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Invisibilia: When Daydreaming Gets In The Way Of Real Life

Welcome to Invisibilia Season 4! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Shots are joining in to probe the science of why we act the way we do. In Episode 5, they're investigating how it feels to live "in between," to be in two worlds at once. In the episode, and in the animation above, we meet M, a woman who worries that her intense daydreaming is interfering with her actual life.

The story of M begins innocently enough. She was a girl who felt isolated and misunderstood, so she began spending hours at a time on the swings in her backyard, daydreaming.

She imagined herself as many characters, blasting off to other planets, fighting crime and just generally saving the day. This made her feel loved, accepted, even understood.

M began to realize her daydreaming was not normal when her mother yelled at her and asked her why she was moving her lips. So she kept up her daydreaming in secret, hiding from friends at school, pretending to read a book, plugging in earphones to make it appear as if she was listening to music.

Then one day by chance, M met with a former classmate who drew her out. They fell in love, married and had a child, and for a while, the daydreams subsided.

But as life became more middle-class and mundane — dishwasher unloading, toothpaste in the sink — she found herself sneaking back into a world where she was the hero, the boss and every character in between.

M worries that she has a newly diagnosed condition known as maladaptive daydreaming. Now, it's not in the mental health bible, aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and doctors don't know what causes it. There's no official treatment, although one case study suggests fluvoxamine, an OCD drug, may help control the daydreams.

Whatever maladaptive daydreaming is, it can have real effects on a person's daily life. People who say they have the condition report having trouble making friends or even leaving the house. M worries she is one of them. She carves out time to daydream away from her husband and son who know nothing of her secret life. In fact, she says she has never told anyone about it.

M loves her never-ending story, yet she acknowledges her secret is isolating.

"As much as I hate the feeling of being torn and being in two places, I'm not ready to give up my daydreaming and I'm not ready to give up my characters and the feelings that those daydreams give me," she says.

To hear another story about people living "in between," tune in to an excerpt from All Things Considered on Thursday.

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Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.
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