All it took was privacy, darkness, and music for me to
miraculously transport to a deep, intense, and
all-encompassing fantasy world. Until last year, I thought
this habit was mine and mine alone.
Posted on October 03, 2017, 18:01 GMT
Ping Zhu for BuzzFeed News
I glide into the room, bathed in silvery light, heels
clicking. Everyone is there. Well, not everyone, but
everyone I’m interested in — 10 or 15 familiar faces. They’re
all interested in me, too. And so they should be, because,
brother, I’m a stunner. But my unusual beauty is nothing
compared to the brilliance between my ears. Such creativity!
Such wit! It’s all the small crowd can do to keep their
mouths shut as I march past at a quick pace, tap the far wall
with one fingertip, and start back in the opposite direction.
Someone approaches me. We have a brief, scintillating chat
before I double back to offer the group an impromptu
rendition of my favorite Edith Piaf song, “L’accordeoniste.”
The applause is brief, but sincere. Humbly, I step out of the
spotlight and carry on my conversation, becoming engrossed in
my friend’s discussion of a recent artwork.
“Incredible!” I say.
“Thanks, I thought you’d like it,” the friend replies.
The whole affair is satisfying, ego-boosting, refreshing. But
it all happens in my darkened living room, where I pace
incessantly, my earphones blasting, utterly alone.
I am — though it’s not yet a recognized disorder — a
The term “maladaptive daydreaming” (often shortened to
“MD”) was coined by clinical psychologist Eli Somer, PhD. He
was working closely with a group of child abuse survivors,
and began noticing a pattern of obsessive dissociative
daydreaming among several of his patients. They reported
being intensely attracted to — even obsessed with — their
vivid and engrossing dream worlds. Somer published these
findings in 2002, only to find himself gradually
inundated with emails from people the world over, all
claiming to suffer the same addiction. Since then, the term
has slowly been gaining some traction, but MD still doesn’t
officially appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders (DSM), the go-to book the American
Psychiatric Association uses to classify and diagnose mental
disorders. Until last year — despite countless deep, dark
Googling sessions — I’d never heard mention of it. As far as
I knew, this habit was mine and mine alone.
I could instantly conjure the faces of my favorite cartoon
characters or actors and happily interact with them.
My earliest memory of daydreaming obsessively and immersively
is from when I was about 4 years old, an age when imagination
is often a healthy playmate. In those days, I could regularly
be seen racing around the wooden table in our dining room. I
circled it endlessly, pausing every so often to grasp one of
the four chairs and gaze out the window at nothing in
particular. If you’d managed to catch a glimpse of me in
action — a tall order, as even then I was highly secretive
about my daydreaming — you’d have occasionally seen me dip
into a corner and mouth one side of a mysterious conversation
with the wall. Moments later, I’d be back at it — first
walking, then running, as the record player blasted LPs
loaned from the local library. The Motels. The Top Gun
soundtrack. Chris de Burgh.
One day around that time, lost in a particularly engrossing
fantasy, I slipped on the Saxony carpeting and smashed
face-first into a brutally solid credenza. The inside of my
left cheek split open, and I had to be rushed off to the
hospital for some unwelcome stitching. There, the doctor on
call asked me what I’d been doing that led to me having such
a high-speed collision.
“Exercising,” I’d answered.
I’ll always remember the nurse who presented me with a
lollipop, knowing full well I couldn’t eat it. Still, I
accepted the treat and went home with my parents, neither of
whom knew the truth about what I’d been doing.
They couldn’t have known that I’d been interacting with a
deep, intense, and all-encompassing fantasy world; one that
provided me stability and a sense of connection; one within
which I was immediately valued; one that would go on to
define my life for decades to come. They couldn’t have known
that when I looked at the paisley wallpaper, I could
instantly conjure the faces of my favorite cartoon characters
or actors and happily interact with them, or perform for
them. As far as any adult observer could tell, I just liked
running frantic laps to upbeat tunes.
Exercise was the excuse I continued to use until leaving home
for university. For me, as for many MDers, pacing back and
forth has always helped me disconnect from reality and sink
more deeply into my imagination. But in order to keep my MD
secret from those around me, I had to come up with an
alternative explanation for that type of repetitive movement.
As a teenager, while my parents watched television, I’d
announce that I was going upstairs to work out. Once alone in
my darkened bedroom, I’d pace between the walls, adding the
occasional extra toe tap to give the impression of light
aerobic activity on the floor below. Back and forth I’d go,
keeping one eye on the staircase for any hint of a shadow
from the first floor. Catching the outline of an approaching
figure before they reached the landing gave me the control to
manage what that person saw when they arrived on the second
With earphones pressed firmly against my ears, I’d blast
portions of two or three key trigger songs on repeat. These
songs weren’t necessarily ones that I liked, but they
featured particular chord progressions or crescendos that I’d
use like film scores to sink further into my fictional
If there’s grand master status in daydreaming, I’ve earned
it. I’m a triple black belt in this shit.
In these scenarios, my bedroom had multiple levels,
balconies, and access points. The story changed from day to
day, but similar scenarios often repeated themselves. There
might be a hostage situation, an awards show being prepped,
or a high-intensity judo competition. Whatever the conjured
moments, I always played a central role. All it took was
privacy, darkness, and music for me to miraculously transform
into a martial arts expert, to know precisely how to take
down a perp, or to be surprised with an award for my
outstanding cinematic achievements.
Sometimes, my fantasies tiptoed into bizarre territory, and
I’d immerse myself in a storyline where I was being publicly
tortured or humiliated while a few key people looked on,
remarking at my bravery. I fantasized about being left at the
altar in order to be comforted by more relevant characters.
And so it went.
Recounting these private storylines here is only vaguely
liberating. More than anything, I find it embarrassing. As
with most addictive behaviors, maladaptive daydreaming
highlights the basest and neediest parts of one’s character,
and the fact that I’ve spent so many hours engaging in it
makes me feel uneasy and ashamed. By this point, I’ve far
surpassed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. If there’s grand
master status in daydreaming, I’ve earned it. I’m a triple
black belt in this shit.
So, why did I feel such a fierce need to escape my reality as
a child? Unlike many other MDers, there’s no physical or
sexual abuse in my past. And even though everything would
have looked beautiful to an outsider — Laura Ashley dresses,
ballet lessons — my private experience was one of internal
conflict. In our house, love was directly tied to success,
vulnerability was an embarrassment, and I regularly found
myself playing the role of mediator between my fighting
parents. As a child with a vibrant imagination, I must have
first craved, then created my own world: one of automatic
acceptance and the freedom to fail.
Growing older, I expected my little habit to
taper off, to be replaced by real relationships, real
excitement, real successes. Once I had freedom and control, I
thought, my conjured dramas would pale in comparison to my
daily activities. Alas, I was wrong. Time rolled on, and my
daydreaming didn’t taper off. Rather, it became more
personal, more hidden, and more intense. Every apartment I
moved to — every bedroom, every empty hotel room, every car
seat — was a place ripe with the opportunity to escape.
In my university years, I’d stay up late, just like any other
student. Sometimes it was because I was drinking with
friends, or studying for an exam, or chasing some oblivious
boy — but more often than not, it was because I was in my
room, letting my mind take me elsewhere, to a place where I’d
already achieved the things I was just beginning to think
about creating. After all, if you have access to a place in
which you’ve accomplished your goals, why bother pursuing
them in the real world?
In my gut, I knew all along that something was wrong with my
behavior. I knew it wasn’t right for a young woman to
willingly lock herself away, deadening her senses in favor of
fabricated realities. More than anything, I knew it wasn’t
healthy to blast my ears out with full-volume music for hours
a day. (I needed the volume to be at its maximum, as any
indication of outside noise could ruin my illusion.)
With the advent of the internet, I would occasionally search
for something — anything — that could describe or explain my
condition. Any search for “intense fantasizing,” “daydream
escapism,” or “pacing with music” came up cold, which
seemingly confirmed my little habit as a private quirk. I
never came across the research that Dr. Somer had already
begun, so I began to accept the fact that if I ever wanted to
be done with fantasy, I’d have to go it alone. Too many
journal pages were filled, hailing the beginning of a given
week, month, or year as being the date I would stop
daydreaming once and for all. But I could never keep my
promise. I’m now 34 years old, and I’ve never really
kicked the habit.
In 2016, I ventured to search online again. This time,
though, something had changed. In a few quiet corners of the
internet, a discussion had begun. References were being made
to a condition — as yet unrecognized by the powers that be,
but reported by thousands upon thousands of individuals. That
condition was MD. I read first-person accounts of sufferers
who reported being drawn to their alternate realities like a
drug, with intricate daydreams taking up hours a day, every
day. Everyone’s approach was different: Some got lost in soap
opera storylines, some performed in front of famous Hollywood
actors, some had successful alternative careers. Some could
manage their lives despite the daydreaming, and others were
completely lost inside it.
Reading other people’s accounts felt like slipping into
subzero water. My limbs whirred with the combined emotions of
relief, shame, and concern. Over the years, I’d wondered
about the origin and seriousness of my problem, but the
nectar of daily escape had been so sweet, and the addiction
so comfortable, that I’d never truly wanted to peer into its
darkest corners. After decades, all it took was a few
paragraphs of external confirmation for me to recognize that
my harmless little habit was likely a disorder shared by
thousands worldwide. And as I saw my exact symptoms buzzing
repeatedly across the screen before me, I had an instant
longing to overcome it.
How can something that everybody does every day be
Tears welled up as, suddenly, I could feel the impact of the
hours I’d lost. All at once, I felt the stark realization of
every friendship and opportunity I’d missed out on by being
trapped in my room, accessing false bliss. I began to
recognize the pattern of loose connections and avoidant
behavior that had governed my life up to that point: shunning
deep relationships, bailing on professional opportunities,
moving from town to town, and country to country, in search
of some reality that might live up to the one I imagined.
I’ve bailed early on fantastic parties to walk home in the
snow, playing out the rest of the party in my mind instead
living it. I’ve worn out 40-plus pairs of earphones, broken
countless audio devices, and — in the days before the mp3
player and iPod — bought hundreds, even thousands, of dollars
worth of batteries.
And yet, just as I might blame MD for holding me back, I must
also credit it with giving me unnatural strength. This little
trick of the mind offers me the ability to disconnect
completely from the real world and return refreshed. I can
slip on my earphones and create a false sense of connection,
no matter how isolated I may be. As a result, I’ve been able
to move to locations where I know nobody, can’t speak the
language, and have no social network — and I’ve survived, in
part, because of my access to a space of release and
constructed connection. I’ve survived because, from a very
young age, my worried mind figured out a way to soothe
itself. As dysfunctional as this may be, and as much as I
want to let this habit go, I have to give it some credit.
Resilience has many faces.
After my online discovery, I made a promise to myself to tell
certain friends what I’d been experiencing, and to quietly
begin spreading word about an addictive behavior that my own
experience convinces me is real. When trying to explain it,
though, I continue to be met with misunderstanding.
“I do that!” some say gleefully. “I love to just zone out
with a good song!”
I try to assure them, with a long, cold stare, that they
probably don’t “do that.” I try to tell them softly and
carefully that that’s akin to saying someone who enjoys a
nice dinner understands compulsive eating disorders, or
someone who likes the occasional vodka soda understands
chronic alcoholism. Just because everybody daydreams, doesn’t
mean that everyone has the experience of obsessive
daydreaming. Unfortunately, as has
already been reported, the attitude in the mental health
community still seems to be: How can something that everybody
does every day be disordered?
With positive voices like Dr. Somer’s, and the online
communities that are building around the condition, I’m
feeling pretty optimistic that the mental health community
will soon recognize MD as a disorder and list it in the DSM.
And this would be such an important move, validating the
experience of hundreds of thousands of MDers and motivating
researchers to dive in and explore the world of obsessive
daydreaming. For now, though, many MDers who seek treatment
are still being told that their addiction to fantasy is just
that — a fantasy.
As MDers, what we lose as a result of this activity is
often invisible. We lose connections, motivation, and the
drive to make things happen in the real world. Though many,
like myself, are high-functioning addicts, our real-life
ambitions nonetheless become dampened, and our dreams end up
pulling us further and further away from our real
aspirations. What happened to my bakery? What happened to my
film career? What happened to my memoirs? These were all
real-life ambitions that got sucked up into the ether of
fantasy, never to return.
For now, I’m still an MDer, although I’m consciously trying
to cut down. I don’t have access to counseling services where
I live, so I’m using all the techniques I can to make myself
accountable to reality. Sometimes, the tension gets too high,
and I feel compelled to disappear, but when it happens, I try
to keep notes of how much time I’ve lost. When I’m craving
escape, I’ve found that smelling strong natural oils can
sometimes help ground me; and I’m also trying to make
unbreakable plans with people, and commit to solid deadlines.
In this way, I hope to start achieving the things I want to
achieve, before MD butts in to neutralize them. Lastly, I
ended up with a brand new rescue dog, who is the ultimate
antidote to the imaginary. A dog is always right there with
you, keeping you in the room with a frank, contented stare.
It wasn’t until I heard others talking about their
experiences that I really began dealing with my own problem,
confronting my demons, and making real daily strides to
improve. So, here and now, I’m trying to pass on the favor,
so that some vibrant teenager, trapped in their bedroom,
doesn’t waste as many hours as I did, and so that when they
search online or seek help, there’s a big community waiting
to catch them. ●
Clara Casaflores is a writer and artist based in
Toronto. She’s got a lot of tattoos her family doesn’t know
about, and she’s deep into death culture.