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Maladaptive Daydreaming: What to Know About This Coping Mechanism For Early Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

“There were never two people more… into The Cure,” the best man at our wedding drunkenly crooned. Besides superior taste in music, we also had early childhood trauma and a penchant for bad coping mechanisms in common. Within days of knowing each other, we already shared an intimate drug bender, complete with subsequent depression crash, culminating in him adding me to his Top 8 on Myspace: a significant gesture in those days.

Teddy and I met in our early 20s in Philadelphia. My gay bestie and I were stumbling out of a bar at closing time, and he was doing the same with his cousins. My friend and Teddy’s straight cousin immediately hit it off, linking arms and growling Britney songs down the sketchy alleyways of the gayborhood, with Teddy close behind, heckling them. I was left with the other cousin, who explained that he recently came out and his brother and cousin were just there to support him. We all ended up sharing a table at the Midtown Diner.

He knew I could never fall for someone with familial wealth, being of such a modest background myself. He would relentlessly remind me that he spent most of his early years in East LA, and that his mother is a success story: a poor brown girl who beat the odds. Accustomed to hiding his humble beginnings, he found it refreshing that he had to do the opposite with me. I wouldn’t normally go for a Virgo, or someone from Beverly Hills, but Teddy was different. He wore bright colors, eyeshadow sometimes, and had a rockabilly hairstyle for no reason. He’s an artist and he’d photograph me, his captions always in French. I don’t know French, but the interpretations I’d find on Google would make my aortic valve spasm or whatever.

We’d go on to have four children and vow to never mess them up the way our parents did us. But alas, working and raising kids became dull and made us bitter. The weight of our burden eventually crushed my spirit, so we divorced and remarried other people. His wife is woefully basic, which is just the contrast to me that he needs. An older woman, my wife tolerates my dramatics with the finesse of a professional. She’s a psychologist, after all; how comically expedient! Teddy and I remain friends and have co-parented with remarkable ease. On good days, we can even joke about our misfortune.

There’s a lot more I could say about Teddy, but the most important thing to know is that he isn’t real. Maladaptive daydreaming was first identified by the psychologist, Dr. Eli Somer, of the University of Haifa. Most commonly seen in people who have experienced trauma, it’s thought to be a dissociative disorder and is best treated through behavioral strategies, similar to how addiction is treated. It’s different from schizophrenia because the afflicted person can perceive the difference between their daydreams and reality. It’s not recognized by the DSM yet, but has been the subject of published mental health research since 2002.

From as early as I can remember, I’ve had an imaginary world with imaginary characters. The plot and people change every five to 10 years or so. Sometimes I’m in the story; other times I’m watching the characters like a movie. There was a plotline about a family with adopted children that I watched from about ages 9 to 14. Then, in high school, there was a weird vampire cult story, starting with a goth boy showing up at my door to say he was my half-brother, and ending with me marrying a sexually fluid, gender-nonconforming superstar, and us becoming a celebrity power couple. The Teddy story has been going on the longest, which is about 14 years or so, but even that story has its twists and turns. For the past year and a half, our relationship hasn’t been the focus. Instead, I’ve been thinking about our son and his relationships with four different guys. I replay the scenarios over and over again: how he met his first high school boyfriend who was a jock, to his sensitive musician type; how they didn’t get along, and how he met this straight boy who played synths and wore eyeliner, eventually turning him out. Their love was so sweet, but when they moved to NYC to go to college, our son met a drag performer at his bartending gig and became unexpectedly enchanted by him. Their marriage was plagued with conflict and adversity, tragically ending with the husband dying of cancer. Our son is now with a friend of his late husband’s after the two bonded in their shared grief.

Before I knew that maladaptive daydreaming was a mental health disorder, I just thought all writers did this. After reading about it and joining a Facebook group, I was recruited to be assessed by a psychology student via Zoom, at which time I also got to meet Dr. Somer. My diagnosis carries the specifier of “severe” because I am in my imaginary world almost constantly. As a behavioral health professional myself, I took the opportunity to tell Dr. Somer that my daydreaming is not always a bad thing, and it might actually be saving my life. Many people who have endured severe early childhood trauma as I have are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) as adults. BPD is characterized by intense moods, chaotic interpersonal relationships, and destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. While I’ve dabbled in those ventures, my preferred method of coping is daydreaming. When I start to have “big emotions” as I refer to them with the clients I work with, I go into my imaginary world. I create situations that get me to feel or not feel whatever I need to in that moment. Friendships with people who have BPD can be volatile. On the contrary, my friends see me as low-maintenance, and maybe even a bit aloof. As a child, my teachers described me as “spacey” and often expressed concern about my introversion.

Dr. Somer agreed with my take on the disorder he discovered, and even referred to maladaptive daydreaming as my “gift.” He compared it to drinking a glass of wine to relax: it’s fine to have just one glass every once in a while, but having too much, too often, is when it becomes a problem. Maladaptive daydreaming might take away from my interpersonal relationships, but I know that it benefits me as well. An inherent feeling of boredom or emptiness is a symptom of BPD. I know that I require more emotional intensity than the people in my life can humanly give, so instead of bothering them with my unquenchable thirst for love and validation, I just retreat into my inner world.

I was raped at least once around the age of 3. While the rest of my life wasn’t exactly easy, I did not endure continuous sexual trauma after that. I was raised by a single mother on welfare who was also raised by a single mother on welfare. In addition to being poor, my mother experienced emotional abuse and physical abuse herself. So I might not have had a stellar upbringing by textbook definition, but I knew my mom loved me and did her best. My perception of having a supportive caregiver was crucial to my resilience. I asked Dr. Somer why some sexual trauma victims go on to develop full-blown dissociative identity disorder (DID), while others like myself have maladaptive daydreaming. He said it’s not entirely known, but it may have to do with the severity and duration of the abuse. I’ve worked with people who have DID, so I’ve seen firsthand how debilitating it can be. Commonly known by laypeople as “multiple personality disorder,” DID presents as the individual embodying various personas, often “losing time” and usually having no idea about their other personalities. I feel very fortunate that I had protective factors in my life that left me with maladaptive daydreaming and not DID.

“Are you thinking about your imaginary husband?” my real husband will say whenever I get quiet for extended periods of time. The answer is usually “yes,” but just like “normal” people, I think about other things, too: to-do lists; future conversations with a friend; things I might say in an upcoming work meeting. In real life, I have a husband and two kids. None of them like post-punk, but I love them anyway.

Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash

Originally published: June 9, 2021
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