Wild Minds Network

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Yes, you can cure Maladaptive Daydreaming

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: 

Part 2

[nature of fantasies]


Part 3

[return to reality]

Part 4

[emotional bluntness]

Part 5

[root of MD]

[Letting go]

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Technically, it's not as hopeless as it appears to be on the surface. Cravings on the surface appear to be automatic, purely instinctual, yet when you dig in a bit deeper, they are driven by an actual logic and are more than just an chemically messed up mechanical response in the brain. They arise when you cannot express a particular emotion. Your unexpressed anger or desire to speak up or express something you consider important are what feeds the urge to engage in addictive behavior. Instead of expressing feelings as they really are, this energy is misdirected, misinterpreted and becomes a craving.  When get the urge, ignore it. Tension will follow, you will start feeling anxious, empty, nervous. Welcome those feelings, give in to them, be mindful of them, and see what happens. 

Annie said:

For many of us with extreme cases it's not that easy. I can not control my daydreaming and I can not simply stop it. It is my default mode. NOT to DD takes marathon running like willpower, and never lasts for more than 30 minutes without relapsing... But I do agree with you that we have to do it to face our bad stuff, let it resurface and deal with it as you say... If only I knew how.

This is absolutely true. Recovery, from a point of a daydreamer still deep in the mud, is something that happens in the future. Focusing too much on the future that is yet to come is almost equal to living in a daydream that is never to come. So, even when things are tedious and stripped of emotions in the present moment, it is a very, very good practice to at least try to experience that present moment in its full potential.  

I was said:

Just a little tip: Try to experience the present moment, in all it's boring dread. Make friends with this utterly boring thing, and drop any expectations of feeling emotions invested in real life soon. You will begin to heal.

Thank you very much, your article has a lot of fascinating points I agree with.

MDD hasn´t stopped me doing  what I wanted to do in life and I also have a great circle of friends/family,but  it does take up quite a lot of my time. It is like a hobby that i just love and that can be distracting.

I have found that excercise, especially swimming with music, is very helpful. I allow myself to dream as much as I want when I swim and also afterwards when I relax in the sauna (still with my waterproof ipod on). This way, at least I am getting some exercise and the MDD can help me swim longer laps. 

I am also trying to find other activities where I can combine music, moving and my favorite mind stories.

But I love my DD. I have never been interested in computer games, because my inner worlds are so much more interesting.

But I am trying to find a better balance between work, people, health and MDD.

This was the most amazing article ive ever read. Thank you.
Hi Eretaia, I can't thank you enough for this article. I went two days without daydreaming after reading this article. Though, I started daydreaming shortly after that, I at least know now that it's possible to handle maladaptive daydreaming. I'm reading this article again . Its so nicely written and accurate. Only a person with MD could have written this. Thanks so much again.

I absolutely agree with you. One should face all those feelings rather then run away from them. Probably, it will take a lot's of energy stopping the urge for DD but eventually the mind will get used to coup with that. 

Eretaia said:

Technically, it's not as hopeless as it appears to be on the surface. Cravings on the surface appear to be automatic, purely instinctual, yet when you dig in a bit deeper, they are driven by an actual logic and are more than just an chemically messed up mechanical response in the brain. They arise when you cannot express a particular emotion. Your unexpressed anger or desire to speak up or express something you consider important are what feeds the urge to engage in addictive behavior. Instead of expressing feelings as they really are, this energy is misdirected, misinterpreted and becomes a craving.  When get the urge, ignore it. Tension will follow, you will start feeling anxious, empty, nervous. Welcome those feelings, give in to them, be mindful of them, and see what happens. 

Annie said:

For many of us with extreme cases it's not that easy. I can not control my daydreaming and I can not simply stop it. It is my default mode. NOT to DD takes marathon running like willpower, and never lasts for more than 30 minutes without relapsing... But I do agree with you that we have to do it to face our bad stuff, let it resurface and deal with it as you say... If only I knew how.

I liked the text, great post.

Thank you for these articles. They get to the very bottom of Maladaptive day dreaming. I have been suffering (if i may use that word) from MD since my childhood. I realized that it was a big problem when I was  in my twenties. I sought professional help but the therapist could not understand the real issues and the problem continued. I used to feel very frustrated when i could not stop the day dreams. The frustration led to more day dreaming. It was vicious never ending cycle. I'm now in my fifties and I still continue to day dream.   I don't feel frustrated or bitter any more when i day dream. But i do feel sad for the  life that has gone by unproductively. As you rightly pointed out the only was to stop it is to see the real reason why we dream. Which means accepting yourself as you are with all your flaws, weakness and of course your strengths. That is easier said than done. 

This... THIS piece right here has been one of the most insightful I have ever read.  I've had MDD for as long as I could remember and, for as long as I could remember, I've always felt alone.  I felt like I was a freak.  I felt like I could only 'observe' people like a person looking into a window at all the amazing stuff going on beyond the glass, but, regardless of how I felt, I was miserable.  I couldn't live in reality because the contempt, annoyance and pitying eyes of people would remind me of the feeling of loneliness I wanted to escape from.

Going into my teenage years, I had no peace both in school and my house because of the bullying, arguing and instability that occurred on a daily basis, so I basically shut my brain off and ghosted through that time to the point where I barely remember anything from then.  I'd like to think that MDD helped me survive those times but like any addiction, the price I had to pay was steep considering how it factored into the next stage of my life.

During my years in college (to which I cringe when I think of my behavior during that time), I joined a club of social outcasts and let loose a torrent of immaturity that I couldn't get out during my High School days.  Idealization and escapism ruled my life during that time and my behavior was so obnoxious and cringeworthy to the point to where, looking back, I'm still shocked I didn't get that well-deserved punch to the face I was obviously owed.  Everything I did showed to everyone how much of an immature child I was... and my daydreams actually got worse.  I reinterpreted everything I had gone through as a sign that I was meant for more and was 'special' rather than the red flag that something was MAJORLY wrong.  I fed my inner worlds in the hopes it would lead to me producing something great, but my daydreams got to the point where I made a habit of making excuses to avoid being failed.  It wasn't until all my friends moved on from Community College to their Four-Year Programs that I realized I was falling far behind in life and decided to make the brash decision of joining the Navy to correct the problem.

When I told my friends about it, they didn't think that I had what it took... and when I went there, I did have cold feet about what I was doing.  I struggled with my anxiety because I didn't want to get yelled at and screwed up A LOT, but one night, I ended up taking the blame for something I didn't do and the shipmates around me started to praise me.  They started to take me in, flaws and all and I was... who I was meant to be.  Sure, I was sent in for psychiatric testing because of the incident, but I felt comfortable being there and helping out in any way I could.  I didn't need to daydream as much and I knew that once I had graduated from the academy, I'd be able to control my MDD and use it the way I wanted to... but that wasn't meant to be.  It turned out that while I was getting the hang of being a sailor, the Psych Ward got a hold of my IEP in High School and demanded to know why I withheld it from them.  A few slip-ups with the tongue later, I found myself in the Separations office with no hope of becoming a sailor. 

I still dwell on that experience to THIS DAY and how the subsequent year was HELL for me.  How those looks disappointment in my family and the stares of 'I told you so' were written all over my friends' faces tore me up again and again.  I couldn't function outside of my room and lost a good job because I couldn't get over my depression.  I went to a four-year college to forge a new path, but I suffered from the same habits of making excuses and daydreaming my life away because I couldn't get over the scars that failure left behind.

 

Now, here I am, 28 and still living with my parents.  My anxiety has to take me over to the point where I'm too afraid of screwing up when it comes to simple tasks like clothes shopping, cooking and remembering the simplest tasks.  I'm still trapped in my dreams because I don't want to see how embarrassingly bad I have fallen behind in growing up, but I'm writing this now because an unshakeable feeling of unease has set in and won't let me go.  I want to be on the same level as my peers and take the next step, but I'm too afraid of being caught daydreaming or screwing up because of it.  I want to be someone who doesn't need pity, even though I'm only able to live as I am because of it.  I want to hang out with friends and want to have those grand old times of fun that I didn't have when I was younger, even though they have matured FAR beyond that point.  I want to celebrate and live, even though my daydreams have taken that time away.  I know I'm immature.  I know I haven't amounted to anything.  I want to use my suffering and pain to become something great, but life doesn't work out that way.  I'm still embarrassed that I spent my daydreams inside the worlds of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Star vs. the Forces of Evil and still want to write fan-fiction out of all things!  

Embarrassing, I know!

However, like any other addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step to curing it.  Embarrassment and hardships are normal and proof that the burdens of life are too heavy to be carried alone. To accept such vulnerability is a strength and pity can help the wounded heal.  I need to be free.  I'm tired of thinking it's too late for me to do anything, but I NEED to live my life NOW.

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