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]
Thank you for comments, guys! I'm so glad you find it useful! ^^
Dreamer, it's mostly from my own introspection. What personally helped me understand the relationship between MD and dissociation of the self are certain flow states.
Thanks Eretaia for what was a brilliant insightful post. I just hope every member gets to read it. Where did you get your insights from? From your own introspection or was there any other literature that you might be able to refer us to. I have saved the piece to my hard drive and will reread it a few times, such is the regard I have for it. Many thanks again!
I sat here for a long time trying to find the right words to correctly and coherently express my gratitude to you for writing this post. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You were able to put into words so simply and eloquently what MD is, how and why it consumes a person as well as the effects. I had been struggling with MD for quite sometime and for the last 7-8 years it became progressively worse to the point that most of my waking time was spent daydreaming. However, a month ago this all changed and for some reason I found myself unable to daydream (at least the good type). Since then my withdraw has been pretty vicious. My anxiety went up, the depression I didn't know was there showed it's ugly face, and the insomnia ensued. I feel like a drug addict getting clean. Reading your article gives me hope. Hope that I will find myself again, that before MD there was a ME, that I will be happy and feel emotions other than misery, a deep overwhelming sadness, confusion, and all those other hopeless emotions.
Like someone else mentioned, I will be rereading this many times over to properly digest it and learn from it. I have a point of reference thanks to this site, for finding it and many wonderful posts such as this one. Now I have actual text I can point my family to and say "look this is how I feel, this is what I am dealing with." Thank you for giving me hope, for making me feel less crazy, for making my world a little brighter. Right now I'm in the process of receiving therapy and am on meds (hence the time and focus it's taking me to properly understand and write this). The journey begins...I wish you all luck and success.
If any of you have any advice or personal experiences on "reentering" this world and finding yourself (without losing your mind lol) please let me know. I'm not sure if I'm suppose to post that here or not. I just joined, so I apologize beforehand. Thanks :)
Thank you for the wonderful comment, Whitney! :) I've been through a painfully violent withdrawal myself when I first stopped daydreaming but that's also the period when I managed to gain a better insight into my problems. Like you, I never knew the real intensity of my depression until my MD collapsed. It was probably the most depressing and terrifying period of my life but now when I look back, it was an eye-opening experience for me that was ultimately liberating and I wouldn't trade it for anything because that's when I learned not to run away anymore. It's like being exposed to all that pain that's been hidden for so long somehow made me desensitized to it in a good way and I realized it wasn't as bad as it seemed. After things started to get better for me, I actually relapsed (typical addict, lol) but my relationship with MD was different. I felt more at peace with myself and I slowly started to work on myself until the intensity of MD lessened.
Hi. This is a really great post. I think it should not get lost in the discussions.
I came to discover many of the insights you mention here over several years (yes, years! perhaps one insight per annum from about the age of 22). I finally overcame pure daydreaming a few months ago. The worst kind - which is basically me living in a false world full-time as a celebrity singer/songwriter. Over the months that I stopped living in the false person’s world, my internet/youtube addiction increased and I was basically still not living in the real world. Anyway I won’t get into all of that.
I was actually about to write a post about identity. I know that to truly escape the false world, and enter the real one, I have to identify with the real elements of my life. I had a few strategies in mind which I think may work. And that is what I will be doing now. I actually tend to lack energy when I focus on the real world. Usually the only way for me to clean my room or do the dishes etc. is for my mind to be thinking up self centred scenarios…then I could clean for ages. Anyway, I will drag myself through this until my energy system is re-aligned to the real world. I don’t know how to explain this but I feel tired when I am engaged in my real life…so exhausted in fact, you’d think I hadn’t slept in days.
Anyway, I think this was really well written. I will also be re-reading it myself. Hopefully you keep posting!!
I'm painfully familiar with the exhaustion you mention. I used to feel physically exhausted when I couldn't daydream or engage in any type of cross-addictions. Every time I had to deal with stress coming from the real world, it felt as if I'd been run over by a truck. The thing is, neither the tiredness nor its cause are solely mental. Your body's stress response is probably completely wrecked which is both physical and mental issue. Apart from dealing with addictions which is problem number one, you may also have to work on your body to reset your stress response. Physical activity and certain supplements might help you improve a lot, although sorting out mental issues is priority.
Very good post and excellent power of self-improvement.
I've always thought that MD is just another chance of self-development that can be integrated in our real self. Of course, sometimes years are required to get the proper experience and knowledge about it , especially because there is not much information about it anyway, but it can be CURED, just like many other conditions out there.
The first thing that must be removed is fear - the fear of failing , the fear of not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and the fear of not being able to create YOUR FANTASY in YOUR REAL LIFE. Yes, you can do it and the day you will succeed at it, it's the day when you will be truly happy.
You've raised an excelled point. The bad thing is that it rarely gets integrated in our real self but that's exclusively our fault for not wanting to break the vicious circle. It is perfectly possible, however. Daydreams are the place where you go to feel things you're prevented from feeling in real life because of some underlying conflict, and although the content of daydreams may be far-fetched and false, the feelings themselves are still valid. Which means you will probably never become, say, the famous singer you daydream about but you can transfer each single emotion felt in daydreams onto your real self and that's when MD stops to exist.
I've always thought that MD is just another chance of self-development that can be integrated in our real self.
Seconded there. "about you no wanting to be you" resonated with me.
Thank you for this wonderful post, OP!
This is a very well written and insightful post. You have a lot of wisdom and I completely understand your points about MD and letting it go. The phrase that MD is "about you not wanting to be you" really struck a chord for me. Thanks for this "essay."
Thanks for this post. I found it helpful. Just wondering, did you happen to make any concrete changes in your life to get to this point? Like a change in any particular habits, or sticking to new daily habits? Just wondering, thanks
Oh yes, I stopped daydreaming cold turkey and I had a ridiculously strong withdrawal. I actually relapsed after three months, but that short period without MD and with all my defenses down made me face and accept a lot of negative stuff I'd been running away from for years. It'd be an understatement if I said that it was a living hell for me but in the end it was an eye-opening experience that ultimately helped me stand up again. All my issues resurfaced hundred times stronger than before and I had no other option but to deal with them. Like I said, after that I relapsed but my MD was somehow different and from then on, things started to get progressively better. I used a lot of small techniques such as mindfulness and they proved really useful for me. If there's anything I can recommend you, then it's to practise being mindful of your own feelings. Also, letting go. Learn how to lose and let bad feelings crush you. The more you do this, the more you'll realize that bad things about ourselves aren't as negative as we believe them to be. In my own experience, the more I embraced feelings of low-self esteem or depression, the faster they dissolved and gave birth to positive feelings.
Tia Joseph said:
Thanks for this post. I found it helpful. Just wondering, did you happen to make any concrete changes in your life to get to this point? Like a change in any particular habits, or sticking to new daily habits? Just wondering, thanks
"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."
Just like it did to Ivy, this is the part that hit me the most. Sudden realisation that, even if everything from my daydreams come true - I would still be the most miserable person in the world.
I just never really wanted (I can't belive it's that simple) to be myself.
I will reread this more than you can imagine. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Every word is true. every statement... So many 'academic' and 'scientific' essays out there about MD, but NOT ONE OF THEM can compare to this.
And I really, really think it should be on our front page.
Thank you once again. :)
Thank you so much, Dea! ^^ I'll probably write more stuff soon since there are some things about MD that I didn't address here.