When I wake up worrying in the middle of the night, I try to soothe myself back to sleep by focusing on a fantasy I’ve been brewing for a little while, in which my husband and I are successful screenwriters living in LA. Well, who hasn’t dreamed about 30ºC days, being surrounded by picture-perfect palm trees, while living within sniffing distance of In-N-Out Burger? However, my fantasy soon starts to become oddly specific. I keep embroidering it with extra detail and, even though it begins as a soothing pastoral landscape, it’s coming out like a bumpy version of Munch’s The Scream.
Firstly, in the scenario, we’re housesitting for a hugely successful friend of a friend of a friend. We don’t know them, but they’re on location and their gorgeous place in Silver Lake is sitting empty – so we’re living in their pool house, like Ryan in The O.C. This is my fantasy. We could be in a Malibu mansion, a Chateau Marmont bungalow, Sunset Boulevard – but my imagination has placed us in a chlorine-adjacent studio flat with limited kitchen facilities.
Then – oh God, don’t laugh – I’m in a band that accidentally becomes very successful. I’m the bassist. (I last played music when I scraped through a Grade 2 flute exam almost a decade ago.) I give interviews, murmuring, “I’m a writer – this is an accident! I just love having fun up there and I think that’s what the fans respond to, really.” The lead singer is a handsome actor, a break-out star who became famous in a massive teen soap and is attracting Oscar buzz. He is nameless, but looks a tiny bit like the guy Ellen Page is with in Whip It. I am entirely sexually uninterested in him, but he is in love with me. He sees me kissing my husband at a party and leaves in tears. I am on the front of National Enquirer with my hand in front of my face, the headline about my “desperate bid” to save my marriage.
Obviously, this is not the life I want for myself. I’d love to learn the bass guitar and write movies with my husband – but I’m very happy being cosy and anonymous in South London. Why is my brain creating a scenario in which my relationship is in the National Enquirer and we live in an even smaller space than we do now, where there’s no room to do laundry?
The lead singer is handsome. I am entirely sexually uninterested in him, but he is in love with me. He sees me kissing my husband at a party and leaves in tears
In 2002, Eli Somer, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, defined the practice of obsessively maintaining a fantasy life as “maladaptive daydreaming”. He describes it as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning”. I don’t think my daydreaming is necessarily problematic, because it doesn’t interfere with my grip on reality, or ever seem more real than real life. But do these dreams help me or hold me back? Is it weird to be an adult who daydreams in so much detail?
I tell my husband about my fantasy and he nods enthusiastically at the “writer in LA” part and then starts looking confused – then concerned. “Why would you… make your imaginary life this hard for yourself?” he asks. He doesn’t daydream, but he does occasionally think about possible conflicts and how they might play out. We talk about a wedding we went to recently where my ex-boyfriend and his new wife were in attendance. My husband knows the details of our acrimonious break-up. “I did briefly project ideas about how it might go with his wife, as she was the one person in the equation who I knew nothing about. I imagined what would happen if she screamed at you or threw something at your head.” (For the record, she was charming.)
Obviously, I’d fantasised about the event in a different way, in which my ex came over and said, “I will never forgive myself for hurting someone as beautiful, clever and kind as you. I might have a family now, but by rights I should live out my days alone on the top of a mountain, consumed by regret.” As it happened, we had a conversation about his mum’s cats. Even though there was no way the meeting would have occurred in the same pattern that they did in my head, I felt deeply frustrated by the encounter and slightly mournful. It was only after being confronted by reality that I realised just how much I had invested in the fantasy.
Imagining events – whether they’re probable or completely pretend – can be deeply satisfying. Dreams can also help us to work out how to deal with the complications of real life. Still, I suspect my daydream about my ex wasn’t healthy or helpful. Last year, Jayne Bigelsen wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled “When Daydreaming Replaces Real Life” in which she analysed her own tendencies to fantasise obsessively, a problem she had struggled to control from childhood. Part of the issue was that, as she grew up, the people around her had difficulty understanding the difference between a typical childhood make-believe game and an all-consuming imagined world.
Bigelsen writes that researchers at Columbia University analysed the parts of her brain that responded the most strongly when she daydreamed. “The test showed great activity in the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that lights up when an alcoholic is shown images of a martini… it suggested that I not only got pleasure from daydreaming, but that the behavior was reinforced, becoming even more pleasurable in a feedback loop, much as you'd see with a drug addict.” Bigelsen was prescribed Fluvoxamine, an anti-depressant which is typically used in the treatment of OCD, which helps her to control her thoughts. However, the treatment that is available varies enormously, as does the way in which sufferers respond to it.
Given the isolating nature of a daydreaming addiction, there’s a real need for further research and support on the subject, but very little is known about how it happens or why it gets out of control. Professor Eric Klinger, of the University of Minnesota, has been researching daydreaming for decades and believes that, for most of us, the practice is personal and largely positive. He says: “Because daydreams concern our personal goals, there’s no such thing as a classic daydream – they differ with each individual. They tend to confirm what people already know about themselves, rather than providing new information. But you need to pay attention to them; daydreaming is a valuable self-to-self channel of communication.”
I think about a friend who told me she regularly has detailed fantasies about being kidnapped on assignment in a foreign country, held in captivity while the UK papers report her bravery. She’s a journalist, but she mainly covers music and theatre, and admits that there’s no way she’s ever going to be sent to a conflict zone for work. Yet, I can understand her fantasy and see the appeal. To me, it seems as though she’s going inside her head to check that she can survive her own worst-case scenario, while experiencing the validation and praise that might be missing from her own life. Most of us have to be brave a thousand times a day, but there are no accolades or awards for checking your bank balance, or getting up in the dark to go running, or attending the meeting with the colleague who always puts you down. Her goals aren’t to get kidnapped, but for her strength and hard work to be recognised and celebrated. But is this fantasy helping her or harming her? I talk to behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings, who is quick to reassure me that damaging daydreaming is relatively rare.
I wonder whether daydreaming is a way for women to experience the feelings of comfort and control that are hard to come by in real life
Jo reveals that maladaptive daydreaming “is very different from the sort of daydreaming that most of us indulge in from time to time. We’ve had a bad day, a break-up or are just bored at work. So we imagine what life would be like if we won the lottery, were dating our perfect man or were boss instead of humble employee. These are usually soothing, comforting and a perfectly healthy way of passing time.”
Jo adds: “While a daydream might not be considered productive, sometimes they are goal-focused even in not quite the way we are imagining – they can help us work towards a goal, such as getting the better job or meeting a nicer date. Fantasies tend to be stronger and more vivid. They may be sexual or personality-led – or they may simply be unattainable and ultimately frustrating. Medical disorders, where someone loses touch with reality, are associated with obsessive or recurrent fantasies – and often an urge to carry them out – rather than simple daydreaming.”
Jo says that even when our habits aren’t harmful, we might worry about discussing them because daydreaming comes with a stigma. “I don’t know of any research that says women daydream more than men, but given that 80 per cent of people, according to one study, would rather admit to an embarrassing experience than reveal their daydream, maybe it’s just that women are more willing to confess to indulging in daydreams!” Anecdotally, this fits. Most of my female friends will admit to imagining fantasy scenarios in detail, from dealing with a difficult, imaginary problem at work to breaking up with the boyfriend who has been cheating on them, when they’re single in real life. My male friends mostly tell me they did a lot of daydreaming as children, but they haven’t explored their imaginations in that way for some time. I wonder whether daydreaming is a way for women to experience the feelings of comfort and control that are hard to come by in real life. When the world makes no sense and won’t work for us, we can impose order on our fantasies in order to compensate for the lack of order in reality.
Maladaptive daydreaming, the kind Bigelsen experienced and wrote about, must not be trivialised – fantasies are not good or helpful when they get out of control and stop people from living their real lives. However, I believe an occasional daydream is good for the soul. When I’ve struggled to work out what to do next or been afraid to admit what I want out loud, it’s my unforced fantasies that help me to corral my thoughts, process my fears and push forward. When my anxieties overwhelm me and the worst-case scenario dominates my mind, it helps me to imagine how I might deal with big problems and, sometimes, even triumph over them. I say, dare to dream.