Almost five years ago I became entrenched in Maladaptive Daydreaming. I was in deep denial of how badly my degree had been going for the five years previous to that and I took refuge somewhere no one else could go. It ate up days, weeks and months of my life.
More than three years ago I escaped university, retreated home and licked my wounds. MD followed me home.
More than two years ago, I was in a bad relationship that cured MD simply by giving me no time for escapism. When that ended, MD returned immediately.
More than one year ago, I decided I was sick to death of my own mind and started retaliating against MD in every way I could.
- a summary of all the strategies I found useful, for people in a hurry
- a detailed exploration of everything that triggered and sustained and defeated my MD
- a short description of where I am a year later as of writing this post
- a fancy-pants conclusion
Everyone is different. This is what worked for me, bearing in mind that I had a combination of Attention Deficit Disorder, anxiety, depression and anaemia. I hope the strategies are helpful regardless of how you came to be here.
Break out of toxic relationships - with others and with yourself - protect yourself from sources of doubt. Distance yourself from people that create unnecessary tension and drama, and spot similar characters in your dreams for what they are – internalised negative feedback. If you can’t distance yourself from them easily, reflect on why the things they say may not be true, if they weigh on your mind.
Name your emotions - Are the dreams more repetitive or less interesting than when they started? Are you frustrated by them? (You found this forum, didn’t you?) Does anything recur in them that you wish you were doing for real? Are there any painful themes you are trying to process in real life through the dreams? Can you think of reasons you started daydreaming in the first place?
Gently ease yourself into better life habits - Don't pressure yourself into them, drift without triggering hurtful expectations for yourself. Demanding too much too soon might make you panic and withdraw into more dreams. Small progress is real progress.
Improve your diet - if applicable. Reduce binge-eating, wean yourself off sugar crashes, improve the quality of your mind's fuel to improve the clarity of your thoughts. If you eat a lot of junk food, resisting it for as little as a week can noticeably improve your focus. Likewise, increase the amount of good nutritious food you eat to rebuild your mental and physical strength. Again, don’t worry if this is gradual – I’m no angel.
Self-talk - Stop judging. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would be of someone else. Be objective and neutral towards your hurt. Don't punish yourself further. Beating yourself up does not inspire you to change any more than being bullied by someone else encourages you to be happy. Make a point of giving yourself credit for everything normal or good that you do, every time you do it. It will go from feeling patronising to feeling positive. It will become self-belief instead of self-hatred.
Keep a diary - Attach writing in your diary to a routine you already have, like lunch breaks. Keep it short, include only things you actually did, note anything that made you happy. Record days lost to MD in a small code if you want to keep track. You are likely achieving more than you realise and everything that isn't daydreaming counts. Do NOT use it for unrealistic To Do lists that never get finished!
Be brutally honest - Write brain dumps of everything you AND your daydreams are bottling up. Externalise them and make them finite. Hopes and fears are powerful, but you need to remember that they are also just thoughts. Respect your thoughts from a safe distance.
Identify and avoid triggers – Music is a serious offender here. But also silence, as there are no interruptions. It’s a tricky balancing act to avoid both. Take note of triggers when they occur, so you can start to pre-empt them. As well as finding what triggers your dreams, find out what makes you stop dreaming. Meals, meetings, exercise, chores?
Confide - When you start to want your real life more than your second life, confess that change to people you trust. Explain what you’re going through. Validate the concerns you have towards the MD. As your voice grows, you may realise you are starting to trust your own opinions again. You may find you started compulsive daydreaming because you lost faith in your real self. Who knows until you speak?
Push yourself for something inspiring, even just once - Go out of your comfort zone for an old or new passion. Your comfort zone probably isn't all that comfortable anymore. These comfy endless daydreams might be becoming your idea of hell. Find something that you want more than them. Reward yourself with it.
Sleep routine - if applicable, invest in finding out how to sleep better and fall asleep more calmly. You might be sleep deprived from daydreaming all night, which has knock-on effects. You could need more rest and energy in order to connect with your real life. Or you could try restricting your daydreams to when you are just falling asleep, as a relaxation technique.
Reclaim territory - You've shut yourself off from the world for a long time. Every different thing you come back to is not a painful reminder of lost opportunities. It is reclaimed territory belonging to your new/old true self. This is an important attitude adjustment that helps you to focus on your progress so far and not on how far there still is to go.
Do you work and have you kept your job despite the temptation of MD?
Possible reasons you don't daydream at work that might help you at home:
External – you have to keep your eyes open and act on the external world. You can sustain focus at your job if nowhere else, because everything to do with it is external and little can trigger your dreams. Also, people are watching you. That’s a daydream mood killer.
Structured - you tend to have a specific set process for everything you do, less thought is involved, most jobs don't have a creative element.
Routine - it's done daily and at regular times, even if they are not regular hours the trigger ‘go to work’ is always respected.
Immediate consequences - you know what the cost of not working is and you don't risk it!
Objective - work is a thing you do and not defining of your sum total worth. If you do think it defines you, take a step back. Humans have existed a million years longer than the job market. You belong to you.
Important - it's necessary, it's high investment, it's something you value enough to react to whether or not you like it. You need money to live. You are still interested in living. Good.
Rewarding - nearly everything you do in a job should have a purpose and a consequence.
Is there anything outside of work that you can apply these to? Can anyone help you do this?
For the full context of everything that led to and exacerbated my MD, as well as more detail on the things that fixed it, read on. If you just want the strategies, you’re done! If you want how I’m doing now, skip this monster post.
9th January 2018
(29 years old)
"Revalidating Maladaptive Daydreaming"
A little background information about me:
First I need to explain what is normal for me so that I can explain what changed. What's normal for me is what average people would consider ‘scraping by'.
I always had a vast internal world and no sleep routine, insomnia, a messy living environment and I alternated forgetting to eat with eating everything in sight. I was a terrible procrastinator and unsuccessful perfectionist. I was socially inept most of my life and had a huge inferiority complex. I grew up feeling like everyone else had read a big book of social rules and I hadn't. I could never work out why I didn't follow through on the things I knew I should be doing. I was diagnosed with Inattentive ADHD when I was 20. It was a relief to know what was wrong but it wasn't a solution.
I have both unconditional love from my family and the strange conviction I haven’t earned my luck in life and it will all be snatched away. My life expectations were formed when I was a gifted child coasting through the early years of school and learning far too late that most things would actually be harder for me to learn once I passed the basics. I didn't learn how to learn until my diagnosis at the end of college, and I still haven't learned how to apply those strategies.
I was constantly trying to understand why I felt so worthless despite all the second chances I received. I could never get my grades to match my ‘potential' and this ate me up inside.
As a brief education timeline, I spent two years longer in college than most people because I didn't like my grades and kept trying again. I took a gap year between college and uni to take resits and get my official diagnosis. I spent my third year of uni in a foreign country where I didn't turn up to most of my classes and spiralled into my usual pattern of becoming a hermit. I was deeply lonely after living abroad with a roommate I couldn't talk to, being reclusive for my final year and having a breakdown in my repeat final year after most of my friends had graduated. I averaged five years older than ‘normal’ students by the end of my education.
I had skirted the edge of Maladaptive Daydreaming before but not quite fallen in. It got me in the final year because there was no way out - no extensions, no more repeats, no way to stall. I could not bring myself to either do the work or quit.
I did discover Maladaptive Daydreaming as an illness (and this forum) at some point, but there were almost no resources and I wasn't in the right place to fight it.
Some people say they dream about wonderful versions of themselves; my dreams are more like wonderful versions of a story: more tension more hype more plot twists more romance more conflict more soul searching…
I have never been able to imagine future versions of myself or personal successes without the scenario instantly turning negative - so I don't. I would rather have the positive thoughts about something else than encourage my negative self talk.
Your daydreaming is evolving! It’s evolved into…Maladaptive Daydreaming!
How it started:
Since my MD obsessed over a single topic, and that topic wasn't me, I know exactly how it started. I had been slowly losing all my interests during my final years at uni. I no longer wrote stories, did art, did video editing, played video games, studied, went to class, cooked, met with my friends, went outside or spoke to my family, and it was too expensive to travel home. I vented online to close friends about my panic every single day, but told my parents nothing. I tried to convince myself I shouldn't feel this way because I had it easy, relatively speaking. I berated myself constantly about everything I'd ever done wrong in my life.
Reading paper books was something that triggered guilt because I would have to step away from the laptop where I was ‘just about to start working’ and admit I had no intention. So I hadn't read real books for a long time but anything online was fair game to fuel my desperate escapism.
On that fateful day I came across a manga that, like me, had really high potential and truly awful delivery. Early on in this series, a character who'd lost everything was rescued from despair by the innocent main character who they met on a suicide mission. They became the bestest of best friends and I deeply imprinted on this. The manga then proceeded to go spectacularly downhill and became a complete mess.
Usually when I don't like elements of a story I can ‘fix’ it to my preference with fanfiction, come to some internal conclusion and move on to a new series. I can do this very very quickly in the space of days or a few weeks and they usually don't get written or published.
However in the depths of my panic over university work I couldn't afford to run out of escapism, and I also couldn't suspend disbelief for the things the manga plot had basically cocked up, so my stories began to loop endlessly. I would not accept any conclusion to any scenario without self-sabotaging it (the same way I sabotaged my own work and life) and I was also expressing all my boundless anxiety through this poor, poor side character. I ended up mentally riveted to a series I hated for years, trying to make it into something good.
Once the Maladaptive Daydreaming allowed me to dissociate from my emotions and process them infinitely through someone fictional, I completely shut down. I would barely leave my bed in a day or the house in a week. I spent hour upon hour upon hour for the entire year bouncing between my colossal stress and depression towards university (which was meant to ‘overwrite’ my history of personal failures throughout college, school and home life) and these completely immersive, ever changing and fascinating daydreams where the characters were having a worse day than me but overcoming it through whatever the theme of the hour was. In addition to that I'd never had a relationship and oh the characters were trying to get together but the sabotage train kept subverting it because I couldn't bring myself to believe or trust in such things.
I wasn't allowing them or myself peace, and the nature of the scenarios continually revved my mind with all the overpowering emotions I could no longer cope with externally. As long as they weren't my problems, I was happy to entertain them.
I didn't eat properly while daydreaming. By the time I went home, I was so weak and anaemic that I couldn't walk down a street with shopping bags without feeling faint, and I couldn't lift a teacup without my hands rattling.
I tried to quit my degree, my teacher resubmitted me just in case. I went home, was fed and supported by my family whilst I clawed/dragged my way through a 12,000 word dissertation and a lot of resits and coursework.
I did pass in the end but not how I wanted and I was too full of loathing for my degree to even go to graduation. I still have unfinished business with my dissertation and I haven't pursued my major in any meaningful way since.
After university I worked as a temp for two years. That second year I had my first relationship with a long-time uni friend who turned out to be incredibly manipulative and deceitful, and that ended 6 months ago as of writing this. I did not daydream while he was around because I was not given any privacy or headspace in my own house for that year. I thought the daydreaming had been cured by human interaction, at least, but it came back in full force almost immediately after he was turfed out.
Made very protective of my life and goals by that toxic year, I resolved to get better and regain control over my mind. I had a lot of rage that needed to be channelled into proving I was stronger than a sociopath. Newsflash: I spent a scary proportion of those six months vegetating on the sofa. But it also started to work - I've been myself for a whole week now and I’m writing this in case it goes away.
I knew that the majority of my triggers were long past (thankfully) and I knew that I'd either dissociated or given up on the perfectionism that allowed them to spiral out of control. I'd switched off my passions because they led me to be highly critical of my undisciplined ADD nature that daily failed to live up to my expectations.
These things behind me, that meant that by year four of MD I had no more reasons to do it, not urgent ones. I had a peaceful home once again, I had a permanent job down the road and didn't need to dread moving out of my parents’, I had friends within easy reach and had become good at socialising with new people. I had a car and no more use for my degree major and no reason to fear being bad at it. Work and family kept me busy enough to be broken out of daydreams at least half of each day, which I begrudged beforehand and was grateful for after. As long as I wasn't alone in a room I could function. It was still important to be able to function alone if I wanted to have any confidence in my long term life. I'd even gained the maturity and life experience I'd been sorely lacking - by trusting someone and being burnt. My only frustration was that I had gotten and continued to be that ill, which is a huge and identity-forming frustration.
So what reason was left to do it? Habit, and fear of trying to be more. Fear of going back to being someone who wanted to be more but couldn't make the necessary changes because dreams were effortless.
A question for you
I would be interested to know how many people have MD without low self-esteem - is it always the trigger or are there different strains of MD?
Solutions - what are you already achieving despite MD?
The one thing I have learned to get right over the years is work. The fact I could focus and function for most of a work day actually revealed a lot about where I fall down at home, how I feel about my self esteem, and what structures I needed. My job happens every day regardless of mood or inspiration. I may have fast days and slow days but I always turn up, I never fake sick days and I always take it seriously. I'm fortunate to have a great workplace but even when I didn't, I was able to leave work at the door and be myself when I got home. That might be partially thanks to distraction - other people I worked with felt the pressure more, I went to another world on the walk home.
It may interest you why this is - work isn't contingent with my self esteem. Work doesn't threaten my intelligence or challenge my identity, I'm lucky to have a job well calibrated to my attention and energy levels (administration). I imagined office work to be hell as a child, but compared to how I treated myself throughout education it's practically an oasis.
Such is the rat race of efficiency, nearly everything you do in a job should serve a purpose, and have a tangible result. I never felt that things done theoretically in school had this, because consequences didn't happen till the panic at the end of the year.
One of my questions became, work has proven that I can stop daydreaming and consistently produce. I am not a different person when I go there. I am a different attitude in a different environment. THAT is the part you can work with.
I had to make myself stop daydreaming, and I needed people around me to do that. I began to book my week in with social dates - I went to fat club with my mother on MONDAY, I went to a friend on a WEDNESDAY, I had a friend round for a film on a THURSDAY. I defined improvement and productivity as anything that wasn't staring at the inside of my eyelids. Even if the meets were cancelled by the other party, the commitment to the routine and the intention to come out of my shell was still a step in the right direction. Being present with other people threw a spanner in the internal looping anxiety/escapism machine.
I started, not with any particular plan or rigid routine, but I started with pushing myself to do more of the things that I knew were external, social and ‘good’ for me. Maybe, when a story has its hold on you, you get very resentful and grumpy at being dragged from your cosy and thrilling nest. Maybe you don't like looking in the mirror and remembering you're not whatever your imagination declares you to be. Maybe you are very, very tired and drained from sustaining this whirlwind. But if you have good people to turn to, try to turn to them. Let them remind you who you are and start to let go of the unreal you from your perfectly controlled world.
My success over MD accelerated when I started to research it again and admit how debilitating it was. The key concept for me in Eretaia’s blog was ‘emotional dissociation’ - I had understood that I was distracting myself from my emotions but I hadn't realised I had cut them off at the root and transformed them into something impersonal and fictional. I couldn't hold thoughts of my real woes in my mind. I couldn't muster real sadness about them though I knew I should be feeling it. I had also had a long term attitude of belittling my own self-inflicted troubles compared to anyone else's ‘real’ troubles or ‘real’ achievements. That does build an open mind and a wider perspective in some senses. When it goes too far it's automated devaluing of yourself, internalised bullying.
My strategies to beat it were various small changes spread out over several months, but at the same time there were mental revelations that led to very speedy results.
My thoughts behind each point on the strategies list:
Getting out of a toxic relationship - with others and with myself - having lived with a real enemy for a year made me realise that I deserved a lot more credit for who I was and that I was no longer my own worst enemy. This is obviously not a recommendation, just an illustration.
A real, physical world conflict can trigger you to mentally fight and defend yourself, whereas internal anxieties can bypass your protective instincts and just be taken as truth. When our self esteem is low we feel shame about things instead of proactive enough to change them.
Wow I understand what toi mean about self-esteem I have always felt the same way about things. I can't seem to see anything I do as an achievement. The most free MD period I had was 2 years ago during summer when I forced myself to follow a strict routine. Thank you for sharing your story.
Fatigue - I was tired and frustrated with the world I'd created and the dissatisfying loops, and as my awareness of why I did it grew so did the hollowness become more apparent. I wouldn't just watch their movies in my head, I started to analyse them and name them by the emotions they were replacing.
Loneliness, disappointment, powerlessness.
These came hand in hand with instantly gratifying, sparkling creativity which will always be how I process my life for good or ill (evidently).
When I started to figure out what the daydreams represented, they started to get derailed more easily. If you think you are watching a story about friends and realise you are staring at your own loneliness, you look away.
Habit forming - Good habits and bad habits. Without formulating a strict plan and without beating myself up for not keeping to it, I aimed to drift into better behaviours. I built my new habits around positive ideas and things I already did. Don't stop being antisocial, start enjoying time with your friends. Don't stop eating (because you're a bad person), start getting healthier to have more energy (because you're a hopeful person who wants to live - of course you are! You're a dreamer with more lives than the next ten people!). I walked past a friend's house on the way home who was also reclusive - I started to pick her up on the way past to watch a film, so that we could both get out of our heads and sustain the work attention span into the home environment bit by bit.