Cordellia Amethyste Rose leads a double life. There’s the version we can see: Cordellia the withdrawn, anxious 32-year-old with two cats. And there’s the version only Cordellia sees, a decades-long fantasy of her idealized self, who is also named Cordellia (but goes by Baby) and is a successful musician/actress with a husband and eight children.
Today she lives a mostly solitary life. Yet Cordellia is not alone.
She is one of an emerging population of men and women who report vivid, detailed and consuming fantasy lives. This is no ordinary mind wandering. Many spend more than half their waking hours in dreamland—some are there nearly fulltime. The condition is acknowledged by only a tiny few in the psychological community, but these constant dreamers know that their problem is all too real.
In 2007, Cordellia posted a plea for help on an online mental health forum. Hundreds of people answered, but like the shrinks she’s seen since then, none of their theories rang true. It wasn’t depression or A.D.H.D., she was sure. After two years she all but gave up reading responses.
Then she found a diamond in the reply-chain rough, a comment from psychologist Cynthia Schupak, Ph.D. The year before, Dr. Schupak (disclosure: She’s the writer’s mother) had published a case study of one “excessive daydreamer” in the journal Consciousness and Cognition and was scouting the web for others who suffered from the condition.
“She told me what it was and that it had a name,” says Cordellia. It brought her a sense of relief and newfound hope. “Growing up you feel like you’re the only one. After I got in touch with Cynthia I thought there have to be others going through this.”
Indeed, there are. In the follow up to her 2008 case study, Schupak discovered thousands of people online who say they have struggled for years to attend to regular daily responsibilities and relationships because they are drawn so strongly and so deeply into their fantasies. Her 2011 paper, also published in Consciousness and Cognition, and coauthored with Jayne Bigelsen, then a graduate student at Fordham University in New York, establishes a foundation for a heretofore unrecognized condition called Maladaptive Daydreaming, or M.D., based on questionnaires gathered from 90 excessive fantasizers ages 18 to 63.
The term Maladaptive Daydreaming was coined in an Israeli study done in 2002 by Eli Somer, Ph.D., at the University of Haifa, the only other researcher to look specifically at the phenomenon. Somer, who investigated the experiences of six psychological trauma patients, defined M.D. as an “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal or vocational functioning.”
Schupak’s findings bear important resemblances to Somer’s, along with some crucial differences. For one, while some compulsive daydreamers have suffered abuse or trauma at one time in their lives (Cordellia, for example, was verbally and physically abused as a child and found safe haven in her fantasies), 73 percent of respondents in the 2011 study have no history of abuse. And more than three-quarters are socially active and comfortable around other people, even as they hide their personal imaginings.Still, the vast majority say their fantasizing is problematic. Eighty-eight percent say it causes them mild to severe distress. “These fantasies are specific because they tend to be intrusive,” Schupak explains. “It interferes with getting things done in real life, with sleep, with general functioning.”
Through the Looking Glass
However wide ranging their plots, the fantasies of maladaptive daydreamers are for the most part continuous threads that stretch for days, months or years. They typically involve a familiar cast of characters who act, interact, grow, change, procreate and die in an imaginary universe parallel to our own. When Cordellia is checked out of her fantasy and engaged in the real world, Baby keeps living. The next time Cordellia delves into dreamland, she’ll encounter developments put into motion while she was away.
In addition to being immersive, compulsive fantasies can also be amazingly detailed, as in this example from Schupak’s study:
“A majority of the time, I daydream about which career I should pursue for the rest of my life. One day I might be an airplane pilot, the next I’m a trauma surgeon working 84 h/week making, $320,000 after taxes, giving 20,000 to charity every year, 50,000 to my brother because he has a low paying job, 50,000 to my parents because they helped raise me, as well as keeping 200,000 for myself and combining that with my wife’s salary (who’s a psychiatrist by the way) to make 300,000 a year.”
The most common theme is the idealized self. Like Cordellia’s Baby, the fantasy version of the fantasizer is more successful, better looking, richer, happier and more popular. The need to fantasize is a source of pain, shame and isolation for M.D. sufferers, who can’t talk about their secret obsession for fear that no one will understand and they’ll seem silly or crazy (this is often the case). Meanwhile, their dream-realities provide shelter, support and elation. The alternate reality is, in a word, better.
When asked if she wishes there were a cure for M.D., Cordellia’s response reflects this complicated duality. “If you asked me a couple years ago I would have said definitely, because it really affected my life growing up. If I could have stopped as a child I could have had a normal life,” she begins. “Now I’ve come so far that it’s impossible for me to have a normal life. At this point I don’t care if I stop or not. I would like to have an outer life that becomes strong enough to take over.”
Condemned to Wander
Three years ago, Cordellia started a website called Wild Minds Network to seek out other maladaptive daydreamers. Today the site has more than 1,400 users sharing stories, poems and feelings, and engaging in discussion board topics like “How do you deal with embarrassment?” and “Have you ever fallen in love with one of your daydream characters?” The site is a forum for questioning, empathy and unabashedness, all of which seem—and may well be—unattainable in the every day.“
People are suffering and confused and they feel they have a terrible secret and they don’t know what it is,” Schupak explains. “When they do get up the nerve to ask a professional, no one has heard of it and everyone in the psychiatric and medical community dismisses it and looks for something else.”
That leaves many with nowhere else to turn but to sites like Wild Minds and the sanctity of their daydreams.Bigelsen, at Fordham, and the University of Haifa’s Somer have teamed up to launch a new international study that will collect quantifiable data from excessive fantasizers and look for potential associations with A.D.D., obsessive-compulsive disorder and other related psychological diagnoses. The researchers developed a more robust numerical scaling system to substantiate whether there is a difference of experience between people who believe they have M.D. and those who consider themselves your run-of-the-mill daydreamers. They hope to recruit hundreds of participants to complete surveys, which should be available online before the end of the year.
“There’s a lot of us,” says Cordellia, who approves a few new Wild Minds members every week. “In my gut it feels like there are more. One day I would like to get M.D. in the DSM [the diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders] so when people go to the doctor they will actually know what this is before it’s too late.”