when you don't have children?

Ms. DICKINSON: Crystal, your reaction is really - makes a lot of sense to me because you're young and you've taken on a huge responsibility, owning and running a business is huge. You know, one way you can alleviate your anxiety is to talk about it the way you are right now. You know, how you said you are really nervous before even speaking, that's just sheer anxiety. And you may even notice - maybe you'll feel a tiny bit better like right now. So the thing to…

CRYSTAL: Just…

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah?

CRYSTAL: Just a bit. I mean, you know, really - I don't know, I kind of feel like I jumped into and it just wasn't proper timing for everything. It's almost like - it's all I talk about. It's because it is a huge, huge, huge responsibility and a lot of people don't really realize how much time and effort that it really takes. You know, I don't even know if I really want to resign my lease because I just want to just go, because it's such a - instead of being something to be happy about every morning, you know, some mornings, I'm like, oh, I don't even want to get out of bed this morning because I know how much of a responsibility it is and how many people's lives I brought - that I've involved in this decision that I've made. And it makes me…

Ms. DICKINSON: But you know what?

CRYSTAL: …very nervous.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's completely understandable and no decision you make is irreversible. So maybe if you could even sit down and develop a strategy for leaving the business.

CRYSTAL: Leaving?

Ms. DICKINSON: Your lease will be up at a certain time, what can you do between now and then to sort of finish up your work, you know, kind of finish your relationships with your clients and maybe going freelance, you know, that's the thing to do, rather than have all these pressure, because you are really young.

CRYSTAL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: But just don't forget to talk about it. Not just talking about the business, but talking about your anxiety about it, too.

CRYSTAL: Okey-dokey.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay.

CONAN: Good luck, Crystal.

CRYSTAL: All right, thank you.

CONAN: So long, thanks very much for calling.

We're talking with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated column of the same name for the Chicago Tribune. If you like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We're talking about that impulse many feel and some act on, the impulse to drop everything and get away. 800-989-8255.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with - this is Chelsea(ph). Chelsea with us from Muskogee, Oklahoma.

CHELSEA (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead please.

CHELSEA: When I had my daughter, (unintelligible) half ago, I had a very bad post-partum depression and there might have been that I was (unintelligible) and I (unintelligible).

CONAN: We're just having trouble with your line, Chelsea. Could you try moving somewhere else, but I think, Amy Dickinson, she was saying that a year and a half ago after she had a daughter, she had a very bad post-partum depression. Chelsea, can you still hear us?

No, I don't think so. But obviously, something like post-partum can certainly play a role in this impulse.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh yeah, and that's, you know, it's a clinical situation that, you know, post-partum - severe post-partum depression actually can cause psychosis where people don't literally loose their rationale thinking, which is part of what this flight thing is. You know, it's this - it's the most primitive reaction to stress.

CONAN: Let's talks with Steve(ph). Steve with us from Salem, Oregon.

STEVE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Steve.

STEVE: Oh, thanks. My point is, well - I'm Jewish. And I've decided to become an observant Jew. And where I live, that's somewhat difficult for me. I've been called names ever since I've, you know, worn Yamaka and stuff like this. And I've decided to immigrate to Israel. And my point is that sometimes when you leave some place, you're not running away, you're running towards.

CONAN: Oh there are - yeah.

STEVE: If that makes any sense.

CONAN: I would think that's entirely accurate. Don't you think, Amy?

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh yeah. I mean, that sounds like - actually like a really positive change in your life. The flight syndrome is when you literally, as the people have called and described, you literally pick up and take off and people don't know where you're going and you're not even sure where you're going. Remember the runaway bride? You know, she left basically a church with, you know, 600 invited guests and got on a Greyhound bus to Vegas, baby, you know, that's extreme. You, making this rational choice to move - that sounds like a good thing.

STEVE: It does. A lot of people don't understand what I'm doing, though. They think I'm going to war zone, they don't understand why I want a - you know, they think I may get bombed and stuff like this. But I think I just want to be with people that are more like me. And they think that I'm running away from something. But I really - I don't think that in my heart. I think that I'm running towards something.

CONAN: Well, Steve, good luck to you.

STEVE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

And let's go now to Katie(ph). And Katie's with us from Sanford in North Carolina.

KATIE (Caller): Yes, hello. Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KATIE: I can certainly identify with the previous caller in a situation that my husband is a career military guy for the last six years. He has spent the last five years in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And unfortunately, it played a tremendous effect on our 27 years of marriage that I've just ended up leaving my job and deciding to - now we don't have children, but deciding to just pick up and purchase an RV and just go, just escape as much as I can for this next coming year.

And, you know, he is aware of it, but I haven't let the remaining of my family members know. And it's - I mean, it's a trying thing for everybody. But specifically, I think more so for family members and the soldiers that are serving there.

Ms. DICKINSON: Can you say why you haven't notified other family members of your plans?

KATIE: You know, honestly, it's - or frankly, it's because I don't think they would be able to understand. I think a lot of - as the other caller had indicated, people assume that it's running away. And in a sense, I say it is the word escape and that does - I mean, it implies running away. But I also look at it as running to something as well.

And maybe that's finding a new future for myself or maybe that's just coming to terms that for the next probably two or three years, this is going to be - our lives are going to be continuing of separation and serving - dealing with serving in a war zone.

CONAN: I - go ahead, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, this is, I mean, obviously, really extreme and I, you know, my heart just absolutely goes out to you. I would only say that it's actually not necessary that your family members understand what you're doing. It is kindness to them for you to let them know. That's - that would be my only point.

KATIE: Well, I'll certainly give that consideration.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay.

KATIE: And it's not as if that has been an absolute. It's just that, you know, people don't understand what it's like and they don't understand the stress that's imposed. And oftentimes, they think what you're abandoning someone who's struggling themselves over there. And you're also looking for ways to escape yourself. And that's not - in some part, that's there's truth to that and in some part, there's many other facets.

CONAN: Katie, again, our hearts go out to you. Good luck.

KATIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks very much for calling to share your story.

KATIE: Happy Holidays.

CONAN: And Happy Holidays to you. Drive safely.

Amy Dickinson, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson joins us every other Thursday. She's a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, with us today from our bureau in Chicago.

I'm Neal Conan. You've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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