Self-diagnosis is usually seen as a bad thing, or even potentially dangerous. But maladaptive daydreamers often feel they have no other option. So is maladaptive daydreaming an exception to the rule that you shouldn’t diagnose yourself with a mental disorder?
Why you shouldn’t self-diagnose
The main reason you shouldn’t self-diagnose is that you’re likely to get it wrong. Mental health conditions are complex. Few, if any, have just one symptom. And each symptom can be a feature of many different diagnoses. So just googling one thing isn’t going to tell you what you have. But that’s what we tend to do. We distil our complex struggles down to one or two simple phrases we can type into a search engine, and we expect the Internet to give us an answer.
It’s obvious why that’s a problem. There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet. Some of what you read will be just plain wrong. Other times, you’ll jump to conclusions based on an article that may not tell the whole story.
When it comes to maladaptive daydreaming, though, the main symptom is fairly specific. Constantly dissociating into complex narrative daydreams that can last for hours and aren’t connected to events in real life isn’t something that happens to just anyone. But many websites and social media posts will try to convince you that all vivid narrative daydreaming is maladaptive daydreaming. Immersive daydreaming rarely gets a mention.
Diagnosing yourself with maladaptive daydreaming just because you daydream and you feel bad ignores the possibility that you might be an immersive daydreamer with some other mental health problem, such as anxiety or untreated ADHD. It isn’t always about the daydreaming.
Why you might need to self-diagnose
Anyone who warns you not to self-diagnose will say you should consult a qualified professional if you have concerns about your health. In general, that’s good advice. But it’s easier said than done for maladaptive daydreaming.
Maladaptive daydreaming is not in the DSM, which means that many mental-health professionals haven’t heard of it. Some even view it’s absence from the DSM as an indication that it’s not a real diagnosis.
In many parts of the world, mental-health services are over-stretched and under-resourced, so even getting to see a mental-health professional in the first place is a challenge. Then you have to explain what maladaptive daydreaming is and hope your doctor or therapist doesn’t dismiss your concerns as “everybody daydreams” or “you can just decide not to do it”. The trouble is, your doctor isn’t inside your head. If they don’t know about maladaptive daydreaming, it’s all too easy for them to dismiss you without really taking the time to listen.
A safer way to self-diagnose
If you want to know whether you have maladaptive daydreaming, and talking to a mental-health professional isn’t an option, there are things you can do.
First, download the MDS-16 from the ICMDR website and score yourself on it. A score of over 40 means it’s likely you have maladaptive daydreaming. But remember, the MDS-16 wasn’t designed to differentiate maladaptive daydreaming from immersive daydreaming, and it’s not intended as a diagnostic tool.
Second, if you score over 40 on the MDS-16, download the SCIMD. The questions on the SCIMD are designed to be asked by a mental-health professional, but you can pretend you’re interviewing yourself. You probably won’t be able to evaluate Section D. But if you meet the criteria in Sections A, B and C (you only need one “yes” answer in section B), that’s a strong indication you have maladaptive daydreaming. Note that section C differentiates between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming.
Third, if possible, take the results of the MDS-16 and the SCIMD to your doctor and ask their opinion. If they’re not familiar with maladaptive daydreaming, or don’t believe it’s real, they may not confirm your diagnosis. But if there’s another possible diagnosis that you’ve missed, they might spot it.
And finally, join a maladaptive daydreaming support group. Do NOT ask random strangers on the Internet to diagnose you – no-one who doesn’t know you can possibly do that. But, by reading messages from other maladaptive daydreamers, you’ll be able to see whether their experiences match yours. If what you read resonates with you and you feel as though you belong, then you’re probably a maladaptive daydreamer.
Now that you know the risks and benefits of self-diagnosis, you need to decide whether it’s something you should do. What would change if you diagnosed yourself with maladaptive daydreaming? Would it finally give you an explanation and a starting point for healing (as it did for me)? Or would it distress you to have a mental illness that’s largely unrecognised and for which there’s no accepted treatment? Sometimes labels help; sometimes they don’t. And the wonderful thing about self-diagnosis is that you have a choice. You don’t have to identify with a label that doesn’t fit.
Getting a formal diagnosis of maladaptive daydreaming takes perseverance and a fair amount of luck. It won’t be an option for everyone. So, although I’d never recommend self-diagnosing more widely known mental health problems, I do think there’s a place for self-diagnosis in maladaptive daydreaming. Because the alternative is that you struggle on alone, wondering whether you’re crazy. Most of us did that for far too long.