DALLAS — Joe Bieger walked out his front door with his two dogs one morning last fall a beloved husband, father, grandfather and assistant high-school athletic director. Minutes later, all of that — indeed, his very identity — would seemingly be wiped from his brain’s hard drive.
For 25 days, he wandered the streets of Dallas and its environs a lost soul, unable to remember his name, what he did for a living or where he lived, until, finally, a contractor who was building a new house for Bieger and his wife happened to recognize him.
By that point, Bieger had somehow made his way to a suburb about 20 miles from his Dallas home, holes worn in the rubber soles of his canvas shoes. He had lost 25 pounds, and a full white beard covered the normally clean-shaven educator’s face.
Bieger, 59, says he was diagnosed afterward as suffering from psychogenic fugue, an extremely rare form of amnesia.
Now reunited with his family and back at work, Bieger agreed to tell his story to The Associated Press.
Bieger says he has regained all his memories up to the point he wandered away, and is amazed at the outpouring of support he received from friends, co-workers and the hundreds of volunteers who helped search for him on the streets, at hospitals and in homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
“Everyone believes that God brought me back for a reason, otherwise this might have ended differently,” he says. “God wants me here to work with these students.”
Bieger is under the care of a doctor who specializes in such cases. And his cell phone now includes a GPS tracking device.
But more than three months after the episode, he says he has only vague memories of those days on the streets of Dallas, one of America’s most crime-ridden cities.
He recalls being stopped and frisked by police officers, who were looking for a suspect in a holdup at a pizzeria. There was also a smoky bowling alley. He remembers waking up cold on a playground, wearing shorts and a T-shirt with fall temperatures dropping into the 50s. Another time, he says, he awoke under a construction trailer.
He says he cannot recall what he ate to survive. But when he was found, he had jelly packets from a fast-food restaurant in his pockets and half a stale bagel.
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Witnesses and police accounts fill in a few other gaps in Bieger’s journey.
Bieger’s dogs were found running loose within a few hours of his disappearance. About two weeks after he disappeared, some homeless people told searchers they had seen a man matching Bieger’s description near a Sam’s Club store close to his home.
Over the next several days, he apparently crossed busy streets and interstate highways to the Dallas suburb of Plano, several miles north of Dallas. Not long after that, he was spotted at a church carnival in Plano.
Gwen Brooks, executive administrator at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, says the man claimed he had lost his keys and asked if he could search the bushes.
“He didn’t look out of the ordinary at that time,” says Brooks, adding that everyone assumed he was part of a Habitat for Humanity construction crew working nearby.
Coming out of the fog
Bieger’s ordeal finally drew to a close on Oct. 30, in the suburb of Carrollton.
Mike Phillips, a construction foreman, spotted a man wandering close to the site where Bieger was having a new home built. Phillips thought the man might be Bieger, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Joe, Joe!” Phillips yelled, and then asked the man if he knew his name.
Bieger replied that his name must be Joe.
Did he know his last name? Phillips asked.
“No, I don’t guess I do,” Bieger said.
As the two men spoke, memories slowly came back, Bieger says. It took about two hours to come out of the fog.
“It wasn’t instantaneous,” Bieger says. “Over some period of time I began to realize who I was.”
In September, before he wandered off, he had experienced two episodes of amnesia that lasted only a few hours, and so his wife of 37 years, Patricia, had an idea of what happened to him after he vanished. She says that during the ordeal, she always believed her husband was alive.
Nevertheless, “there were days when I just wanted to give up,” she says. The Sunday before he was found was her lowest point. “I said, ‘Lord, I can’t do this anymore. You just have to send my husband home,”’ she says.
Dana Ames, director of a search team that looked for Bieger, says: “We knew that his intellect should still be intact, so his survival skills were going to kick in and it was a matter of time to find him.”
No one seems to know exactly how many others are afflicted with psychogenic fugues, or what the precise underlying causes are. Victims may lose all memory of themselves, family or friends, but otherwise seem to function normally and can perform routine tasks. Many experience an urge to move constantly from place to place. Most victims eventually regain their memories, though it can take days and sometimes years.
Psychogenic fugues can be triggered by stress or unresolved conflict, according to experts. But Dr. John Hart Jr., president of the behavioral neurology section of the American Academy of Neurology, says researchers are trying to determine why some people might be more susceptible than others.
“It’s among the rarest of the dissociative disorders,” says Dr. David Spiegel, associate chairman of psychiatry at Stanford University.
Bieger’s return to the Highlands School, a 400-student Roman Catholic institution, was marked by a student assembly and tears of joy.
“Just to see him and see that he was OK, the children were euphoric,” says Denise Funke, a coordinator at the school.
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