My apologies first for not haven written anything in ages. Life has been, well, unpredictable, overwhelming and confusing at best. The enormous change in routine (homeschooling the children, working from home, all the zoom meetings, new rules whenever you go outside, news about the pandemic everywhere) wasn't easy on me. And I wonder how my fellow autistics have been holding up with this 'new life'.
One thing I have really battled with during the first lock-down was my go-to-coping mechanism. Whenever life gets overwhelming, I hide away. Not just in my bed, but I hide away in my head.
During the summer months I have been diagnosed with a condition I have had all my life, and that is maladaptive daydreaming. Now, this 'psychiatric disorder' had not found its way into the DSM yet, so I have been labeled with a dissociative disorder, more specifically, a depersonalisation disorder not otherwise specified.
How is daydreaming a disorder though?
Yes, we all daydream. We all fantasise. We might think about new job opportunities, about an upcoming holiday, or about a fight we had and how we should have responded or what we should have said. We might think about a handsome stranger, or evaluate our relationships. All these types of daydreams are relatively normal and most typical people daydream for about 50% of the time, so that's about 8 hours out of a routine 16-hour day. These daydreams are often fleeting. They come and go, and there's no attachment to the daydream or a yearning to go back to the daydream. It happens while working, sitting behind a desk, cooking dinner or during the drive home. Also, the level of absorption can be considered normal when a person can easily switch back to reality and continue their day.
So, daydreaming is normal and healthy even. It can help us process feelings, set goals for our future or help us evaluate our next step in life. But, when does daydreaming become unhealthy?
Well, there are a few key factors that make maladaptive daydreaming differ from regular daydreaming. Let me list some key factors:
1) Most people who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming feel as if the daydream controls them, rather than the other way around. For me, this means I can't really influence the contents of my daydreams. As soon as I drift off, my brain basically decides which rollercoaster we're taking, and I just need to strap in. Also, it is next to impossible to stop the urge to daydream. I can't 'snap out of it' when the dissociative state hits me. You can safely consider maladaptive daydreaming to be a form of addiction. And just like with other addictions, it is hard to fight the urge. The need to daydream can be overpowering. For me, there's just no fighting it. Not giving in to my urge to daydream will result in a meltdown, in exhaustion, in suicidal thoughts, in concentration issues and in executive disfunction.
2) The content of a 'normal' daydream differs greatly from the content of a maladaptive daydream. My daydreams rarely involve the people I have around me in real life. They hardly ever involve my career, the friends I have or my goals in life. Instead, I have a selection of 'movies' that my brain chooses from, together with a set of actors that come and go with a certain movie or scene. My movies could either involve mountain climbing, traveling with a pack of huskies, car racing, ancient times in Japan, being a tattoo artist, so, literally all walks of life. Also, the main character of my daydreams is female about 80% of the time, but sometimes also male. If sex occurs in the daydream, there is no set sexual preference, meaning my main character can be straight, gay, demi sexual and so on. Also, a maladaptive daydreamer can spend hours perfecting a single, five-second-scene that occurs as part of a greater story. So, yeah, not your typical 'what will I do next weekend' daydream.
3) Maladaptive Daydreams often involve characters with which the daydreamer has bonded. I know this sounds weird, but I have characters that have been with me for years. I have sculpted them, perfected them in the course of hundreds of hours of daydreaming. Whenever I come across a person on tv whom I want to include in my paracosm, it takes research. I'll get obsessed with watching interviews just so I can copy their mimics, tone of voice, accent and mannerisms. I need to do this, because having an incomplete character can be a frustrating experience for me. There's just too many gaps to fill in. I don't know if all maladaptive daydreamers try to copy a real life character into their daydreams with such precision as I do, but I do know most maladaptive daydreamers do really bond with their characters and having something happen to them can be a traumatising experience.
4) The level of intensity of a daydream is of the charts for maladaptive daydreamers. As stated above, if something happens to an important main character, this can be traumatzing for the daydreamer. And no, we don't always get a say in how the story goes. I can sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and slip into dissociation when I'm unable to fall asleep. For some reason, the more tired I am, the more dramatic my brain gets, meaning I can have heartbreaking scenes in my head which can keep me up for hours. I'll be sobbing or bursting with laughter in the middle of the night, when listening to music or during a dull moment in the day when my mind has wondered off again. But when my main character feels trapped, crushed or depressed, often, so do I.
5) Maladaptive daydreamer often respond to triggers which will onset a daydream. Most people who daydream will drift off during a dull moment when the situation doesn't require 100% of their attention. Perhaps during a lecture, a long car ride, or when spacing out in front of the tv. A maladaptive daydreamer will get stuck in dissociation when confronted with a trigger, no matter how much attention the situation they're in requires. A certain song, a certain line of text, a scent, a sound, anything can be trigger to fall back into dissociation. I have had the most challenging times keeping my mind focused while interviewing people or being in a meeting when a certain cue or trigger is presented to me that makes me want to daydream. It often means I have to put in maximum effort to stay present and do my job while my brain really just wants to sail off into dissociative bliss. It's like a tug of war: present - daydream - present - daydream - present -daydream, and so on.
6) Maladaptive daydreaming involves many involuntary movements and repetitions. Making faces, pacing back and forth, mumbling to yourself, laughing, crying, and other repetitive movements are often displayed when someone engages in maladaptive daydreaming. I'm guessing that a 100% of the time, we don't know we're doing this. It's only when we're confronted with the reactions of other people observing us, that we feel caught, ashamed and embarrassed. I still remember the day I took the train home from university. While sunk away in a rather dazzling daydream with a handsome character, I noticed the people around me started to laugh. When I 'came to' I realised I was French kissing the air. Yep, that really happend. *facepalm*
So, what is maladaptive daydreaming related to?
Maladaptive daydreaming can come with co-occurrences such as ADHD, OCD and Autism level 1. It has also been associated with childhood trauma. However, this isn't alway necessarily the case. Someone who is free from trauma or any other psychiatric disorders, can still develop maladaptive daydreaming. Often, it is a technique developed to deal with, for instance, boredom. Once the technique is developed it can become addictive and problematic.
Maladaptive daydreaming is not similar to schizophrenia though, because unlike people who are schizophrenic, maladaptive daydreamers can always tell fiction from fact and realise fully that their daydreams aren't real.
What makes maladaptive daydreaming problematic is the fact that maladaptive daydreamers can really suffer from not only the contents of their inner worlds, but also by the addictive and overwhelming nature of this disorder.
While a typical daydreamer can get away with daydreaming 6 hours a day, in between tasks or while doing the dishes, someone like me has to isolate themselves in order to really daydream. With the amount involuntary movements I make or the intensity and level of absorption of my daydreaming, I don't feel safe enough to daydream just anywhere. It needs to be in my own space, where I can be alone or at least go unnoticed. So, with that factor considered, that I need to isolate myself, spending up to 6 or 7 hours a day to daydream can become an incredible time consuming and disabling condition. Like I wrote before, I need to get in a certain amount of maladaptive daydreaming to prevent myself from falling apart. This means I will often chose to isolate myself and daydream, rather than spend time with family and friends, or do my job.
What's the reward?
All behaviours are only performed if they are rewarding and the same goes for maladaptive daydreaming. No matter how much I struggle with it or how much it can keep me away from my goals in life, I get something out of it that makes me repeat this behaviour. So, what is it?
I think for one, there's safety. I'm in my world, with all the characters I know and even though I can't alway control the scenes my brain is presenting me with, I do have some control of my characters and how they interact with each other. This makes my paracosm a predictable and safe place to be where I can recharge and rest.
Two, it helps me feel emotions that I find difficult in real life. Because of my autism and my traumatic past, I have a mild form of alexithymia (that's a term for not being able to identify, express or experience emotions). Like many autistics, I can be considered 'flat' when it comes to expressing or experiencing me emotions. No such things in my daydreams though. It's all there, over the top and exaggerated so that there's no question what I'm feeling. In a way, daydreaming makes me feel more alive.
Three, I get to do things in an alternate reality that I could never do in real life. I don't have the finances to be involved in car racing. I don't have the artistic skills to be a tattoo artist. I would love the travel the world with a bunch of huskies, but I als have real life responsibilities that I can't walk away from. And because my daydreams are so real to me and the level of absorption is enormous, I get to experience alternative lives that can feel very real to me (even though I fully realise they're not). So, I guess it's a way to escape my reality. There's no autism in my daydreams. No sensory overloads, no meltdowns, no responsibilities. It's a dream world, literally.
So, is there help?
Unfortunately, not really. Some SSRI's (anti-depressant drugs) have shown to be helpful in limiting the urge to daydream, but there's no miracle drug out there. If you started maladaptive daydreaming because you are anxious, depressed or have a low self-esteem, therapy might help you get your life on track which might reduce the urge to daydream. And there are some people who have been able to quit cold turkey by ordering their characters to commit suicide as a way of ending the addiction. That's never worked for me though. Mine just pop back up.
So, instead, I have come to accept this need. I try to give in to my urge to daydream as much as life will allow me. I have noticed how much my need to daydream follows other patterns in my life. I need to daydream more during stressful times, after busy days or even when I'm having my period. The need is less when I'm high in energy and feel happy and motivated. So really, the only way to limit my maladaptive daydreaming, is by taking really good care of myself.
Do you think you suffer from maladaptive daydreaming. There are many websites, Facebook groups and a growing number of professionals who might be able to help. Check out the work of Eli Somer and his team for more information about this condition.