My dreamland rolodex: escapism as a source of relief — and why it’s okay

Coping by intensive daydreaming for everything I can’t control

Sherene Almjawer

Every night, I lie in bed, shut my eyes, and drift into a dreamland. It’s become a routine. Step one: brush my teeth. Step two: wash my face. Step three: imagine an idealized version of my life before I sleep with the hopes that the fictional scenarios carry over into my dreams.

Much to my disappointment, it never works.

On an average day, between putting water on the stove and waiting for it to boil, I lean against the cold counter, look into the distance, not focusing on anything, and drop myself into my dreamland. On an average day, I’ll shuffle my “cool indie music” playlist, lie on the ground, stare at the deep blue sky out of my window, and pick up wherever I left off in my dreamland.

It’s my utopia.

I sail off to my dreamland at least 10 times a day. An addiction? I wouldn’t say so. Rather, it’s a place I escape to outside of reality where everything exists the way I want it to: I’m pretty, I‘m financially stable in an apartment in a big city, I love my job, and I live with a person whom I love and who loves me.

But the word ‘escape’ scares me. Escape is “to regain control after being trapped, to avoid danger, evil, either physically or mentally.”

I imagine the connotations of ‘escape’ as an infinitely small room with no furniture. All the doors are locked, and there’s a single window to my ideal world that taunts me.

Maybe we can’t live our fantasies because of physical, mental, or financial restrictions. I can’t travel to Japan because I can’t afford it. I can’t get a significant other because I don’t like the way my stomach protrudes or how my thighs look when I sit down. My life is dull. So, I escape.

Habitual daydreaming

For a long time, I thought I was the only person with a dreamland, but at least once a month, a tweet in which people confess to having their own dreamlands makes its rounds on Twitter. One tweet is about how they create romantic scenarios in their head before bed every night to fall asleep.

“This must all have a name because there’s too many of us doing it,” is the first reply.

When I daydream, my fantasies are portable and malleable, but sometimes, I need inspiration. I can’t keep imagining the same vampire romance every night, can I?

Video games, music, and movies all inspire my dreamlands. I can’t daydream about a sad moment when the only song on my mind is BTS’ “Dynamite.” That’s not what my inner director would want! We need dynamic camera angles and swelling music. We’re creating a whole world here, people!

A few weeks ago, I finished watching a playthrough of the game Life is Strange. That night, I played the soundtrack from top to bottom, wallowing in the teens years I didn’t spend driving around in a busted pickup truck with my best friend and saving my town from a deadly tornado caused by my powers that rewind time.

Sometimes, I find myself in an accidental trance when I daydream, almost as though I haven’t been breathing. I gasp for air and process the momentary amnesia; I don’t know where I am or how long I was out for. I lose any train of thought and spend the next 10 minutes getting back into the studying rhythm.

Escapism is not a phenomenon. It’s a habit, like biting our nails; we can’t help but do it, and we sometimes do it intentionally. We remove ourselves from reality to an imaginative other.

Is it a bad habit?

How daydreaming can be self-serving

Right now, I am stressed. A list of assignments I have yet to finish sticks to the edge of my computer. There are 15 things on the list, and only three are done.

I recline back in my computer chair and enter my dreamland.

On the days my family badgers me about getting married and having children, I’ll enter my ideal world where I have a significant other who loves me, and nobody cares when or if we’re going to get married.

I avoid spiralling by escaping. I can convince myself that my ideal is only a future projection of myself and that I will be her one day. It stops me from over-analyzing my personal struggles.

When I hear about tragic deaths at the hands of COVID-19, or about the climate crisis killing us all, I can’t help the anxiety that bubbles up. After being trapped inside for so long and being bombarded by a cyclone of bad news, the only thing I want to do is remove myself from society, from all of society’s constructs and expectations for a few moments and engage in another existence.

It’s selfish, but that’s how I cope.

What dreamlands feel like

Escaping to avoid stress means daydreaming, listening to music, playing a game or watching a movie that makes me forget why I was worrying in the first place.

As somebody who’s a hopeless romantic to an almost disgusting degree, I daydream about visiting small family-owned shops with vines hanging over the door, plants lining the window by the entrance, and rows and rows of shelves housing little trinkets and leather bound journals, all while my significant other trails after me with a warm smile.

Those are the aesthetics of my dreamland. And that’s what escapism is: creating a utopia for yourself whether it be imaginary, in the physical world, or a combination of the two.

In my adventure of redecorating my room, I came across the ‘cottagecore’ aesthetic. Think freshly baked bread sitting on a windowsill, light shining through the trees just outside, and a home overrun with indoor plants. It romanticizes domestic simplicity. Your days are spent on self-care, reading books, baking pastries, and tending to your flower garden.

My attraction to aesthetics, like cottagecore, is that they’re perfect; there is no struggle of any kind. Aesthetics exist to be yearned. They are the other we wish to be part of. To create an aesthetic, all of our senses come together. I think that’s why people are so enticed by aesthetics: you can tailor them to fit whatever is utopic to you.

We romanticize aesthetics so far removed from our own realities because they seem so unattainable. I wouldn’t call it a delusion, but if I can’t live the cottagecore life, then I should at least be able to daydream about it, right?

To justify my obsession with cottagecore, I took to Twitter to hear what aesthetics my followers enjoy: a subset of cottagecore — picniccore — pops up. Picniccore is best understood as wrapping the bread you made earlier in a checkered towel, packing bushels of strawberries in little glass containers, delicately placing them in a wicker picnic basket, and sitting outside your home amongst your flower patches to eat your lunch.

Among the other responses is dark academia: earth tones, the musty smell of old books, gothic architecture, and layered clothing. There are also e-boys and e-girls: neon colours, chains, bright hair, and alternative music in a studio in a big city, a serenade of cars passing, soft street lights, and natural colours alongside the steel and brick. The Twitter users confessed to using their favourite aesthetics to daydream, like they are fictional universes to look forward to, as I do with mine.

It’s not all bad

Like a slot machine, I throw together a myriad of scenarios, characters, aesthetics, and moods and pull the lever until I find one that fits.

That’s the beauty of escapism.

As opposed to worrying about my future when I’m still unsure of my present, I let my mind wander.

After all, escaping is not bad. It allows me to regain control over my life and thoughts. It keeps me satiated until I acquire the resources to do whatever my ideal self is doing in my dreamland. I can convince myself that if I finish an essay and if I wake up early for my meeting, I’m that much closer to being my ideal self in my ideal world. I may never be her — my ideal me — but at least I’ll have a place where I quietly indulge those fantasies. At least I can go to bed with a smile on my face.

And then, it’s just me in my flower garden, munching on warm bread topped with strawberry jam with my magical, long-haired boyfriend lying beside me. In that moment, I find a new kind of peace.