Maladaptive Daydreaming: where wild minds come to rest
Two years ago when I joined this community, I think I was more dead than alive. I've been waging quite a brutal war with maladaptive dreaming and the array of issues that underlie it ever since then and I'm on my way out of this prison. I wanted to do something for you guys so here is a little essay with insights on MD and what you can do to understand better and finally tame this beast. Hopefully, someone will find it useful.
The split and the life between two worlds
Do you think the vague feeling of being split in two and existing between two worlds but belonging to none is exclusive to maladaptive daydreamers?
“If you try to have a conversation with me, I can’t bring myself to listen to you. I pretend to listen and you really think I do but my mind is somewhere else, thinking about it. Every time I try to stop doing it, I genuinely feel as if a part of me has been torn off and a deep sense of personal loss ensues. I feel as if I’m not here but I’m not there either and I can’t shake off this feeling of being split in two.”
This is what a recovering heroin addict once told me. Heroin addict. But it’s also what a regular maladaptive daydreamer could have told you, isn’t it?
Maladaptive daydreaming is, among other things, a typical psychological addiction. Most of the negative issues associated with maladaptive daydreaming come from the fact that it is an addictive coping mechanism and not some unique disorder with specific symptoms just recently discovered. You have heard million times that addictions are encoded in the primitive part of the brain associated with survival – which means that if you don’t get your fix right now, you feel more dead than alive and you need your drug of choice to bring you back to life. Your brain is sending a false message to you – it is issuing an urge that is blown out of proportion, compelling you to constantly indulge in daydreams and making you think that if you don’t, the world will end and you will lose a part of yourself. Drugs usually invade your sense of self – they fuse with it and by giving up the drug, you feel as though you are giving up a dear part of yourself.
Addiction is addiction but different types of drugs and addictive behaviors tell you different things about their users. So what does fantasy reveal about you? MD is like a guardian angel that tries to protect you too much and eventually causes more harm than good. But it’s still your guardian angel that tried lifting a burden off your brittle shoulders. It’s destructive in its own way but it was originally born to protect you from something. To realize and accept what you are trying to run away from is your first step towards recovery. Maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s low self-esteem and loneliness or it’s anxiety or PTSD.
Fall of the self
Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t the act of random mind-wandering – it’s a highly immersive mental activity, where all attention is gathered and directed towards happenings of the fantasy. This would be parallel to a so-called flow state, which is characterized by immersing intensely in an activity to the point of losing the sense of self. Which means, whatever happens in fantasy, happens, but not to you. It is a selfless experience, never integrated into what you call yourself, into sense of identity, into what makes you you. It exists as a detached, ecstatic, fleeting moment that slips through the fingers the moment you try to make sense out of it and process it as your own experience. You witness traces of happiness but the happiness is never yours.
Fantasy is an egoless state of mind where we are not ourselves. And by temporarily cutting ties from your own ego, the conscious identity, you’re also cutting ties from all insecurities you have ever had, from all the problems that are currently bothering you and this is why daydreams feel so damn good. Everything bad is just cut off from your perception. The part of your brain that defines your sense of self, along with all the negative things and mental illnesses attached to it, is turned off.
As you venture into this egoless place that is MD, you make up imaginary people you sometimes end up loving dearly or even fall in love with or you conjure imaginary places you’re desperately drawn to, and then suddenly – you wake up from your dream and you’re violently pulled back to reality and to being yourself. And this is where the problem arises: all those things you’ve done in your dreamworld and all those made up people you’ve come to love have nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with real YOU. They are not attached to your conscious sense of self. All those dreams and false memories you made – you made them in an egoless state of mind. And it’s this that makes you feel split. It’s not the fact that you’re physically apart from the content of your fantasies. It is the fact that your subconscious feelings, fantasies and desires do not connect to your sense of self. Even if everything you’ve been daydreaming about came true, you’d still feel like garbage, empty and miserable. If your imaginary friend came to life to make you less lonely, you’d still be lonely – because MD isn’t about made up friends or lovers or getting a new life. It’s about you not wanting to be you. Everything else is irrelevant.
In other words, you’re not addicted to your fictional characters or your imaginary love or to a fantasy about being a famous singer or writer. You’re addicted to not being you. You’re addicted to this erratic state of consciousness that is MD – regardless of its content – that provides a temporal relief.
I’m not saying that you don’t genuinely care about the content of your daydreams (quite the opposite, more on that soon) – what I am saying is that it’s not your love towards whatever is the content of your fantasies that creates this ugly feeling of being split between two worlds. One thing I can assure you (and this comes from my own experience) is that the moment you feel comfortable being you, those two worlds will reconcile, they will merge into one, and you’ll finally feel at peace with yourself.
Will a part of you be taken away as you give up your daydreams?
Maybe the saddest question I have ever asked myself was ‘how much of myself will I lose when I give up the only thing that makes me happy?’ Here’s a glimmer of hope: you’re not supposed to give them up. To give up the feelings you experience in your daydreams is self-mutilation. As strange or silly as they are, they still represent a censored part of your subconscious; maybe they are an epitome of your loneliness or your sadness. They are a testament to how hard you’re struggling and how hard you’re trying not to be dead – and to give this up is a crime towards yourself. Maladaptive Daydreaming isn’t just about wishful thinking and getting your wounds licked. It is that one place where your life flame stillburns while you may be dead in all other planes of existence. That’s enough to know that this MD thing isn’t all that entirely wrong. Maybe your real life is all emptiness and void but what you do in your daydreams – you do it with passion. And that’s enough to know that you are still capable of loving and caring about something just like other people. So passion exists and don’t you dare ever doubt that. It exists in a wrong place but it exists nonetheless. What you have to do is find a way to redirect those emotions from daydreams to reality and, as stated before, this causally happens once you’re finally you. All the positive emotions from your daydreams will flow back into you and you’ll feel as though these two worlds between which you have lived for so long have at last coalesced into one.
So what you want to do is focus on healing the self. It’s a tough one but there’s no quick fix here. Now comes the irony which you’ve been waiting for: in order to heal yourself, you need to let go of your daydreams. But didn’t I just say that you aren’t supposed to give them up, you ask? Don’t give up the passion, don’t give up the love you have for the content of your daydreaming, don’t give up the feelings – because they are all, real or not, a reminder that you’re alive. What you do have to give up is the false sense of comfort your daydreams give you. Try giving up all those countless hours you spend stuck in your own head pacing back and forth because you’d rather be there than here. Try giving up the temporal fix when you feel miserable. If someone angers you, don’t impulsively lock yourself in your room and act out a revenge in your head; go kick a sofa or something, lash out at something external.
You have to wean yourself off of this strange dissociative painkiller that’s fantasy, then let yourself feel all the pain with every ounce of your being, let all the negative emotions resurface, let them swallow you alive, don’t resist, don’t run away, accept them, let them ravage you, and somewhere along this process, a part of the you will be reborn. Something will awake. Not all of you, maybe just a small part but that’s enough to gather what’s left of your strength and continue the struggle. If you feel the urge to daydream, this is okay – as long as it doesn’t censor the pain which you shouldn’t run away from anymore, it’s fine to give in and indulge for a while if you feel like you have to. Don’t ignore temptations, this sparks the fire of addiction even more. It’s a well known pattern: if you fight the urge to engage in an addictive behavior, it makes it stronger. If you acknowledge it, analyze it, this is what breaks the cycle of addiction. In other words, the imperative is not to block the pain and negative feelings. If a sudden sense of self-disgust or low self-esteem suddenly hits you, welcome it. Welcome it, analyze it, let it consume you, and you will realize it is just a false message your brain is sending to you because that’s what brains of depressed people do, after all. The more you let yourself feel and process the negative feelings without censorship, the more will the urge to daydream weaken and the less you will run away.
Who are you really?
Depression usually enters people’s lives like a tempest – yesterday you were an optimistic person enjoying simple pleasures of life and today you feel like a suicidal or apathetic piece of shit, and this is how it is for most people. Depression that underlies MD, however, takes a different route. It enters your life stealthily, slowly, so slowly you don’t even notice it, then it gradually robs you of emotions, ambitions, memories, motivation, identity, empathy, and you end up thinking: “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’tmiserable,” or “these bad feelings must be a part of my personality, they have always been here“. Because of this, most of us fail to realize where depression (or anxiety or any other kind of chronic mental illness) ends and where we begin. So if this illness isn’t you, then who are you?
Let me make a digression here. MD is usually born when you can’t express yourself properly because you’re anxious, depressed or sometimes simply shy or lonely. Mental illnesses are like lenses which distort your perception. Everything you see appears more tragic, senseless or uglier than it really is. And your both eyes are infected with these lenses. But here your subconscious decides to play a trick on your mental illness and tells you: ‘well, if your both eyes are infected and make things appear worse than they really are, then why don’t you just close them?’ You do and this is the beginning of the addiction to fantasy. You stop paying attention to the outside world and you turn it inwards and use your mind’s eye to create things inside you: your daydreams. This mind’s eye, which is fantasy, cannot get infected with depression and this is why MD is a safe haven. Depression doesn’t reach there. What your subconscious forgets to tell you before it’s too late is that if you close those two eyes used for perceiving outer world, for things outside of yourself, you’ll be completely cut off from reality. But none of this is your fault – this is a war between mental illness, the attacker, and your subconscious, which is your protector, and you are their battlefield. You don’t have a single choice, they are the ones who decide – you only observe. So if you ever blamed yourself for being too weak to make a decision to cease this addiction, stop it. It’s wasn’t your fault.
Back to my question, who are you then?
The daydream version of you isn’t the true you but it’s not a fake one either. It’s a highly filtered product of your subconscious that tried to protect you. Then we have this other real-life you imbued with low self-esteem and negative thoughts that seem to go on a loop forever. Well, that’s certainly not your true self either. Heck, if it’s any comfort for you, the daydream you is far closer to the true you than this real-life depressed version of yourself will ever be.
Can you remember the time when you didn’t have MD? Can you remember your sense of identity when you were a child free of MD? Try conjuring up all those times when you knew how to live in the present. It doesn’t matter if you were 6 years old the last time you were here. Just try to pinpoint all those moments and try to remember the feeling of being in the now. Here’s one pretty handy trick you can use. I always joke that music is a drug that takes you on a trip down a memory lane. It’s like an emotional psychedelic. It transports you emotionally back in time, to another place, another reality, to wherever you wish. It helps people with Alzheimer’s remember who they are and regain a sense of identity for a short while. Maladaptive daydreamers often use music to help them imagine an alternate setting – but what if you used music to transport yourself to the past when you had neither depression nor anxiety or MD or whatever is bothering you? If you can remember a forgotten song which you used to listen as a child who at the time hadn’t had MD yet, listen to it again, try to remember who you were, and if the song is meaningful to you, the old you and your sense of self, which you used to have back then, will come back to you for those few minutes while the song plays. You’ll feel the warmth of finally being you. You won’t quite be in the present – you’ll be in the past, but it’s your real past, it’s your true self. Try to capture this feeling and then try to reenact it. It’ll strengthen your identity in the long run.
I’ll give another example on what set me free from my own MD for a short while. You all know what fight or flight mode is. What you also probably know is that most people with PTSD or chronic anxiety are stuck in a constant state of fight or flight. Spending too much time in this state eventually leads to a burnout and is a sure ticket to depression since you go from fight and flight into freeze mode where all your functions are off and you feel like an emotionless zombie. You don’t care, you don’t live, you don’t get angry or sad or happy, you only exist on autopilot. In order to feel normal and alive again, you usually need a fix so strong which will set your body back on fire. Someone or something has to attack you so fiercely in order for you to rethink your existence and regain your instincts and the will to fight back. This is what happened to me. When one of my daydreams violently crumbled some time ago, I got so ridiculously pissed off that for the first time after several years spent in freeze mode, I felt genuinely alive. I was me. The anger acted like a stimulant and the state lasted for 15 minutes until the anger wore off. But hell, during those 15 minutes, I was me. I was so mad but I was also indescribably happy. I could feel. I could let go. I was defeated but I also won. The thirst, the cravings, the split, this strange nostalgia for my daydreams all dissolved. But instead of just disappearing, every positive feeling that was limited to the daydream world only, such as sense of purpose, motivation and normal self-esteem, flew back into me. I didn’t lose a single part of me – quite the opposite – I regained back that detached part of my soul that existed only in daydreams. What took for me to awake was extreme anger, being defeated, my world crumbing to pieces. The moment I genuinely accepted that my dream world crushed, the moment I let go of all attachments holding me back for years, I was reborn. The anger, which is a natural stimulant, made something in me click. But note: this feeling of finally being alive and the desire to fight back woke up in me once my daydreams were in danger, not me. It’s because we’re so displaced, because fantasy is where we had hidden the core of our souls.
In the long run, you’re destroying neither the daydream you nor the positive feelings that come with it, you’re not giving anything up – you’re just transferring it to reality, to where it should be. But for this change to occur, before you can be reborn and whole again, you have to self-destruct, you have to let go.
If you made it until the end, thank you. I hope you found it at least a little bit useful. This is just a part, you can read the rest here:
[nature of fantasies]
[return to reality]
[root of MD]
I have screenshotted all of this and read it over so many times. Thank you for writing this, I can feel myself getting better! Question! Since music is a trigger for daydreaming, if I assert myself in reality and unite both selves together, will I be able to listen to music freely without daydreaming? Thanks!!!
Caitlin, yes. Let me give you an example. When you're in love, you usually have certain songs that you associate with your partner, the good times spent together, etc. If your partner breaks up with you and you go through heartbreak while still being in love with them, it becomes pretty painful to listen to these songs since they trigger nostalgic feelings over what you can't have anymore. As long as you're in love with for your partner, the songs will be your trigger. But once you've processed the pain and moved on, the association between the song and the memory linked to it breaks and you'll be able to listen to it in a healthy manner, without thinking about the past. Same goes for MD and music in general.
Also, it's pretty normal for everyone to daydream when listening to music alone; but if you get your inner struggles sorted out, it'll be the normal type of daydreams, not MD.
Thanks!!!!! This helped!
You're welcome. :)
I had read this post before, but for whatever reason, it didn't resonate with me. I have no idea why. My best guess is that I was so deep into my DD that I couldn't focus on it properly, because this post is life-changing. You are 100% correct, MD is about not being able to accept yourself, the real emotions and problems and struggles that come with this world. I had realized that before, in a sort of casual way, but you laid it out so clearly... I am honestly amazed. you have done so much for this community by way of this post. I have not read one comment of a person saying that they disagreed with anything that you said or that it didn't help them, this is truly revolutionary insight, at least in my life.
Thank you so much. God bless you, honestly.
Oh, thank you! :) I'm so glad.
You say that resolving MD is more than just learning to be content in reality but "just" learning to be content in reality means that you need to deal successfully with depression, anxiety or whatever bothers you after years of escapism, it means getting crushed million times along the way and learning how to stand up again and again and again - it's one hell of a process that is rewiring your entire brain structurally and I fail to see why this is any less potent than medication.
What you're implying is that MD is a neurological condition and while I perfectly understand your point of view since it can easily become a lifelong disorder when not treated, I can't agree with you. MD is an addiction. It's not a compulsion, it's not a stereotypy, it's an addiction. Being always prone to abusing certain behavior implies something else is wrong. Psychological addiction is always born as a solution for an existing problem - this problem can be psychological like anxiety or it can be neurological like ADD which is why some people have their onset at a young age. But MD isn't an illogical behavior like stereotypy where you're neurologically programmed to repeat a behavior without any reward - quite the opposite, its primary function is to relieve your anxiety. The quirk with addictions is that they send false messages to you so the urge to engage in addictive behavior can get triggered even when there's no particular anxiety to censor. You've probably heard that sugar addicts crave sugar even when they don't feel like eating it and that porn addicts watch pornography even when they're not sexually aroused which is why we tend to daydream even when there's nothing to censor. That's what an addiction is.
I've noticed that people tend to blame MD for causing emotional detachments in their lives. The problem with this is: before psychological addiction can happen, a person has to be already detached. MD is an attempted cure for this detachment, not its cause. It isn't just an excessive type of daydreaming; there's a pretty high dose of identity dissociation going on when you engage in daydreams which is the main culprit for maladaptive proprieties of fantasizing and dissociation is something that can only be dealt with psychotherapy or personal introspection - no medication will help you here and that's what every neuropsychiatrist who knows their business will tell you. As for emotional detachment, which is what fuels MD, it can spring from depression or any other mental disorder and it's perfectly reasonable to use medication here if necessary. But as long as you don't address dissociation, you can't recover properly.
To cut it short, MD can be fully treated without medication - how easily depends on underlying disorder. I know two severe cases of MD and dysthymia who resolved both issues with 2 years of extensive psychotherapy after 20+ years of suffering.
Aaffy, thank you so much! ^^
I think this is one of the most profound things I've ever seen written on the subject. It sort of simultaneously makes me hopeful, and not. Hopeful, because there is a chance that you can fix yourself and your problems and find your real life as fulfilling as your fantasy life is, and then you won't need the fantasy life anymore and you'll be happier overall because any kind of emotional response that comes from reality will be stronger than one generated in your head. But then sort of hopeless, because in order to get to that point, you have to do the very things that you're daydreaming to avoid doing, and lose your only source of comfort / support / happiness along the way. It's sort of like asking, don't you want to learn to love this thing that you've always found terrible? And it's hard to say "yes" because you've always thought of it as terrible, you have no mental concept of what it would be like if it wasn't terrible.
I've had lifelong social anxiety, and probably lifelong low-grade depression to go along with that. The depression is hard to quantify, because any tests for it tend to ask comparison-type questions, like "did you feel sad more than usual in the past two weeks?" - well no, I've felt the same amount of sadness I've always felt for the past 20 years or so. I've never really been content with my life - I don't want to say "happy" because I have moments of that here and there, but it doesn't stick as an overall feeling. I have no close friends and I can see my life pretty much being an endless drudgery of get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, wait until bedtime, go to sleep, repeat for decades until you're too old and ill to do that anymore. There's nothing compelling about being in that reality, so I created another one. I know that a lot of people have the same sort of life but they're content with it, so some of the hopelessness of it must be the depression speaking, but I've never not looked at life that way.
I have been trying to get myself to start up a treatment program for social anxiety. I decided I was going to do it probably months ago now, but I keep putting it off, and I think a lot of that is because I know I'll have to actually spend time in my own head, in reality, and I don't like being there. You can't treat yourself for anything if you can't focus on yourself, though. A lot of times I find it sort of like trying to stare at the sun - you can look for a few seconds, then it becomes too painful and you're forced to focus on something else.
I was on a low dose of SSRIs for anxiety for a while, and one of the side effects of it must have been lowering my level of depression, because I definitely found myself less compelled to daydream then. I could still make myself do it if I wanted to, but it was like I just didn't care about doing it. Unfortunately there were other side effects that were more intolerable than the symptoms it was prescribed to treat, so I am stuck doing anything I do the hard way.
That's very nicely put but here's a little thing to consider. Although it's hard to picture what reality should ideally feel like, this construct isn't all that foreign to you. Seeing reality as foreign stems directly from seeing yourself as foreign. However, once you've resolved your conflicts and finally reconciled the two selves, there's a vaguely familiar sense of warmth that should greet you once you make your return to real life and that is neither new or foreign to you - because it's the same warmth that you once experienced in your daydreams, the same familiarity and the same feelings of purpose - just stronger and truer and not as pale since the split of selves is finally addressed at this point and you're whole. Your daydreams become reality, not content-wise of course but in terms of feelings, and this feels like finally being back home. So you sacrifice nothing and you lose nothing. However, to reach this point, you do have to temporarily give up everything, until your fears aren't just shadows but actual dangers in their real light. You have to step out of your comfort zone because only there can your wish to fight be triggered. For somebody who has had a lifelong low-grade depression, you probably struggle with numbness. Getting out of your comfort zone will temporarily worsen your anxiety but it will also cancel the numbness because millions of different feelings will come welling up - uncomfortable and invading feelings, yes - but you will finally start to feel things and this is the beginning of something.
It's sort of like asking, don't you want to learn to love this thing that you've always found terrible? And it's hard to say "yes" because you've always thought of it as terrible, you have no mental concept of what it would be like if it wasn't terrible.
Eratiaia, as I read this, I fought to read it minute by minute as ME (my name is Jane).
I realize how, when it comes not to feeling it all, but IDENTIFYING with my most vibrant feelings, I really am living in a hall of mirrors, with my most focused alter ego jumping in front of each one. You know that one in particular, the one that shows you a million versions of yourself, seemingly going forever?
"She" seems hell-bent on getting in front of me each time I try to study my thoughts in a stripped down state.
I had a lot of new insights reading your post. The most shocking and notable one being that the 2 only real characters I have created interact from this highly deceptive subject-object split. Briony is the eternal Subject, and Grace is the eternal Object. For example, I just tried to say in the above paragraph that Grace's physical form, and life story, was the one jumping in front of all the mirrors. But then I realized that is incorrect. Because without Briony witnessing her, without Grace telling her all about her own lifetime issues with MD (lol!) she would not be able to speak at all. They move together, always. You asked, when did my Self split into this subject-object duality? That's what I'm trying to find out. But at least I now see it with clarity. And I want to say, thank you for writing this! You don't really know how many split Selves you may be helping along.