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The Daydream Disease

Your imagination can take you to another world. But for some people, it's impossible to get back.

| November 14th, 2012
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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 There’s the version we can see: Cordellia the withdrawn, anxious 32-year-old with two cats.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.

“I’ve been in one giant fantasy world since I was nine years old. That was my main reality growing up. I spent as much time as I could there and most of the people I interacted with were in my head, so I never played with other kids at school, never learned to make friends,” she says.

Today she lives a mostly solitary life. Yet Cordellia is not alone.

MORE: How to Control Your Dreams (For Real!)

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.

Dreams Realized
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.

MORE: Find the Right Therapy For You

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.”

QUIZ: Are You Leading a Healthy Life?

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