Great for the imagination; terrible for real life.
My junior year, I came across a certain subreddit, r/MaladaptiveDreaming, and have been frequenting it (read: lurking) ever since.
If you clicked on this link, you probably already know what maladaptive daydreaming is. For those who don’t, it’s a psychiatric condition which prompts you to escape reality by constantly daydreaming to an unhealthy degree. We all daydream–that part’s perfectly normal. What makes it maladaptive is when it starts to interfere with your everyday life. You can’t focus, can’t complete tasks, can’t go places; you only want to escape it all through daydreaming.
It’s been theorized that this condition could be a form of disassociation, but there isn’t a whole lot of scientific evidence to go off of. Some of the articles I came across when researching referred to it as a “behavioral addiction,” or a symptom of better researched disorders like depression and anxiety. It’s hard, however, to actually diagnose a disorder that isn’t formally recognized as one under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Interestingly, there’s another, similar subreddit to r/MaladaptiveDreaming: r/ImmersiveDaydreaming. Rather than lament the problems caused by excessive daydreaming, the users at r/ImmersiveDaydreaming embrace it, using the subreddit as a space to “discuss and appreciate [their] vivid imaginations.”
So what’s the difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming? Where is the line between the two, and how can one embrace their vivid and active imagination (as one should!) without letting it take over their every thought?
For me, the line was (and sometimes still is) hard to see.
I daydreamed a lot, starting around when I was twelve. I started off picturing scenarios in my head that might work well for a novel I wanted to write. But I found that I really enjoyed daydreaming, and delving into my imagination only when I was looking for a story idea wasn’t enough. In sixth grade, when I was learning how to play World of Warcraft, I once spent an entire class period daydreaming about how my druid would soon be able to fly and how cool it would be once I finally hit level sixty. And while I physically cringed at having to write that, it’s one of the earlier daydreams I can remember.
That class period happened to be math, one of my worst subjects and one I absolutely loathed, so I suppose at the time I daydreamed about playing video games as a sort of coping mechanism for dealing with doing something I didn’t care to be doing. The more I began to daydream in that class, of course, the worse I started to do. It became a vicious cycle of hating the class and daydreaming to escape it, which then contributed to my ever growing hatred and dwindling interest.
Slowly, daydreaming became my crutch.
I had any number of different triggers. Watching a really good movie or reading a really good book guaranteed that I would sit around—sometimes for hours at a time—just picturing how a similar story would play out in my own little universe. Watching any superhero movie, for example, would have me spending at least an hour afterward building up my own world where superpowers were real. Watching something more grounded in reality like a documentary, by contrast, would lead to a monologue inside my head about the travesty of whatever injustice the documentary had brought attention to (I’m a big fan of “exposé” style documentaries) or some attempt to incorporate the subject of the documentary into one of countless worlds I’ve built up in my head.
Other triggers occurred when I listened to music (even movies in your head need a soundtrack), when I had a bad day, or when I’d have a brand new idea for a daydream and would spend hours trying to perfect the same scene over and over again in my head. Maybe now there’s vampires. Maybe demons. Giants, gods, angels, superheroes, anything. The only rule was that there had to be something removed from reality in it, because the otherworldly elements of it were what made it an escape in the first place.
But here’s where the idea of the “maladaptive” daydream versus the “immersive” daydream gets tricky. Everyone daydreams. It’s a great way to pass the time when you’re idle, and I doubt anyone has ever met someone who’s never in their life spaced out thinking about being somewhere else, doing something else. How can something as impossible to measure as daydreaming be properly studied to make a distinction between the helpful and the harmful?
Once upon a time, the same thing could’ve been said about anxiety and depression, two disorders that are immeasurable and therefore difficult to diagnose. Depression did not become officially recognized as a disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1950s. Anxiety wasn’t included until the third edition in 1980. But despite how long it took, they were eventually recognized. So is maladaptive daydreaming something that may someday be officially diagnosed as a disorder and appear in that oft-referenced Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Maybe. But while the struggle with anxiety and depression never fully goes away, the help I’ve gotten for it after officially being diagnosed is impossible to fully describe.
And it isn’t only the clinical aspect of diagnosis (or the lack thereof) that can cause people to struggle to seek help. Even in 2019, both depression and anxiety can still be met with some skepticism, with the former being considered simply a longer-term, enhanced “sadness” and the latter being considered the same general anxieties that everyone else goes through. But while everyone can be sad or anxious, not everyone understands disorders like depression and anxiety that cannot be measured. Similarly, while everyone can daydream, not everyone understands the feeling of needing it to get through the day so much that it disrupts your everyday life.
Interestingly, maladaptive daydreaming has been considered a behavioral addiction developed as a coping mechanism to a number of other mental disorders; anxiety, depression, PTSD, and autism, and addictive disorders, and the addictiveness of constantly daydreaming stems from a release of serotonin (the fun brain chemical that makes you feel happy) with every daydream. I was diagnosed with social anxiety just last year, and a theme that appeared often when I researched this topic was just how consistent maladaptive daydreaming is with anxiety. From personal experience, anytime I had one of my signature “anxiety moments” after botching an interaction with someone somehow, I’d use daydreaming as a way to cope with what I perceived as a colossal failure. It helped to have other things to think about, but when I was at my worst, I’d even get angry at people for trying to talk to me when I was listening to music or otherwise spaced out. How dare they not understand that my sitting here doing nothing is actually me decompressing from an awkward moment I had with one of my professors!, I would think. How dare they force me to return to the world I’m trying to escape from!
I developed a reputation for being quiet and sort of aloof over time. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk. I love to talk. No, it was because I started to feel like real life would never live up to my daydreams, so what was the point? What was there to talk about? I’m not nearly as interesting in real life as I am in my daydreams. Nothing’s as interesting in real life as they are in my daydreams. And even when life is interesting, it’s because it sucks. Life sucks. Everything sucks.
Needless to say, my deep commitment to daydreaming did become what could be classified as a “behavioral addiction.” I took everything I didn’t like about my life and escaped it through not being present in the moment. I missed entire conversations from tuning them out. My grades dropped because I would use lectures as an opportunity to let my mind go somewhere else as long as I knew that I wasn’t expected to speak.
It wasn’t until I transferred to Gallatin, where participation is a requirement, that I became motivated to “fake” the confidence that I was certain everyone around me already had. The gentle nudges I received from professors who cared about what I had to say helped me to make that transition. Slowly, I started raising my hand in class the way I did when I was a chubby-cheeked, chatty child in Ms. Leonard’s third grade class, eager to be the one to read from the textbook out loud. It didn’t all happen at once, of course. I started out by taking notes from the readings and waiting until one of those notes became relevant to the discussion. It was like reading off a script at first, and I envied my classmates who could make insightful points without needing to meticulously take notes or read off their weekly response papers. I envied that their voices didn’t shake and their minds didn’t go blank the way that mine did. How did they get that kind of confidence? How were they so smart? I bet they didn’t need to daydream about a world where they could actually hold a conversation.
But somehow, talking in class opened up doors and faking started to become reality. I’d come to class a little bit early and would end up talking to my classmates, where I found that many of them had the same doubts about the things they said as I did. “Did you understand the reading?” “Fuck no. I’m just gonna bullshit it.” “I hope the professor doesn’t notice if I don’t say anything.”
It’s hard to describe the feeling of knowing that I wasn’t alone in how I felt about speaking in front of people. I want to describe it as relief, but it’s not quite accurate because I can also describe it as a kind of disappointment to know that so many students struggled and even feared having their voices heard. Did others daydream to escape what they feared in life the way I did? Did everyone, even the most confident speakers, close themselves off and imagine a world where they were better, more confident, less burdened by a fear of failure?