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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But if it exists in your fantasies, isn't that enough to know that the feeling itself is real? Because what you refer to as destination is in fact just a feeling of purpose, a sense of meaning, that comes from you and you alone. Whether it manifests itself in reality or in fantasies does not matter at all in the end. It may be restricted to your dreamworld right now, but can't knowing that this sense of purpose exists in you be a hope in itself?

So, yes, such destination does exist. But it doesn't exist in reality just as it doesn't exist in fantasies. It exists in some desolate, secluded part of your psyche and your task is to bring it to surface. It's true, if you risk, you'll fail many times and maybe not even find it at all. But if you don't risk and break the routine, then you'll never find it for sure.

Sera Arnett said:

I have no destination to head towards because I can't remember ever being there. To my mind it doesn't even exist. Or rather it exists in my fantasies and no where else.

Wow, Eretaia. I really appreciate how much thought you’ve put into the construction of this essay.

Ever since I was little, I’ve rarely made an appearance in my daydreams. I’d create husbands for my sisters, people who went to my church and my school, but they interacted with my real friends and family and rarely ever with me. I usually didn’t exist in the daydream. Thanks for touching on that.

Thanks for the quote from the heroin addict at the very beginning. I was not expecting it to be from a heroin addict–it sounded so much like something an MDer would write.

So, part of me is like “Yes! Yes! Down with the daydreaming! Let’s get on to the real life part!” But then there is this other part that not only says (as you mentioned) “Ah, but you’re happy here in daydreams, aren’t you?” but also says, “But this IS who you are–the creator of worlds and people. Others are stuck in their own selves, destined by fate to one time and locale and finite mound of flesh, but you–you are the homeless artist, the First Lady, the unmedicated schizophrenic, the teenaged comedian, the Hasidic Jew, the vegan Autist. You slip into and out of identities like clothing, a whole closet-full of costumes. Other real people, they have their stories and their gifts. This is your gift and your story. You are the Story Creator.”

…But then some days I am pacing around at two in the morning daydreaming and don’t get enough sleep, and hurt people and want to feel guilt but can’t, and am sad for some reason for a few seconds until a daydream turns on and steals my sadness, and don’t want to be with people, and after eight solid hours of daydreaming want to stop but can’t.

Is it only a coping mechanism? When I was around five years old, I began to draw stories. At ten, I began writing chapter books. Do you write? How can you tell the difference between a story and a daydream? I can’t always tell. Maybe it’s like a gourmet chef with a food addiction? She really does have a gift, but has to set aside the gift–the artist–to figure out why she misuses food, and then, once recovered, can go back to the culinary arts? Is it ever possible for her to go back to the culinary arts after that, or will it be forever tainted, like a recovered alcoholic trying to go back to his job as a bartender?

I want to find the real me, but I don’t want to give up the writer me. Is it either-or?

May I ask, what was the turning point for you, when you said, “I MUST quit this daydreaming business”?

It was guilt that ultimately made me want to stop daydreaming with all determination in the world. And I stopped. After three months of analyzing and quenching the impulse, all cravings were gone, my mind was clear and triggers didn't tempt me anymore. MD was gone. But, along with MD, I realized I had given up something else as well: myself. Along with fantasies disappeared the most precious part of me that was pretty much the only light in my rather dark world. It was yet another suppression, just another bargain. So, I consciously decided to relapse and soon I did. Although physical cessation of daydreaming can indeed result in its disappearance in the long run, it will not solve the problem. However, those three months of sobriety weren't in vain either. Without MD, all kinds of internal demons came welling up and without defenses, you're simply forced to face them and, if you're ready, deal with them. With no MD to cast light, if you spend too much time in the dark, you get used to your own darkness until it doesn't scare you anymore. You face your own fears and insecurities until there's nothing more to run away from. After this, I knew I mustn't quit daydreams because those tiny bits of yourself that only express themselves there are far more real than any reality. I should quit daydreaming as a habit but not what's in my daydreams.

So, rather than finding a compromise between reality and dreamworld (because that would be yet another failure), I sought ways to awake the daydream me in real life situations. When you slowly start to unlock feelings that you only experience in daydreams and transfer them to real you, cravings slowly start to dissipate. You have to analyze feelings in your fantasies and identify what parts of you are blocked, especially if you're not in your own daydreams. Analyze carefully what your characters are experiencing and see if you can imagine yourself experiencing those emotions as well. Probably not at this point, but the thing is, what your characters are experiencing are your feelings. Not theirs but yours. When you make yourself feel these emotions without your characters acting as censorship, MD will no longer need to exist. We can call MD an addiction or a coping mechanism but maybe the most accurate thing would be to simply say that MD is you. It's just a place, a state, that allows a detached part of you to manifest itself.

There is nothing to give up, nothing to choose from, nothing to set aside. You have a right to both "I" from your dreamworld and "I" from your reality. Merge them and you win. As long as they remain separate, you'll always be a writer jealous of their own characters' emotions. Realize that you have a right to your characters' emotions and reclaim them. They are yours. Then you'll be a writer whose emotions will feed your characters, not vice versa.

Thank you for responding.  I'm having a little difficulty figuring out exactly what you mean.  Would you mind giving a particular example from your own life of how you analyzed part of a daydream, realized what it was you were feeling in it, how to feel it in real life instead, etc.?  

Eretaia said:

It was guilt that ultimately made me want to stop daydreaming with all determination in the world. And I stopped. After three months of analyzing and quenching the impulse, all cravings were gone, my mind was clear and triggers didn't tempt me anymore. MD was gone. But, along with MD, I realized I had given up something else as well: myself. Along with fantasies disappeared the most precious part of me that was pretty much the only light in my rather dark world. It was yet another suppression, just another bargain. So, I consciously decided to relapse and soon I did. Although physical cessation of daydreaming can indeed result in its disappearance in the long run, it will not solve the problem. However, those three months of sobriety weren't in vain either. Without MD, all kinds of internal demons came welling up and without defenses, you're simply forced to face them and, if you're ready, deal with them. With no MD to cast light, if you spend too much time in the dark, you get used to your own darkness until it doesn't scare you anymore. You face your own fears and insecurities until there's nothing more to run away from. After this, I knew I mustn't quit daydreams because those tiny bits of yourself that only express themselves there are far more real than any reality. I should quit daydreaming as a habit but not what's in my daydreams.

So, rather than finding a compromise between reality and dreamworld (because that would be yet another failure), I sought ways to awake the daydream me in real life situations. When you slowly start to unlock feelings that you only experience in daydreams and transfer them to real you, cravings slowly start to dissipate. You have to analyze feelings in your fantasies and identify what parts of you are blocked, especially if you're not in your own daydreams. Analyze carefully what your characters are experiencing and see if you can imagine yourself experiencing those emotions as well. Probably not at this point, but the thing is, what your characters are experiencing are your feelings. Not theirs but yours. When you make yourself feel these emotions without your characters acting as censorship, MD will no longer need to exist. We can call MD an addiction or a coping mechanism but maybe the most accurate thing would be to simply say that MD is you. It's just a place, a state, that allows a detached part of you to manifest itself.

There is nothing to give up, nothing to choose from, nothing to set aside. You have a right to both "I" from your dreamworld and "I" from your reality. Merge them and you win. As long as they remain separate, you'll always be a writer jealous of their own characters' emotions. Realize that you have a right to your characters' emotions and reclaim them. They are yours. Then you'll be a writer whose emotions will feed your characters, not vice versa.

You've really articulated some interesting ideas here. Thanks for posting. I'm especially interested in the relationship that flow has to fantasizing. I had a therapist tell me once that who I am in my daydreams is actually my authentic self, that I was censoring. They suggested I need to just see myself as the person I am in my fantasies and try to be more like that person. But I was trying to express that I can't see that person as my authentic self, because I understand that the daydream is not real. I think that the connection between having the fantasies in an egoless state of mind and the split, the feeling of distance and disconnection between how I experience myself in my fantasies versus how I experience myself outside of them, is an interesting idea. It could explain how I can spend so much time immersed in the fantasy of, essentially, experiencing myself as  lovable, yet still feel unlovable outside the fantasy. You would think, if I spend so much time having this immersive fantasy experience of myself as lovable, that I would begin to experience myself as lovable, right? Nope. So, I'm interested in how that works. 

wow! great article!

Oops, I haven't checked this place for quite a while because of uni. I usually receive notifications by email whenever someone posts in this thread but for some reason, I haven't received anything lately so I missed your replies. Sorry guys.

@Bluejay Fire Agate, what flow and daydreaming have in common is the loss of self-consciousness. I have already written about these things before so you can take a look here (last comment on the first page). I'll probably be posting these days another article which sort of answers your question but what I'll tell you now is that your therapist isn't all that wrong at all. 


@Gwenevere, there's one example here.

@Eretaia You said that merging the real self and the daydream self is how to "win", but what if there are more than a single daydream self (a.k.a. multiple daydreams, each with their own virtual 'you')?

There's also the problem that the daydream selves may be impossible in real life, like a living god or a time traveler, just to name a few. How to merge something real with something that can't exist?

Hey Source. I think it's actually very common for people to have different dream selves, that is, different conflicting storylines playing at the same time. For example, a person can have a daydream about two fictional character being in a relationship with no daydreamer himself involved. This daydream obviously manifests daydreamer's wish to feel love and intimacy, but since he himself is too broken, he must not use himself as a 'playable' character because it'd feel too weird, too foreign, so instead he'll use two fictional characters. At the same time, he may have other type of, say, grandiose daydream where he is the main character, an idealized version of himself. This time around, he doesn't need to discard his sense of self because all he wants to do is pump up his ego. So you have a daydream without the self and daydream with the self. You can have millions of dream selves at the same time but there's usually one pattern. Each daydream, each dream self is a disguised emotion. One is repressed sexuality, second one can be desire to override insecurity, third one can be need for intellectual stimulation, forth one can be craving for emotional intimacy and so on. Until this particular feeling is addressed and resolved in your waking life, until it flows into your real life, the craving for that particular type of daydream won't stop. I've noticed this pattern million times in my own case.

To answer your second question: once again, your story is just a symbol for something else, a disguised feeling. It's not content that matters, it's what created this content in the first place. A time traveler? Why would someone want to be a time traveler? Think about all the reasons. Isn't that someone who is clandestinely obsessed with changing the past? Someone who maybe feels the guilt and wants to reverse his past mistakes. See, guilt? Just a silly example. There's no difference between this and between a man who is obsessed about becoming a millionaire so he can buy a Ferrari, a 3-floor house with a pool and maybe a private jet only to realize that none of it matters. There's always a hole superficial content tries to fill.

I read this post almost two times, and it gave me alot of knowledge about the issue .
But newly I found the main problem is in my day-mares ,usually following stress situation, which make drowning in endless fearful thoughts.
I feel it's the other face of my MDD .
Anyway thank you for your help.

It's strange how when you really start thinking about the content of your daydreams from an objective perspective, you notice many patterns you never saw before. Many of my daydream sessions are done automatically even though I initially feel that the craving is unbearable. But when I refuse to daydream and analyze it, it's just like the craving is... an illusion. 

This is so detailed and well written.

In the past I went to see a therapist and learnt that my Maladaptive Daydreaming started as a way of me dealing with the sexual abuse I received, as a child. My MD gives me comfort and strength the way nothing else does. I want it to completely vanish from my life but in the days that I am able to suppress it. It comes back strong and vengeful.

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