When you come across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder for the first time and suddenly realise you aren’t alone and you’re not the only crazy person who has a whole fantasy life in their head, it’s natural to wonder why your brain is wired this way. When did it start? What caused it? And was there ever any chance you could have been a normative daydreamer?
To answer the question of when maladaptive daydreaming begins, it’s first necessary to understand the difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming. The ability to create a whole fantasy world in your head that has nothing to do with real life and involves a complex plot, characters and even an alternate version of yourself, is immersive daydreaming. When immersive daydreaming gets out of control and stops you living your real life, that’s maladaptive daydreaming disorder.
Immersive daydreaming usually starts in early childhood
My earliest memories are from when I was about four years old, and I’m pretty certain I was already an immersive daydreamer by then. I remember having fantasies about being a princess in a fairy castle. Most people would probably think that was normal imaginative play at that age. But no-one had any idea how vivid and detailed my fantasies were. It never occurred to me to talk about it; as a child, you just assume everyone sees the world the same way you do.
Early memories of immersive daydreaming are common among daydreamers, and I suspect that this capacity for detailed and vivid daydreaming is just something we’re born with. In other words, I think all immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are born with the ability to immersively daydream; most of us had probably begun to immersively daydream by the age of two or three. It’s just part of who we are.
Maladaptive daydreaming disorder develops from immersive daydreaming
But being an immersive daydreamer is not the same as having maladaptive daydreaming disorder. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder usually starts as a coping mechanism. Something happens (or doesn’t happen) that makes real life more painful, difficult or complicated than we can handle. We discover that we can flee our painful reality by daydreaming; and we create an imaginary life where everything is under our control. But if real life doesn’t improve, we find ourselves spending more and more time in our imaginary world, until eventually fleeing there becomes a destructive habit that gets in the way of solving our real-life problems. We find we can’t stop daydreaming even when we want to. And that’s when our gift for immersive daydreaming turns into the curse of maladaptive daydreaming disorder.
My daydreaming first became problematic around the age of nine or ten. We’d moved to a new area, so I’d lost contact with the friends I’d grown up with. When I had difficulty making new friends, I invented them instead. It was easier. I’d spend hours repetitively bouncing a ball off the back wall of our house while having the most amazing adventures in my head.
My daydreaming has fluctuated over the years. Currently, I’d describe myself as an immersive daydreamer, but there have been times in my life when it’s been more maladaptive. And when I look back, it was the times when my real life wasn’t going so well that the urge to daydream was greater. The times when I’ve struggled with maladaptive daydreaming disorder are the times when there was something to escape from. When I was happy to live my real life, my daydreaming was easier to control.
Maladaptive daydreaming disorder can develop at any age
So, back to the question of when maladaptive daydreaming starts. Immersive daydreaming starts very young. But maladaptive daydreaming comes later. As my own experience shows, there’s no reason it can’t develop in childhood. People have unhappy childhoods for all sorts of reasons, and if that was the case for you, then you probably sought refuge in your fantasy world. As children, our options for solving our problems are limited. We don’t have the autonomy to make decisions about most of what happens in our lives, so if we’re in a stressful situation, zoning out via daydreaming may be our only option. If that was you, don’t judge yourself. Be grateful that in the situation you were in, your mind did what it needed to do to keep you safe.
But it’s also true that as children we have fewer responsibilities and fewer expectations placed on us than we do as adults. Life doesn’t ask as much of us. So if you had a happy childhood, you probably remained an immersive daydreamer. And if real life gave you everything you needed, you might not even have daydreamed that much. You didn’t need to. But the possibility of our daydreaming getting out of control never goes away. You can have a happy childhood, with minimal daydreaming, and then as an adult, life throws something at you that’s more than you can handle. Then, you rediscover your talent for daydreaming, you realise you can use it to escape from your problems, and you do it more and more often, until eventually you can’t stop. And then you realise you’ve developed maladaptive daydreaming disorder.
In summary, I think immersive daydreaming begins very young. And if you’re an immersive daydreamer, the possibility of developing maladaptive daydreaming disorder is always there. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder can start in childhood, or you can develop it as an adult, it just depends when life throws you more stress than you can handle. Being an immersive daydreamer is something you’re born with, and I believe it’s something that will always be with you. But whether and when you develop maladaptive daydreaming disorder depends on what happens to you and on how you respond to what happens to you. It isn’t inevitable, and it isn’t forever.