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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. I have a habit of imagining/daydreaming that I have a better life than I do. I cannot stop from doing it. I seem to get more enjoyment in life when I daydream than I do in real life. I create situations in my mind where I turn into other people and am interacting with others.

For example, if I want to go on vacation I will start imagining about it. I will create situations and people that I like to be around. I'd talk to them, joke with them, we'd all eat together, anything that I could think off. I don't want to do this but I can't help it.

I am convinced that I can gain or achieve anything in my daydreaming. This all started at the age of twelve. I was abused physically, mentally and emotionally. At that time I felt like I was an unwanted child by my father. I was very quiet and lonely. There was no one for me to talk to or share my pain. I was alone.

One day I start talking to myself. Ever since then I always share my feelings to myself by talking to myself. Then I developed these habits of imagining just about anything in life. Is there a name for this disorder? Is there any treatment for this?

A. You have been through some very painful experiences, and you have learned that the imagination is a powerful tool for coping with such pain. It might be argued that much of art and literature is based on this realization. In fact, I'm a little hesitant to label your mental habits a disorder in the clinical sense. Usually, we reserve that term for conditions that markedly interfere with a person's ability to function--socially, vocationally, and emotionally.

From what you have said, I'm not sure that's the case for you. But I do get the message that you are bothered by your daydreaming and would like to have more control over it. I don't believe there is an official name for what you describe, though the term oneiroid syndrome has been used in the European literature to describe certain dream-like states in which the line between reality and fantasy is blurred (Kaptsan et al, Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci 2000;37(4):278-85).

Some might also describe your problem as related to the dissociative disorders. These are states in which one's consciousness is altered or split, so that the usual integrity of the personality is temporarily impaired. Dissociative states may range from normal daydreaming--e.g., thinking of the beach while working late in the office--to more pathological conditions, such as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called, Multiple Personality Disorder).

A history of severe abuse or trauma is common in those who experience severe dissociative symptoms. Sometimes children will invent imaginary companions, because they are lonely or shy--and up to a point, this is considered normal behavior. But when this extends into adolescence or adulthood, something more serious is usually going on. For example, the individual may never have learned more mature and interactive ways of relating to others. He or she may have deep-seated anxiety about taking the risks normally involved in social interaction. Fantasy becomes an escape from such risk.

If you are not involved in individual psychotherapy, I would suggest that you consider that. Eventually, finding a support group to help you deal with some of your emotional pain might also be helpful. In the mean time, perhaps you could begin to gain some control over your daydreaming by keeping a personal journal--recording your thoughts, feelings, and fantasies rather than simply being swallowed up by them.

Who knows? You might even consider writing a story, poem, or novel in which some of your fantasies are transformed into literature! You might also find the book, Coping With Trauma, by Dr. Jon Allen, of interest--but my strongest recommendation is to get some professional counseling.

August 2002

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