Everything Good

Apr 5, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 7:45 am

Today we introduce you to Allie n Steve, who is one person. For half the day she can be Allie and the other half he is Steve. For many of us this would be a disorienting experience. But after a shattering experience in their life, Allie n Steve has learned to live comfortably in this in between space. And Allie n Steve has lessons to teach us about the beauty of not retreating to black and white. We also talk to a woman who suffers from a little known condition called "maladaptive daydreaming." She is who is so addicted to her fantasy life that she's finding it hard to manage her real one.

Special thanks to the following musicians:

Peals for the song "Trillium" from their album Honey (courtesy of Rough Trade Publishing)

Lucy Stone and Grave Goods for their song "Up At Night"

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Right from the beginning, Hanna wasn't cooperating.

Where are you going?

It was twilight, and we were out in the woods - two Jews in a winter forest surrounded by trees and dead leaves. We were there because of our executive producer, Cara Tallo. She wanted us to document the majesty of nature for a story we were supposed to do about animals. And this day in the dead of winter was, according to her calendar, the most convenient time. So off we set to nail some majesty-of-nature reporting.

OK. Which part of shh-shh (ph) did you not understand?

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Oh, sorry. Sorry.

SPIEGEL: I was trying to get the wind.

ROSIN: Here. Let me help you out.

SPIEGEL: Don't blow into my microphone. That's not cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: But the truth was that there wasn't that much majesty to document, at least for our human eyes. Not just because it was winter but because it was twilight, that moment right before the sun goes down and the world turns from day, when things are busy growing and killing, to night, when all the late-shift types come out to play. For a second, it felt like everything was on pause, the forest version of an office park after 6:30. There were some stragglers, but mostly, the place appeared to have cleared out. I don't know, man. In the summertime, you find like worms and ants, but I'm not having so much.

ROSIN: Let's see if we can find one thing...

SPIEGEL: One thing that's moving, not like a tree. Anybody here? Nobody?

Even the birds seemed to have thinned out. There were none in actual view, but there were traces.

You can hear them. Hold on. You hear that?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLS)

SPIEGEL: That was it, the cacophony of bird. So we kept going.

Come on, trudge along.

ROSIN: All right. I'll trudge.

SPIEGEL: But I could tell there was something wrong with Hanna. She had a look on her face, not the normal one of affectionate exasperation and annoyance with me. It was more like she felt wary. So I asked her about it.

ROSIN: I do. I just - I feel weird and something bad's about to happen.

SPIEGEL: I didn't know this about Hanna, but it turns out that she has a thing about twilight, always has.

ROSIN: I used to get sad at this time.

SPIEGEL: Really?

ROSIN: Not even just when I was a kid, like I remember that feeling all the way through college. Like, I didn't mind the night, which would be either, you know, you were holed up studying or you were with your friends or whatever. And I didn't mind the day. But the in-between place, I genuinely - it really genuinely unsettled me. It always has been something that I want to get away from.

SPIEGEL: What really seemed to bother her was the ambiguity of this place and time.

ROSIN: It's like the - it's uncertain. It's an impossibility of kind of routinized delusion. It's like there's sort of a day time when you're just being pulled along and a nighttime when you're being pulled on. And then there's this middle space where you're just like - it's just unclear. It's just not clear what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to be or - that's, I think, what makes me nervous about this time of day.

SPIEGEL: The space in between, when you're not one thing or the other thing, can be uncomfortable. I've got no problem with twilight. But at this political and cultural moment where people feel so strongly about things, it does feel like there's a lot of danger in taking up a position that's not black or white, which is hard for me. Because ambiguity, this idea that things are a complicated mix of good and bad parts, has always felt more realistic to me, though it's not like you can't see the benefit of a clear and uncompromising position.

ROSIN: Slavery - bad. Poverty - bad. Child abuse - bad. Like, there's a lot of things.

SPIEGEL: There are some lines.

ROSIN: There are some lines. But not just there are some lines, there are huge, huge historical shifts that pivot because somebody or some group of people said that's wrong.

SPIEGEL: Right.

ROSIN: And I wouldn't...

SPIEGEL: And both people are necessary.

ROSIN: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: But a lot gets lost there too by drawing clear lines.

ROSIN: Right. There's a black squirrel.

SPIEGEL: There's two black squirrels.

We need clear lines, thrive on them because they often allow us to move forward to a better place. But when we draw the clear line, it usually forces us to leave important things out like the reality that the terrible criminal is also a loving mother. The confusing fact that even though she's a huge extrovert, she requires a lot of time by herself. Or that a forest at twilight is both a place full of life and a place that feels as empty as an office park after dark.

ROSIN: I learned once that squirrels have a really territory. Like, they spend their...

SPIEGEL: I thought you were going to say, I learned once that squirrels have really small balls.

ROSIN: No. If that was - come on, say that joke again.

SPIEGEL: (Laughter) What?

ROSIN: Small nuts, you idiot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Today, we look at the struggle of trying to live in between. We have two stories of people trying very different kinds of twilight living. Lulu Miller's going to be here with her radio stylings. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Welcome back to INVISIBILIA. We have Lulu on the line.

ROSIN: Hey, Lulu.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: Hello.

SPIEGEL: So, Lulu, what do you have for us today?

MILLER: Well, remember a few seasons ago, we kind of already did a story about a person living in between?

SPIEGEL: Paige.

MILLER: Right. So every day, Paige flipped back and forth between genders.

ROSIN: Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes female, sometimes male.

MILLER: Exactly. Well, the story I want to tell you today starts when a listener, a 60-year-old composer from the Midwest, got in touch with me with a bone to pick about that very story.

So you have some beef with the story we did about Paige. Is that right? A little bit of beef?

ALLIE N STEVE MULLEN: Beef's a strong word. Is there a lighter meat?

MILLER: You've got some chicken? You've got some chicken.

A. MULLEN: OK, I have a little chicken. No. I feel like I was really excited at the beginning of the story when you talked about the power of categories because Paige floats back and forth.

MILLER: But as the piece developed with Paige struggling to inhabit that gender in-between...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAIGE ABENDROTH: I felt like a monster.

MILLER: ...And us deploying lots of sad music as various experts declared that when something doesn't fit into a category, it's inherently scary...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, we do tend to be a little bit scared of things that we don't know anything about.

MILLER: ...This listener felt that we were implying...

A. MULLEN: That it's better to choose the safety of a known category than to live in the in-between. And I felt like the window to wonder had been closed.

MILLER: Because this listener, like hundreds of thousands of Americans, also lives between gender categories and says it is anything but uncomfortable.

A. MULLEN: It's just electric.

MILLER: This listener's name? Well, it depends. Their work ID says...

A. MULLEN: Allie, letter N, Steve and then my last name.

MILLER: Mullen. But they'll take Allie or Steve or any mash-up of the two. Similarly, with their pronouns, they're fine with he or she or they.

A. MULLEN: I am shaving.

MILLER: Pretty much every morning they get up, shave the salt and pepper hairs off their chin and then, like any of us, look at their schedule to decide what to wear.

A. MULLEN: Hello, everyone.

MILLER: But unlike a lot of us, they don't limit themselves to one gender category. So for example, when they go to teach, they usually wear a dress, classy silver wig.

A. MULLEN: Ragtime's going on. Brass bands and string bands are going on.

MILLER: But when they play basketball, they prefer to remove the wig, throw on some baggy shorts, show their more masculine side.

A. MULLEN: Hey, you guys. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Did you get your hair cut?

A. MULLEN: Yeah, it's quite cut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's looking great.

MILLER: Once back home and showered, they might slip into something more neutral...

A. MULLEN: Women's sweats from Athleta.

MILLER: ...And feel what they say they always feel, their true gender identity, no matter what they are wearing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm both. I'm both of this.

MILLER: They take hormones to bring their body to a more neutral palette. And they say that in the seven years they have lived openly in this way, as gender non-conforming, they have been accepted by more people than they ever thought possible, whether it's the nail technician who confides in them or the basketball buddy who is initially taken aback the first time he notices Allie n Steve's painted fingernails but over time comes to initiate conversations about trans issues and even engage in that most timeless expression of male-on-male affection.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's one thing Stevie (ph) has in common with a women's game - is women, I think, physiologically can't jump as well. And Stevie fits into that.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: Trash talking.

A. MULLEN: You know, it doesn't get better than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: Which has all been a surprise to them since they had spent over four decades of their life hiding their gender fluidity, cross-dressing in private since they were a little kid and not allowing themselves to wonder any further about what it meant.

A. MULLEN: Something that I had been ashamed of my whole life now gets seen and just welcomed in the most natural way.

MILLER: They'd be almost ready to think that no one was actually that afraid of their gender in-between, if it wasn't for two outlying pieces of data.

MADDIE MULLEN: Like, I want to want to meet Allie, but...

KEELEY MULLEN: I don't know if I'm ready.

MILLER: Their daughters. And here is where a story that I thought was about living in between genders turned into a tale about trying to navigate the space between known and unknown.

M. MULLEN: I don't know why it is, like, seeing my dad as another version really freaks me out.

MILLER: You see, both of Allie n Steve's daughters say they really want to accept their dad's more female sides.

M. MULLEN: Like, politically and ideologically, I'm totally in support of my dad.

MILLER: That's Maddie, the older one. She's gay. And, Keeley, the younger daughter, is an activist who spends a lot of her time fighting for, of all things...

M. MULLEN: Equal rights for gender nonconforming and trans people. Like, on all of those surface level layers, like, I think it's cool.

MILLER: But on a deeper, more private level...

M. MULLEN: It's just, like, that basic sort of primal reaction I have. It's like there's just something that pushes me from it.

MILLER: Primal is an interesting choice of word because it turns out that scientists have actually looked at how we instinctively respond to the unfamiliar when we're babies, before we have much teaching or cultural influence. And it looks like some of us are just spat out into the world very uncomfortable with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello, pretty baby. How are you today?

MILLER: A Harvard study found that when 4-month-olds are faced with an object that's not threatening but is unfamiliar, like a black-and-white mask taped over a speaker emitting increasingly creepy chants...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: You have been a very good baby today.

MILLER: ...About 20 percent of the babies thrashed their arms and legs, cried, screamed, tried to look away. However, a way bigger amount of the babies loved it. Forty percent of them stared at the unfamiliar object with gaga eyes, leaving the rest of the babies somewhere in between, some drawn to the unknown, and some scared back. Drawn in, and scared back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: OK, baby. Don't you go to sleep on us now.

MILLER: So can you dismantle a primal-seeming fear of the unknown, the unmapped, the in-between space? Can you override an instinct to flee it? Both of these women are trying to do just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M. MULLEN: My mom just started, like, screaming at my dad that he needed to tell us.

MILLER: So I want to jump back - way back - seven years ago, to the moment when the girls first found out about their dad's gender fluidity. Keeley recalls that it was an October night. She was a junior in high school, and Maddie was a senior. And their parents, who had just separated a few months before, were both back at the house and beginning to fight.

K. MULLEN: My mom just kept screaming, like, you have to tell them. You have to tell them.

MILLER: Now, a little background. Allie n Steve says that their wife knew before they got married that they liked to dress in women's clothes sometimes, though they say that she asked that it always be done in private away from the kids. We tried to reach her several times to ask about these years but didn't receive a response. But that night, the girls say, their mom demanded that their dad come clean.

M. MULLEN: And then, long story short, he said to me and my sister, have you ever heard of cross-dressing?

K. MULLEN: And he was like, it is something that I do. And, like, your mom wanted me to tell you girls.

M. MULLEN: And it was almost like, are you kidding me? Like, all of a sudden, there was this element of, well, you're in some ways a stranger. Or, like, what else are you lying about?

MILLER: Maddie said that was what the fear has always been about for her - not so much the image of her dad in a dress but the feeling that her dad was not the person she thought she knew.

M. MULLEN: Like, you're not who I thought you were.

MILLER: A thought that was particularly destabilizing, both of the girls say, because of who their dad had been to them growing up.

M. MULLEN: He was kind of like - the word schlumpy comes to mind.

K. MULLEN: Yeah.

M. MULLEN: I mean, I think I viewed him as like a masculine sports dad. He watched football on the weekends. And we would always rake the leaves with him in the fall and play a lot of sports together, build a huge sledding ramp in the front of our house. And we would do all those types of things with him.

MILLER: Whereas other parts of their childhood were not so picturesque. Both of the girls remember a lot of tumult in the household.

M. MULLEN: Yeah.

K. MULLEN: Yeah.

MILLER: For example, their parents' relationship was strained long before they ever got a separation or divorce papers were filed.

M. MULLEN: Everything was just so...

K. MULLEN: Scary.

M. MULLEN: Hectic, unbalanced.

MADDIE AND KEELEY MULLEN: Inconsistent.

MILLER: But their dad as their dad...

M. MULLEN: He was always there. He was just there.

K. MULLEN: He woke us up in the morning, made us breakfast, took us to school, walked me to my classroom, picked us up from school, brought us home, made us dinner.

M. MULLEN: And that was comforting.

K. MULLEN: He was just there.

M. MULLEN: There.

M. MULLEN AND K. MULLEN: There.

MILLER: Until - not there. When the girls were just 8 and 9, their father got into a huge car accident when they were driving with a family friend. And the friend who was driving was killed. And their dad was found by one of the first people on the scene, unconscious and bloody.

K. MULLEN: Described my dad as having, like, doll eyes, like, totally disconnected from his brain, just sort of, like, floating around.

MILLER: Allie n Steve was in and out of consciousness for four days. And when they finally woke up, it was to a severe head injury, problems with memory, speech.

M. MULLEN: And we went to the hospital. And he looked green. Like, that's what I remember. It scared the [expletive] out of me.

K. MULLEN: Just tubes coming, like, directly out of his skull.

M. MULLEN: He seemed like a complete stranger. And it was just, like, a totally vulnerable feeling.

MILLER: But here is where the two girls' stories diverge. A week later, their father was transferred to another hospital near home. And Keeley, the younger daughter, immediately went to visit.

K. MULLEN: Yeah, I did.

MILLER: But Maddie?

M. MULLEN: I did not go to the hospital very often. I, like, developed some kind of just fear of it. And I think I ran away from it.

MILLER: What do you think - I mean, what do you think you were afraid of?

M. MULLEN: I think it was a fear of him changing. Like, I've never been good with that. I remember, I had a teacher in kindergarten who I loved. She got a haircut, and I didn't look at her and talk to her for weeks. I've always been that way. Like, people changing scares the [expletive] out of me. I think it's like an inconsistency thing, which, like, you know, flash forward - that's a big thing now. It's just, like, any inconsistency in people freaks me out.

MILLER: The recovery back from the accident had been slow.

A. MULLEN: I had to learn how to do everything again. I had to learn how to brush my teeth. I had to learn how to walk. I had to learn how to talk again.

MILLER: They lost their job.

M. MULLEN: People started, like, coming to the - banging on the door and saying, like, this house is, like, foreclosed.

MILLER: And even after her dad started getting better, the house still felt chaotic. Her parents got separated. Her dad moved out. So for Maddie, adding on this massive secret, these hidden gender depths to her father - this person who had always been the sort of tent pole to her existence - she said it was just too much.

M. MULLEN: I didn't know how to really be with him immediately after that.

A. MULLEN: They pulled away. Yeah, they both pulled away.

MILLER: Maddie chose a college 700 miles away and said at first, she felt pretty lonely in the world.

M. MULLEN: Yeah.

MILLER: But still, she wanted to accept her dad. And so she was happy to discover...

M. MULLEN: Like, we have a great phone relationship.

A. MULLEN: Yeah. Mostly, I would call her, and I'd reach out to her. And near the end of her sophomore year, she really reached out to me.

MILLER: When her dad was just a voice, Maddie began to feel herself relaxing.

M. MULLEN: He would always listen and be supportive.

A. MULLEN: Anytime there was an opportunity for me to be there, I was there.

MILLER: And so ever so tentatively, she began to lean - again - to believe that her dad, who had now twice undergone such radical changes...

M. MULLEN: He was there for me.

MILLER: She graduated from college and later took a job that has her traveling all around the country, interviewing people for StoryCorps, talking and texting with her dad all the time. And one of the only things that threatens that newfound feeling of stability are the same pesky things that erode everybody's delusions of a functional family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M. MULLEN: Holidays.

MILLER: Over the course of these years, as both of their daughters left for college, Allie n Steve had finally begun to explore their gender fluidity more fully. They joined trans groups, began to see themselves as one in the swell of Americans who identify as gender non-conforming. They'd switched their pronouns, stopped telling clerks they were buying those dresses for their wife. They got their nails done, started wearing mascara. And they remember that on the very day that Keeley left for college...

A. MULLEN: I said, OK, I'm going to give myself the gift of pierced ears. And so I pierced my ears.

MILLER: And each December, as those well-meaning, red-aproned Salvation Army workers began appearing outside malls, ringing their bells, Maddie would start bracing herself for coming home.

M. MULLEN: Every time I would see him, it was like bracing myself for a new thing. And so I would be a little bit closed off at first just because - back to the kindergarten teacher. Like, seeing a change just - it was like a jolt in me. And it just made me feel - yeah - like, a little bit cautious.

MILLER: And she hates that that is her reaction. She wants more than ever to just accept her dad. And yet still, today, after seven years of trying...

M. MULLEN: There's just something that pushes me from it. I don't know why that is for me. I don't know why.

JEROME KAGAN: OK. All right. You're asking all the right questions.

MILLER: This is Jerome Kagan, a Harvard psychologist who might have a clue why Maddie's feelings are still so at odds with her desires. See, it was him, along with his colleague Nancy Snidman, who did that initial baby study, where they tested how babies reacted to the unknown. And the thing was they tracked those babies, who are now in their late 20s, early 30s, and found that when they got older...

KAGAN: They worry a lot...

MILLER: Much more than the others.

KAGAN: ...Over low-probability events, like your father will be killed in an airplane accident, or the stranger on the bus is going to molest you.

MILLER: And when they looked at their physiological responses, they found that they had higher heart rates, more intense neural reactions to surrealistic images. And the really biggie...

KAGAN: Greater amygdala activity...

MILLER: A region of the brain involved in experiencing fear.

KAGAN: ...To something they didn't expect.

MILLER: And while plenty of those uncertain babies went on to have hobbies and jobs that forced them to encounter the unknown all the time...

KAGAN: The vast majority aren't shy anymore because in our culture, it's not adaptive to be shy. So they learn to control it. You can control your behavior. But their brains are still vulnerable to worry.

MILLER: They seem to carry with them this private discomfort, a secret frightened response to the unexpected and unfamiliar that, try as they might, they can never truly extinguish.

KAGAN: It's very uncomfortable.

MILLER: This set of reactions to the unfamiliar is what Kagan and Snidman call the long shadow of temperament. And while they take pains to point out that your baby temperament is not a good indicator of what you will become, it seems to be a pretty terrific indicator of what you will not become. The metaphor they choose in their book goes like this.

KAGAN: Condensed water vapor can, depending on local conditions, form a white billowy cloud, a macro sky or a dense ground fog, but it cannot become an asteroid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: Water vapor will never become an asteroid. And a person afraid of the unknown will ever truly be at ease with it.

M. MULLEN: For me, like, the fight-or-flight thing goes off like all of the time. After my dad's car accident, my sister and I, we both developed major fears of like something bad happening to one of my parents. And my sister sort of developed this compulsion where she would have to say nothing bad before my parents left the room, and they would have to answer nothing bad. And until that happened, she just couldn't deal with them leaving. Anyway, she kept doing that. And over time, my parents decided let's change it to be more positive. So they changed it to everything good. So then my sister would say, everything good? And they would reply, everything good. And then they would leave. Then we shortened it EG, and that's what I have tattooed on my wrist, and so does my sister. And that's a neurosis.

MILLER: Right there, branded on her skin, proof of how wary of the unknown she is.

M. MULLEN: I mean, we all say it, so still to this day.

K. MULLEN: Every time I end a conversation with my dad or my sister, even if it's just a text conversation, we say EG.

M. MULLEN: EG.

K. MULLEN: EG.

MILLER: Is that something you used to really say like before?

A. MULLEN: We used to really say?

MILLER: Yeah.

A. MULLEN: It's at the end of every phone conversation. It's at the end of every text message. It's at the end of every email - EG.

MILLER: Still?

A. MULLEN: Still. This morning, everything good.

MILLER: What's up? What's happening?

A. MULLEN: The car accident so shattered their ability to depend on things being OK.

MILLER: And Allie n Steve knows that to show their daughters their gender fluidity would be to shatter that stability.

A. MULLEN: For reasons having nothing to do with my gender, they need me to remain a fixed point in their life. And as long as they need me to remain that fixed point for them, I'm gonna be that for them because I'm their dad.

MILLER: And is that painful, or is that some...

A. MULLEN: No.

MILLER: No?

A. MULLEN: No. That's the love of a parent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: Beautiful. And yet...

A. MULLEN: Here I am in Colorado. I look like a guy. I look like my kid's dad.

MILLER: Just a few weeks after this interview, Ally and Steve headed to Colorado to meet their girls for the holidays, leaving their female side neatly tucked into the drawers of their apartment. And after just a couple days, they found themselves needing to take a walk out into the snowy hillside, where they recorded this diary.

A. MULLEN: I miss her here. And I miss - I miss my - I miss having my daughters be able to see me fully. I think this might be one of the first times where I've felt it this strongly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: So maybe this is how you do it, how you approach that intimidating middle space, the twilight, the compromise. You note all the pain and discomfort it feels to step into it, and you keep stepping into it.

A. MULLEN: Today is August 26, 2016.

MILLER: Maddie, for her part, is doing the same. Recently, she invited her dad to join her in a StoryCorps booth to talk about the very thing she doesn't like to talk about - Allie.

M. MULLEN: I just feel guilty though because I feel like I'm holding you back in a sense.

A. MULLEN: You haven't held me back. No.

M. MULLEN: I have.

A. MULLEN: No. I don't - but, OK, so it's impossible for me to think about. It's impossible for me to consider whether you've held me back or not because I can't - I'm not myself except in relation to you. In relation to you and Keeley, that's the starting point for me.

M. MULLEN: I don't know. I feel like if I could just be more, if I could do something differently or maybe if you didn't have me, like, as such a central point of view, then you would be more open, and you would be the person that you want to be. And so part of me does feel guilty because I want to get there. But it's hard. And part of me is just mad at myself about that.

A. MULLEN: Yeah. Well, it's taken me so freaking long to get comfortable with myself that, you know, I'd love to see you cut yourself some slack.

M. MULLEN: I don't know.

MILLER: And that's where I will leave them - in a sound booth in lower Manhattan, pulled away from each other by their discomfort but pulled together by something even greater.

A. MULLEN: We're in this together, and we're going to figure this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Lulu Miller. INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute with a story about a woman whose life in the in-between is filled with cartoon characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Welcome back to INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin. Up next, a story about a woman who has kept her life in the in-between a secret until now. Producer Meghan Keane has the story.

MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: I'm sitting in a Sheraton hotel room just off the freeway with a woman we're calling M. This is our second meeting. Like before, I make sure the do-not-disturb sign is hanging on the door. We start with safe topics - the best way to drive back to the highway, what she threw in her crockpot this morning - before she remarks how strange this is for her to be talking like this at all.

M: You are the only people I've talked to about any of this.

KEANE: M is 49 years old, and she's definitely not used to secret meetings in hotel rooms. For the most part, she lives a pretty predictable middle-class life - ranch house in the suburbs, soccer playing son, color-coordinated jewelry. But she wanted to talk to someone about her other life. And she's too afraid to tell the people closest to her - her husband and son - because she worries they won't understand.

M: It's really painful. When you hide such a large, large part of yourself from everybody for so long, you walk around with the knowledge that nobody really knows you. And you know that nobody really knows you. And the people who know you - they think they know you, but you know they don't know you. And oh, yeah. I know my daughter. Oh, yeah. I know my wife. Or oh, yeah. I know my coworker. No. No, you don't. You don't.

KEANE: You never know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: She says it began innocently when she was about 7 or 8 on the red swing set in her childhood backyard.

M: I would actually face away from the back of my house because the neighbor behind us had a little - kind of a cherry orchard. I could just swing in that direction, daydreaming.

KEANE: Daydreaming.

M: So now here we are in this space adventure.

KEANE: Imagining herself as part of her favorite cartoons, like "The Three Musketeers" or "Arabian Knights." And when she was a little older, her favorite space adventure cartoons.

M: We're trying to get the bad guys.

Hostile alien species.

Oh, no. There's a black hole - going to suck us in, and we're all going to die.

Trying to save Earth.

Just felt good. And I'd be out there hours and hours and hours.

KEANE: Daydreaming on her swingset is where M both felt exhilarated and accepted. The house just over her shoulder - that's where reality was - a father who was emotionally distant and a mother who was exceptionally harsh.

M: She always seemed angry. She always seemed irritated. She always seemed unhappy.

KEANE: Her mother was the first person to shame M about her daydreams. When she was a girl, M would walk around inside the house, totally distracted by her daydream friends.

M: And apparently, I was moving my lips and kind of murmuring. And my mother was like, what are you doing? What are you saying? Who are you talking to? And the tone of voice let me - clued me in pretty quickly that what I was doing was not normal and was strange.

KEANE: So she started hiding her daydreaming. She'd sneak down into the basement to pace in little circles on the rug away from a family who just didn't get her to spend time with the daydream friends who did.

M: I mean, it sounds ridiculous to say that you love fictional people, but, no, I love them, and I love the worlds that I've created.

KEANE: There's the adorkable (ph) scientist, the space villain with a heart of gold, the team of time travelers, just to name a few from her sprawling cast of characters. She says these loyal friends filled her up, gave her understanding, closeness, adventure. And they followed her everywhere.

M: We accidentally zap back.

We're not where we're supposed to.

Are we going to pollute the timeline.

How much can we reveal?

KEANE: And so every day, with that daydream soundtrack buzzing, she'd leave the house that didn't quite feel like home to go to school, where she kept apart from the other kids. While other kids goofed off at lunch, she'd sit with a book and pretend to read.

M: And so it didn't always necessarily earn me a whole lot of friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: As M entered her early 20s, she found her daydreaming habit didn't fall away. It became a ritual she devoted hours to each day.

M: If I wanted to have conversations or witness, you know, close family bonds or whatever, I could just do that within the confines of my own mind. And all of that was wonderful. And that was great.

KEANE: But then something came along that seemed even better than her daydreams - a guy.

M: He grounds me. He definitely grounds me.

KEANE: They had gone to high school together, but he ran with the popular kids. They bumped into each other one day at a coffee bar.

M: We just sat down and started having a conversation. And I'm like, well, I got to go to class. And he's like, Wait. Wait. Wait. Can I have your number?

KEANE: They could spend hours talking history, philosophy, politics. He would take her on scary movie dates just to try and hold her hand. In many ways, he was her exact opposite - the kind of guy who goes to a monster truck shows and reads instruction manuals.

M: Right now he's on a big solar power kick (laughter).

KEANE: She found herself falling in love with this man who had both feet in reality. She knew he liked her, too, but didn't realize how much until about a year after they had been dating, when his father died, and he asked her to come to the funeral.

M: We're out in the graveyard. And they were lowering the coffin. And the family was kind of gathered around. I had - I was sort of, like, a couple steps behind with, like, the rest of the crowd. And the immediate family was circling around. And I remember he looked around and came to get me. He came to get me and pull me into the circle.

KEANE: He pulled her into his family that day, and her daydreams began to recede.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: So they got married, got a house, had a son. And she never told her husband about her secret life, about her fantasy friends and all their adventures - the stuff that had felt so very real to her her whole life. For a while, it was great. But eventually...

M: Reality with a married person is they're going to leave toothpaste in the sink, and they're going to irritate you. And I'm going to burn the pork chops. And, I mean, just go through the whole list of what you would call the mundane day-to-day...

KEANE: The day-to-day life we all grind our way through.

M: Once life became more routine, then it started coming back.

KEANE: And the secret room. What is that? And then we get into this big...

M: Even though marriage and family got M the closeness she'd missed in childhood, somehow, it didn't feel like enough. So to fill in the gaps, M started carving out time to daydream. It almost felt like sneaking around to pursue an addiction. She'd leave the house for hours on Saturday mornings, saying she was running errands. But I'm, like, daydreaming away.

KEANE: She'd put in headphones during long car rides, pretending to listen to music and miss whole conversations with her husband.

M: He goes, you know what? Never mind. Plug yourself back in. I don't want to talk to you.

KEANE: Over and over, M makes the choice to be with her daydreams. M spends so much time fantasizing, she says she has almost no friends at work. Just like in high school, her colleagues eat together while she sits alone at another table. And every night after dinner, she'll stand in her kitchen alone...

M: Knives going in drawers and forks going in the dishwasher.

KEANE: ...And just disappear.

M: Oh, no. I need this particular utensil, and that's in the dishwasher. Open the dishwasher.

I sense I'm drifting. And at that point, that sense of drift is where I have to make the decision, do I stop myself from drifting, or do I just allow the drift to continue?

Since we are a team that is engaged in trying to fight criminal activity, we've made a lot of enemies. My avatar starts finding the same tarot card randomly popping up in all these different places. It just keeps appearing - in restaurants.

This is creepy.

On the sidewalk in front of her.

You're insane.

In her vehicle.

Is someone stalking you? She buys a pack of tarot cards and buys a book and is messing with them. She accidentally leaves a card out and...

Bomb attack. Things get wrecked. People get killed. And from reading the books, she's like, wait a minute. Something is pursuing you. You can't run away from it. Then, like, avalanches of cards start appearing in places. And now it's like, oh, my gosh.

KEANE: So how does it all wrap up?

M: Well, it doesn't wrap up (laughter) because this is the never-ending story of the day dreams.

KEANE: M loves her never-ending story.

M: But it can also be very isolating.

KEANE: When she feels real life isn't fulfilling enough, she bolsters herself with daydreams. And then those daydreams feel so, so good that reality feels shallow. So she goes back to the place so many of us do for real understanding - inside of our heads.

M: There are places you can be where you're going to be understood because it's - all the characters you create are you (crying).

KEANE: M recently started looking for some way to get perspective on all of this, and her search led her to website for people who call themselves maladaptive daydreamers - people who say they're so obsessed with their fantasies, they can't live their real lives. In some cases, they don't work, don't go out at all. And M wonders if that might be her.

What world do you want to live in?

M: Well, I don't know.

KEANE: Why do you say that?

M: Because I don't know. 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.

KEANE: So living in between is M's choice, at least for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Meghan Keane - after a quick break, a sneak peek of next week's episode. Stick around.

ROSIN: Tune in next week for a brand-new episode. We hang hard with the hardcore scene in Richmond, Va.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Huge dudes just start swinging their arms and punching each other.

ROSIN: A community that polices itself, sometimes without mercy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Doesn't matter, like, what you're trying to do. If you're trying to progress, you're going to hurt people along the way.

ROSIN: We ask, what do you get from banishing abusers? And can it go too far?

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVE GOODS AND LUCY STONE'S "UP AT NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) 'Cause guilty is what guilty does. That's all there is and ever was. To have your fun and not get caught. Yeah, you're all on your own, so do what you want.

SPIEGEL: That's it for us today. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Cara Tallo is our executive producer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Woot woot.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom (ph). Lulu Miller is co-founder and contributing editor.

SPIEGEL: We had help from Alex Chang (ph), Rebecca Ramirez, Jay Sizz (ph), Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, William Brennan (ph), Greta Pittenger, Nancy Shute, Meredith Rizzo, Alyssa Edes and Morgan Givens. Our technical director is Andy Huether. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: Special thanks to StoryCorps for letting us use tape from their interview between Maddie and her dad. If you'd like to hear more from the interview, head on over to the StoryCorps podcast. Thanks also to Ramtin Arablouei for music used in this episode and to the band Peels for letting us use their song "Trillium" from their album "Honey" from Rough Trade Publishing. The song you're listening to right now is "Up At Night." Special thanks to Lucy Stone and Grave Goods for letting us use it from the Philadelphia-based label Rare MP3s.

SPIEGEL: Additional music for this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. For more information about this music and to see original artwork by Sara Wong for this episode, visit www.npr.org/invisibilia. And now for our moment of nonzen.

Can you say something that sounds, like, endy? Just say something that sounds endy.

ROSIN: (Imitating animal howling).

SPIEGEL: (Laughter).

Join us next week for more IN...

ROSIN: ...VISI...

SPIEGEL: ...BILIA. What?

ROSIN: I'm the in-between part. It's the joke. I'm the in...

SPIEGEL: Oh.

ROSIN: (Sighing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVE GOODS AND LUCY STONE SONG, "UP AT NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.