“You’re always asking questions in your mind”.
So says an Italian girl when out on a date with me on a cold February evening.
I laugh. “What do you mean?” Although I know what she means.
“In your head, you’re always thinking about something, you’re never just looking at what’s in front of you.”
Ok, so first of all, how dare this person so instantaneously identify and articulate one of my many deep, deep flaws.
Jokes aside though, she is correct. I’m very easily distracted. I don’t mean to be, I’m working through things in my head a lot of the time, and that makes it hard to concentrate. Real life is hard and real people are difficult to interact with. My brain is much safer.
But this has been an ongoing issue for years now. Even with people who don’t know me well, I have a reputation for being “not all there” “In my own world” etc. I figure this is just part of who I am. It’s inconvenient, but it is what it is.
You know those screenshots of tumblr posts which get shared on Facebook and Twitter and other social media? So happens I’m looking at my phone one day and I see one of those, in which someone is talking about thinking up fantasies about themselves whenever they’re walking somewhere on their own, and they want to know if other people do it. Someone comments saying that what they are describing is called “Maladaptive daydreaming”, and that it’s symptomatic of various mental disorders.
And I’m like “Wait, what?”
I google it. Maladaptive Daydreaming is a term which was coined Eli Sómer, Ph.D., in 2002. (source: http://www.medicaldaily.com/maladaptive-daydreaming-what-it-247629). It’s typically a symptom of a series of mental illnesses, as opposed to an illness of itself. It can be described as an addiction to fantasizing. The symptoms include:
- difficulty completing everyday tasks
- difficulty sleeping at night
- an overwhelming desire to continue daydreaming
- performing repetitive movements while daydreaming
- making facial expressions while daydreaming
- whispering and talking while daydreaming
- daydreaming for lengthy periods (many minutes to hours)
This describes my entire existence for the best part of over a decade.
It’s almost wierd how accurate it is. Friends have commented on it. Partners have been driven to extreme frustration by it. I show the list to my flatmate and he says “Wow, that is like, a literal description of you as a human being”.
I can’t emphasise how much this has taken over my life. It makes concentrating on anything immensely difficult. It causes extreme procrastination, and it means that being fully present in conversations is a real struggle. The only time spent not daydreaming has been when in extremely emotionally intense situations, either conflict or romance. When I’m not in those situations, that’s what I tend to dream about. Not only does this cause distraction, but having a steady stream of intense emotions spiking in my brain leads to issues of its own.
But I thought this was normal. I assumed that everyone did this – me maybe slightly more than others, but I assumed that this was just part of having an internal dialogue. I knew it sometimes got in the way of me doing things, but I never realised it was an issue which most people didn’t experience to the same intensity. And because I didn’t realise it wasn’t normal, I never realised how much of an issue it was.
Two years ago, I started looking into the possibility that I could have PTSD. As I researched, I also looked at other trauma disorders such as BPD. Whilst chatting to an ex boyfriend about it, he suddenly got very frustrated with me. “Why do you need a label for this?” he asked. “You know some of your behaviours which are unhelpful, why can’t you change them and without needing to label it?”
At the time I struggled to articulate why the label was important, but I feel like this realisation is a pretty good example of why it’s useful to have labels for our behaviours and experiences. For years and years and years I’ve assumed that I had some form of undiagnosed learning disability, possibly dyspraxia or ADHD, and that my difficulty in concentrating on various tasks was down to these. Finding out that the daydreaming was in and of itself an issue meant that not only could I identify it but I also could work out coping mechanisms to prevent it, which I was unable to do when I didn’t have the label to identify it.
Here are some examples of coping mechanisms which I’ve developed:
- Making a real effort to listen to what people are saying, especially when hanging out (as opposed to just being in the house). Trying not to use phone during conversations.
- Giving up drinking. This is relatively new, and I’ve done it for multiple reasons, but one is that I can no longer use alcohol as a way to buffer social anxiety. Which means that I have to connect with what people are actually saying and make the effort to reach out to people. So far it’s -Horrible- but it will be worth it.
- Writing. I don’t write as much as I should, but I’m trying to get better. A lot of my daydreams revolve around me wanting to say things I can’t say, and this causes what I think of as a word block in my head. Once I write these thoughts down, I immediately feel better because I’ve been able to process them and that means I don’t need to work through them in my head anymore.
- Just refusing to daydream. Easier said than done at times, but being aware of it as a problem has meant that I can tell myself to stop it when I do notice myself doing it. I’ve also got better at clearing my mind before I go to sleep and avoiding the temptation to dream instead.
After just two weeks, these are the situations where I’ve seen the most improvement:
- When out with friends, particularly close friends.
- When I have something to concentrate on.
- Before sleep.
Meanwhile, these are the situations which I’m still struggling with:
- When I’m on my own
- When carrying out menial tasks (cooking, cleaning, etc).
- Situations which create social anxiety
Even accounting for those times which are still difficult, this has already seen a huge improvement. I’m finding myself more enthusiastic and productive in forcing myself to do things. I’m less inclined to avoid even boring tasks. I’m actually engaging with the world around me and not constantly thinking about where I would rather be, inside my own head in situations which will never come to pass.
So that was a story about me working on my mental health and being successful. Here’s a song: