LJ and I sometimes have conversations that go like this:
LJ: Tomorrow morning I’m going into town to look for shoes – if you want to come?
LJ: I’m going to leave about ten. And then I thought it might be nice to have coffee and cake. There’s a new café that’s opened on the high street. They do coffee with a free cookie. Supposed to be really nice. But only if I find shoes – or I’ll have nothing to go with my work outfits…
LJ: Are you listening to me?
Me: What’s that?
LJ: Is ten tomorrow ok?
Me: What’s ten tomorrow?
LJ: Going to town.
Me: Oh! Are you going to town tomorrow? What for?
LJ: To buy shoes!
Me: Just asking..!
LJ: *lunges for my throat*
Me: *spluttering* What…?
Apparently, people deliver entire monologues without me hearing a word they’re saying. I have also been known to ask someone if they want a cup of tea, pop out to the kitchen and then return a minute later to ask the question again because I didn’t really listen to the answer the first time round. And I never remember the names of people I’ve just met.
This isn’t because I have a hearing problem – my ears work perfectly well. But I do have a ‘listening’ problem. Sometimes I don’t hear what people are saying to me because I’m actually in the middle of doing something else (writing, reading, watching a film). In those instances I only have one attention mode: Completely Absorbed. That means all other functions are non-operational until the occupying task is complete.
But sometimes I don’t hear what people are saying to me because I’m actually dreaming something else. This is the mode I enter when I’m doing something that doesn’t require a concerted effort of the brain to complete: cooking, gardening, painting, household chores, walking around town, group meetings or being present at social events consisting of more than four people. There are certain practical tasks I’m capable of physically completing without having to be 100% present mentally. I’m pretty sure this is true of all people. We all daydream.
But some of us daydream a little more than others.
When I started learning to drive, my dad’s anxious advice to me was: ‘Remember – you’re driving. Just focus on driving and nothing else’. None of my other siblings were given this rather obvious instruction. Just me. Because, basically, whilst everyone else was concerned about their teenagers consuming vast amounts of alcohol before they got behind the wheel of a vehicle, my parents were more worried about me drifting into some fantasy land at the traffic lights. ‘Don’t Daydream and Drive’ was a genuine campaign in my house.
So, naturally, I was curious when LJ sent me this link ‘The Daydream that Never Stops’: http://bbc.in/2y49Mtf about maladaptive daydreaming. As well as being a fascinating article, it’s also a brilliant piece of multimedia storytelling.
Anyway. Daydreaming. When does it become maladaptive?
Professor of Clinical Psychology, Eli Somer, who coined the phrase ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ defined it as ‘extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.’ Those who suffer with the syndrome are not just your average daydreamers; their daydreaming inhibits their ability to function in everyday life – not because they can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality – but because they prefer their fantasy world to the real one. For many, this causes them great distress. The fantasy world itself (which tends to be incredibly complex and detailed) isn’t necessarily distressing, but the inability to ‘switch it off’ is. And it is this which causes those with MD to feel stressed and isolated.
At the moment, MD isn’t officially recognised as a mental disorder – though there is research being done on it: what causes it; how far is it pathological; can it be cured; does it need to be cured or simply managed; is it actually a symptom of another disorder; what are the key differences between ‘normal’ daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming? Much of the developing understanding of MD actually comes from peer support groups on the internet – such as The Wild Minds Network.
This website offers a list of symptoms common to maladaptive daydreamers. You might have MD if:
- You daydream more often than you think is normal.
- You’ve built up a character(s) that’s an idealized version of yourself
- You feel more empowered in your daydreams.
- You’re starting to enjoy daydreaming better than the real world.
- Daydreaming is starting to interfere with your day-to-day activities.
- You might enact some movement, like pacing or moving your hands, (though not everyone does this).
- Some people make facial expressions, talk, and/or act out their daydreams.
I’d like to clarify now that I learnt to drive just fine. Okay – I learnt to drive just fine eventually. My struggles in learning to drive were largely to do with my lack of hand-eye coordination; inability to judge speed, distance and time; and total confusion over how a car actually worked. Daydreaming had nothing to do with it, because I do have the ability to close the door on the daydreams for a while in order to engage with and enjoy real life. I am not a maladaptive daydreamer.
I’m a writer.
Or – more accurately, a story-teller. Most stories I only tell to myself, some of them make it on to a page, and even fewer of those become completed works that I’m happy to share with others. But none of these cause me distress or prevent me from living a relatively normal life – or at least one that I’m mostly happy with. I do identify with quite a few ‘symptoms’ on the list – I admit I have caught myself making faces or mouthing dialogue from a fantasy scene whilst washing the dishes… and only sometimes is this related to a plot I’m intending to write.
But I also know how to be present in the moment of the real life I am living: when I’m at a family meal, or tramping through the countryside, or at a music concert, or giving LJ advice on shoes, or having a heart-to-heart over coffee and a free cookie. Yes, background daydreaming still occurs in some of those moments – but it stays in the background with a ‘re-visit later’ post-it note on it. At some point I know I’ll be cleaning the bathroom, doing the dishes, or sipping a drink in a corner at a party (ha-ha – only joking – I don’t get invited to parties) and free to daydream.
Most importantly I know that, at some point, all my daydreaming will come together to take on a form and purpose – to go through a process of alchemy and transform from the plotting of the mind in to words on a page. Because, at some point, I will absolutely settle myself in a quiet place, rip off the ‘re-visit later’ post-its and write.
Who knows – perhaps writing is what keeps my daydreaming from becoming maladaptive? It’s important to note that most maladaptive daydreamers don’t actually want to lose their daydreaming or their fantasy world – they just want to manage how much of their time and attention is consumed by it so they can enjoy real life just as much.
A world without daydreaming? Sounds as horrifying as a world without music. Is that yet another dystopian plot idea that’s just hatched? Just kidding… but not really…