Maladaptive Daydreaming (Disorder)

Recently, compelled by the interests of one of the women I follow on twitter, I partook in quite a bit of reading about my Myers-Briggs Type, a psychometric typology test designed by psychologist Carl Jung, the result of which is for me is INFP. In digging through information about INFPs, I came across a page that mentioned we are inclined to something called maladaptive daydreaming, and I stopped breathing when I read it. From Wikipedia:

Maladaptive daydreaming (Compulsive Fantasy) is a term first proposed by Eli Sómer, Ph.D., to describe a condition in which an individual excessively daydreams or fantasizes, sometimes as a psychological response to prior trauma or abuse. This title has become popularly generalized to incorporate a recently-described syndrome of immersive or excessive daydreaming which is specifically characterized by attendant distress or functional impairment, whether or not it is contingent upon a history of trauma or abuse, as introduced in 2009 by Cynthia Schupak, Ph.D. and Jesse Rosenthal, M.D. of New York City. Dr. Schupak and her colleagues published the results of a follow-up study based on an email questionnaire in 2011.

The daydreamers experience very vivid and intricate fantasies and may become emotionally attached to the characters in their fantasies or express emotions they are feeling through vocal utterances or changing facial expressions, although most keep such behavior hidden from others.

A study of 90 individuals who self-identified as having excessive daydreams found that 79% had a kinesthetic repetitive movement accompany their daydreaming, such as pacing, rocking, tapping, or shaking an object. Listening to music while daydreaming is common and hearing music may trigger a fantasy. A repetitive movement may be articulated to music while daydreaming.

There is a term for me. For people like me. And in its severity it is considered a disorder.

When I came across the descriptions and the symptoms I truly felt my heart break after the shock passed. My daydreaming, and my imagination, is actually something I really value about myself (except when it’s most intense and impedes on my ability to function) and I’m just really frustrated that it’s claimed to be the result of “childhood trauma” instead of being an integral part of my personality like I know it is, because I feel like that is being taken away from me…

Everything is a disorder these days! I thought bitterly, partly to assure myself this isn’t something that needed to be… fixed.

In January of last year I’d written, “The assumption that I was not in control of my own thoughts, that I could not be held accountable for my own behavior, that I could never contribute anything significant to the world, and that my ideas and passions were driven by anything but my own will and should be immediately discredited was the most belittling sentiment anyone had ever expressed in my regard.”

Of course, MD(D) isn’t mainly or necessarily the result of childhood trauma. E. Somer writes in “Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry” from the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy that “although MD seemed to have been preceded by a normal childhood propensity for creative imagination, aversive circumstances were seen to have contributed to the development of MD.” I was always like this naturally, since I was a very small child; I have often suspected however, that it has intensified as a device mechanism against abuse, to the point where I daydream compulsively, without realizing I have submerged into a daydream or even being cognizant of what that daydream is. Regularly I am daydreaming even while fully aware of my surroundings and the conversation in which I am engaged. Music often triggers long detailed and elaborate episodes and I will find specific songs and repeat them over if they end before I’ve finished the fantasy (changing the song will change the fantasy.) To a great extent, the daydreaming is fully under my control, even if it is excessive.

“It’s important to note at this point that people with this problem are not psychotic; we DO NOT confuse fantasy and reality,” writes one woman with MD, “We are quite aware (sometimes painfully aware) of the difference between the two. We know what is real and what is not.”

I never had imaginary friends. I knew when I made someone up and was too practical at least to interact with xir as my present self and only engaged with xir in indulgent daydreaming or from the perspective of a writer. When interrupted in the midst of thought, I would frequently become irritable (a sign of an addiction.) Occasionally I even feel a very real thrill in knowing I would have time to daydream, as though something tangible is going to transpire—and, when I was younger, I would cry because the characters I read about in books weren’t real and I had grown that attached to them. “People suffering from this know the difference between daydreaming and reality, and do not confuse the two,” she continues in the list of symptoms.

All the times I’ve had to convince others that I could not be discredited because of having been abused as a child, that I don’t even consider myself a survivor of anything, and that I am no one’s victim. That I shouldn’t be dismissed as hysterical. It is a grating task, to convince the world you aren’t insane. But it is less difficult of a task to take on than what you should be convincing the world: that even if you were, you should not be discredited. And MD for me is mild. Mild. This is absolutely nothing. As mentioned, this is only a disorder when it begins to interfere with my life, and it is not a visible one—I can’t even imagine…

But otherwise, though it doesn’t succeed in interfering with my life (I get everything done that I need, and more) it does consume me to some extent and constrains my personal relationships. Somer E. defines Maladaptive daydreaming (MD) as an “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.” Or—as one of my friends observed earlier—“Nahida, you keep yourself away from everyone and then you wonder why you’re so alone.” I will actually miss calls from friends just to continue daydreaming.

This is characteristic of the introvert. We typically expend energy when interacting with others, as opposed to the extrovert, who accrues it. And so we need to recollect after these encounters and have time to ourselves. (Although, I am very good at coming across as an extrovert and have been informed that I come across as incredibly confident.)

I daydream to procrastinate. Sometimes I put off meals, or wait until the last minute to apply my makeup because I am swaying to a song.

For years I read book after book after book to the point at which I was reading close to 90 books a month. There was something so unsatisfying with reality… I could not cope with it. In the midst of reading I’d stop to daydream, twirling around in my room. By the eighth grade, I forced myself control my reading habits. I would not, I promised, fall in love with imaginary things again. My reading has come to moderation.

The daydreaming has not stopped.

I spend most of my time in a state of reverie, wishing that I could learn a piece on the piano without falling in love or becoming comfortable with the sound and beginning to daydream halfway through the melody to end up losing my place and awaken sharply at the first misplaced note. Or read a book without pausing to dwell gently at the loveliness of the language or excitedly twirl at the suspense. Is it possible to be aware at a deep level while not even awake at the surface? I sink into watching the color of life instead–something like a glass of cranberry juice appears attractive–admiring the passionate red of it, the depth of its translucent consistency. It seemed like another world. I imagined being made of it, of hearing muffled smells and tasting color as sharp and beautiful as stargazer lilies. I imagined it was a metaphor for my soul, the thick color and the light that pushed through and made a breaking dawn, an entire universe. What are you thinking? someone asks. I’d actually forgotten that very second. And in the times I do remember, I’m far too tired to explain. My fingers stumbling across the keys for a pen in the middle of the night. In the morning the result will look foreign, overly passionate. I pace to fall asleep.

For the time being, I truly don’t believe this is a result of any trauma, but it makes me wonder if we all return to our nature, our natural disposition, or if even the loveliest of things is a result of rough forging of character; or maybe, the most poignant theory, that they are a defense mechanism, the way hope upsurges more strongly in the face of oppression, like antibodies to a virus.

Or if I will ever be okay.

What is left is to seize myself. All the material exists in the channels through which I employ myself, and what needs to be practiced is a focus—a set of thought that will force structure and routine to my unruliness, so that I may fully apply my work to one purpose necessary for functioning in this world rather than to what moves me to dream and struggle through my passions.

It used to work in my favor, falling in love with being alone. But now I’m drowning in myself again with a different result. Sometimes I feel genuinely that I am not reconcilable with this world, that a part of me will have to be taken away as I continue here—a power struggle with immediate, apparent reality–and I wonder if it is arrogance. But surely, there must be something more. Until then, we will recover.

About Nahida

Nahida writes novels she never finishes, shorter creative pieces, and bad poetry. She has interests in Islam, feminism, philosophy, astronomy, neurology, and daydreaming, and lives by the San Andreas Fault.
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14 Responses to Maladaptive Daydreaming (Disorder)

  1. dawnofthenerds says:

    I had a similar reaction to finding out about Delayed Phase Sleep Disorder. It described me so well it was like a punch to the gut. I finally realized that I wasn’t lazy, wasn’t immature, because I stay up late and sleep past noon. It’s not entirely a choice for me, and that was somehow truly liberating to realize. It gave me a little more courage to speak up for myself when people constantly expressed their incredulity and disapproval. Even though I still don’t think what I do is disordered, it’s somehow relieving to know that it’s a real thing and that it’s partially biological, in my case.

  2. Maliha says:

    Nothing wrong with dreaming, thinking and reflecting. The world needs its dreamers and thinkers or else there would be such a miserable imbalance with all the alpha ‘get things done yesterday’ types.
    Now a days it seems like (according to shrink types) just about every personality quirk is supposedly shaped by some trauma, its getting ridiculous. Some people enjoy their own company and thats great–much healthier than people who feel they have to immerse themselves with the company of others and endless rounds of activities so they are not alone with their own thoughts.

  3. People would connect this to trauma if the child, while experiencing the trauma, ‘dissociated’ or ‘retreated’ into fantasy or daydream when unable to physically escape. This is especially true with girls and women. Some kids take this coping skill into adulthood where it becomes ‘maladaptive’ by becoming a response to stress. Some survivors talk about spending hours in their fantasy or dissociative states, to the point they prefer the fantasies over reality and feel their fantasies are more real than their reality – even though they ‘know’ it is fantasy. It would be considered on the same level as drugs, or alcohol, sex, or shopping. A way to cope with reality. Many women I worked with called their dissociation their best friend.

    Anyways, my take on these things is this: if you feel it is a problem, then it is a problem – and if you don’t then it isn’t. If you aren’t sure, then it is something worth exploring. Only you know, and have the power to say, whether or not this is connected to trauma. Ultimately it is about knowing yourself more than anyone else, even the shrinks, researchers, and whoever ever else makes a career of labeling others. Even if someone came up to you and said “yup, you are a maladaptive daydreamer” it would still be about your honest introspection and whether it feels like a fit, or not, to you.

    I am so sorry you feel you have been ‘discredited’ by being perceived as a survivor of trauma. It hurts me in my gut that being perceived as a survivor is a source of stigma.

    I like this Buddha quote:
    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

    • Nahida says:

      Your new blog has been of great use, information, and comfort to me. Just wanted to let you know–I find every post brilliant. Thank you.

  4. qatheworld says:

    I am going with your comment about “everything is a disorder these days.” I have always been a daydreamer too, just because I have sometimes let it interfere with what other people consider “normal” does not mean it is wrong or a disorder, in my opinion. I also think introversion has been painted as something “wrong” by extroverts, when I don’t believe it is wrong, it is different than the majority is all. I think I crave and appreciate real contact more than those to whom it comes easily, but most people assume I have no interest in people and this is why I am isolated. Some of the differences have names (I have many more than these)… some differences receive less understanding from others. Not every difference is a “disease” or needs to be fixed. If you feel something wrong with it or it’s causing a problem from your perspective, you can always try to balance it, but I wouldn’t do so based on the fact that someone’s come up with a disorder along these lines. It’s like the delayed sleep thing dawnofthenerds mentioned (also a category I likely fall into)… yes, it requires adaptation if you want to fit into what other people consider a “normal” schedule, you can either choose to adjust it and shortchange yourself or you can find something more accommodating, or a middle ground between. What I don’t understand are the people who consider it a downright insult that you aren’t raring to go at the crack of dawn like they are. People are different. It doesn’t mean the ones who don’t fall into the average are “wrong.”

  5. rainmaya says:

    hi! I actually am the same as you. INFP. I love day dreaming too. I wasn’t even aware that this was a condition. I try not to speak too loudly though of certain fantasies. But I’ve been caught twice by my mother and friend who asked with whom I was conversing with. (gulps) I used to be an avid reader too when I was young, a form of escapism from the difficult childhood in the clashes of culture beyond my young’s mind grasp.
    It also makes me realize that I cant concentrate on my work too long as my mind would wonder off somewhere, a thought to procrastinate from my tiring job. And I shan’t start on my crushes with anime characters. Yes. Anime characters. =)
    Sigh~ We shall recover indeed.
    Great post for helping me realize this!

  6. “everything is a disorder” probably helps somebody somewhere make a buck.

    And nice to hear from a kindred spirit. I’m boarderline infp (ever so slightly closer to intp)

  7. Pingback: Child of the random stuff « The Words on What…

  8. I’m an INFP too :)
    I think what we need in life to thrive is a certain balance. A balance between our outer and inner world. Too much of something can harm us. Of course, everyone decides for her/himself what that balance consists of, according to one’s needs. For example, introverts need more alone time than extroverts, as you pointed out.
    Fantasies can be potentially harmful, although that’s certainly not always the case. In my eyes, they become harmful when we are always dreaming about something we want to achieve, but never take the necessary steps in the outer world. This will cut us off from reality completely and can also lead to frustration and depression. It’s also a sign of a weak animus, that inner power that manifests our inner ideas in the outer world.
    In any case, this world values extroverts much more, and seems to always look for ways to make introverts feel inferior. I also read that in 1992 they were thinking of classifying feeling happy as a disorder, so that says it all really.

  9. I struggled with this a bit, especially when I was younger (I’m INFJ, which I suppose is what gives me slightly more “realist” views today). Thank you for sharing.

  10. I once diagnosed my grandmother with the exact opposite condition, known in Freudian lingo as a “defect in ARISE” (Adaptive Regression in the Service of the Ego)… which incidentally, is what daydreaming is. Freudians tended to think daydreaming was adaptive and good. My grandmother seemed literally unable to daydream and I think it hastened her decline due to Alzheimers. She was very literal-minded, religion was the only “imaginative” outlet she had.

    One cause of the “defect of ARISE” is given as: growing up in very cramped, deprived, overcrowded conditions, as she did. This inhibited the development of consistent daydreaming as a habit. There were just too many people around. She came from a family of 13 children, with 11 surviving to adulthood. They all lived in one cramped little barn until she got married at age 15.

    So, reading that daydreaming can be maladaptive is a little odd to me. I think it is good, even when it is extreme. Maybe because I grew up with a person who could not, and I felt the bluntness, the “lack” in her personality… it made her unhappy with no way to free herself from it. She had no escape. I believe it also later fueled her prescription drug abuse.

    I am ENFP, your extroverted counterpart, and maybe that’s why I feel like DEFENDING daydreaming as good, is what we ought to be doing. ;)

    Great post, fun reading, glad to meetcha.

  11. mohamedm1 says:

    Ahh the perils and evil of music.

  12. Deslyn says:

    Do you have the actual disorder though? Is it a burden, uncontrollable/difficult to control, & do you have ALL they symptoms. It should be a problem in your life like any other disorder. I sure have it & cried when I finally came across the answer to what I have.

  13. Anindita says:

    hi guys, i m suffering from MD too.
    sometimes it scares me, coz, its is messing with my academics, i procrastinate everything..
    that makes me unprepared for exams..
    if i dnt daydreams i feel depressed…
    i get really irritated when someone interrupts my daydreaming..
    i get scared when offered a job..

    i really dnt know whats going on but its really freaking me out…

    i dnt wanna end up an unsuccessful person..
    but this daydreaming thing is getting out of my hand…
    i day dream all the time, while i’m bathing, walking, reading, listening music, even dancing…

    some people say you should avoid the triggers, but with me everything triggers some or other fantasy or day dream..

    what should i do????

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