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 still burns 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’t miserable,” 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.