What happens when ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ takes over your life

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Whenever Ellie Agress is done watching an episode of “WandaVision,” the TV show on Disney+ that’s partly inspired by Marvel Comics, she comes up with smart ideas for future plots — which the characters simultaneously enact in her head.

The 18-year-old’s imagination is unfettered and ultra-creative. But it can also cause her to drift into a fantasy world and block out the realities of life.

“My mind is always making up stories,” Ellie told The Post. “It’s part of who I am.”

The college freshman has been diagnosed with maladaptive daydreaming (MD), a little-known mental health condition whose symptoms (which may include spinning, pacing and repetitive thoughts) are often mistaken for autism and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Expert Jayne Bigelsen, an advocate for MD who has the disorder herself, described it as a “spectrum.” Many of the people affected don’t find the issue “an overt impairment,” she said, while others “can’t hold a job or maintain real-life relationships” because the fallout is so debilitating.

Like Bigelsen, an increasing number of physicians believe the condition — not yet included in the “DSM-5,” the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” kept by the American Psychiatric Association — is far more common than the medical establishment acknowledges.

Data from a yet-to-be-published study by Dr. Nirit Soffer Dudek, a clinical psychologist in Israel, finds that more than 2% of the global population may experience MD. That figure is about the same as for OCD.

Maladaptive daydreamer Ellie Agress with her mom, Sara Thom.
Maladaptive daydreamer Ellie Agress with her mom, Sara Thom.

Over the last few years, there’s been a social media explosion of people who identify as maladaptive daydreamers. For example, a Reddit group includes more than 72,000 members and #MaladaptiveDaydreaming has more than 39 million views on TikTok.

Bigelsen, who runs the online support platform Maladaptive Daydreamers, said: “Doctors and other mental health professionals try to fit things into already existing categories. I’ve heard of MD being misdiagnosed as ASD [autism spectrum disorder], ADHD, and even restless leg syndrome.”

She believes a collection of talented celebrities may have the condition. “I’m sure that a number of [well-known] and creative actors and writers have this extensive imaginary world,” Bigelsen said. “I’m 100 percent convinced that some of them could be maladaptive daydreamers.”

Ellie, of Maplewood, NJ, first learned about MD three years ago when she was 15. Now a college freshman, she said the discovery was a “wake-up call because I was surprised to find out that I wasn’t unique.”

She has experienced immersive thoughts for as long as she can remember. “As a little kid, I loved the ‘Warrior Cat’ books and, when I wasn’t reading them, I would be building stories and characters around them [in my imagination],” the teenager said.

Expert Jayne Bigelsen is an advocate for MD and has the disorder herself.
Expert Jayne Bigelsen is an advocate for MD and has the disorder herself.

Ellie’s fantasies changed as she got older. She went through a phase of daydreaming about dragons and pirates before getting inspiration from TV shows like “Doctor Who,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Stranger Things” and, more recently, “WandaVision.”

She admitted that her education suffered since it was “hard to focus” on classes. Her mother, Sara Thom, told The Post that she constantly worried about Ellie’s inattention in school.

Thom recounted the time Ellie asked her what she thought about when she was “bored and sitting around with nothing to do.” Thom replied: “It’s usually about my to-do list and what’s happening next.”

Ellie, she recalled, looked “disgusted” and blurted out: “But don’t you daydream?”

The conversation — when Ellie told her mom that she felt “like a director of a movie who controls the characters in my own film” — led to Ellie coming across an Atlantic essay by Bigelsen about MD.

Ellie regularly plays out scenarios with the characters from "Wandavision" in her head.
Ellie regularly plays out scenarios with the characters from “WandaVision” in her head.

Thom connected with Bigelsen, who encouraged her daughter to consult Dr. Eli Somer, a colleague of Soffer Dudek at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He diagnosed Ellie with MD in 2019, the same year as her diagnosis for high-functioning autism. Mother and daughter were “incredibly relieved,” since, as Thom put it, “our eyes were opened.”

Similarly, Jamie Masiello, of Westchester, felt as if a weight had been lifted after her son was recently found to meet the criteria for MD.

The 12-year-old, whose name has been withheld by The Post for privacy reasons, was misdiagnosed with autism at the age of 3 after showing behaviors like pacing, making hand gestures and lack of eye contact.

Masiello, however, refused to accept the news.

“I told the [diagnostic] team they were wrong,” said the social worker-turned-writer. “He had some sensory processing difficulties like sensitivity to loud noises and smells. But he was well-related and didn’t present as a clinically autistic child.”

Also, she was intrigued by the way her son frequently had his head in the clouds for hours. “I would ask him what he was doing and he’d always reply, ‘Thinking.’”

Bigelsen, an advocate for MD (pictured here as a little girl), now realizes her childhood fantasies were early symptoms of the condition.
Bigelsen, an advocate for MD (pictured here as a little girl), now realizes her childhood fantasies were early symptoms of the condition.

A developmental pediatrician later confirmed Masiello’s suspicion that the autism diagnosis was incorrect. Encouraged, she did some research of her own and came to believe he had MD.

Masiello recalled the way her son tried to outline his MD to her when he was 9. “He said it was like being able to put on a pair of virtual reality goggles whenever he wanted,” said the mom, who reached out to Bigelsen for support after reading her 2015 magazine story. “It was a form of entertainment for him.”

The boy was pleased to hear about Bigelsen, who graduated from Harvard Law School and now works with survivors of sex trafficking. Her openness and success helped curb the middle schooler’s fears of being “treated differently,” and Masiello explained that he now sees MD not as a “disability, but a gift.”

Ellie, meanwhile, admitted that her daydreaming can mean “missing out on friends’ hangouts” when her imagination takes charge, but she’s OK with that.

“I don’t really care that much,” Ellie explained. “In my opinion, it’s actually more fun.”

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