Trigger warning: mentions of PTSD and abuse
Spoiler Alert: this post contains very specific details about Stranger Things series 1 and 2.
I cried watching Stranger Things.
It wasn’t a Demogorgon that frightened me, nor the shadow monster that loomed over Hawkins. What stirred a buried, tensing emotion within was young Eleven – the female protagonist of the show – and the way she dealt with her experiences of trauma.
At the end of the series, as our heroine stood on a hanging platform next to her newly paternal figure Chief Jim Hopper and closed the gate between our world and the upside down, I saw a part of myself in her. Overcome with an intense pain too difficult to process, it was the moment that Eleven’s trauma overwhelmed her and the effects of her past were felt all at once. It was also the moment she desperately wanted to let her past go.
Stranger Things’ representation of complex post-traumatic stress disorder provides a comfort in the understanding it demonstrates, albeit in an unexpected setting. It makes for unpleasant viewing, but any attempt at raising awareness can in my eyes only be a positive thing. Unlike the usual representations of PTSD in entertainment suggest, it’s not only soldiers that experience post-traumatic stress disorder. It can affect us at any age, at any stage of our lives, and the more of us who can understand that the better.
The most disturbing example of Eleven’s PTSD is in episode 7, The Lost Sister, when Kali – whose powers allow her to control what others see around them – forces Eleven to see her “Papa”, Dr.Martin Brenner, the scientist who controlled the experiments originally performed on her. Their relationship is hauntingly complex, as Eleven has always viewed him as a fatherly figure, but she is also terrified of him. It’s a common reality for those trapped in abusive relationships, this confusion of fear and dependence, and the intensity of the scene is accurate to real life experiences.
“One moment, you can be living life as normal, lost in the mundanity of routine, and the next you’re uprooted.”
As soon as Brenner comes into view Eleven cries, instantly triggered by the thought of his presence, and repeatedly verbalises her want for him to “go away”.
“You have to confront your pain,” Brenner says. “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound. And it’s festering. Do you remember what that means? Festering? It means a rot. And it will grow. Spread. And eventually, it will kill you.”
To some, it might seem like a few simple sentences, but to Eleven it’s overwhelming. For sufferers of PTSD, it’s an all too familiar tale. One moment, you can be living life as normal, lost in the mundanity of routine, and the next you’re uprooted. Panic attacks, anxiety, anger and depression are all common symptoms of PTSD and they can appear as if from nowhere. The smallest trigger can set them off, and they are wholly and terrifyingly consuming.
These moments are brilliantly explained through Will’s character, who spends much of the series in a possessed or catatonic state, who describes the incidents in which he is taken over by the shadow monster that controls him as “now memories”. While others may know that what he is seeing isn’t visible to them, and may not exist in their realm, for Will he is actually stuck in those places, absorbed by those feelings, and suffering in a way it seems nobody else understands.
Eleven’s series ending sees her struggle with the different aspects of her PTSD come to a head. Like many of us, she uses her experiences to give her strength and support and help her friends. She can channel her anger through her powers, thereby increasing their strength, and the ferocity of her feelings allows her to ultimately save the day, saving lives in the process. But as often happens with those of us who try and fight the good fight, as it were, she’s drained. She doesn’t want to think about her trauma any more, regardless of who it might help. She needs to take care of herself. As she hears Dr. Brenner’s taunts for what seems like the final time, she screams – it’s time to let it go.
Who knows how long it will last, but Eleven’s contentedness in the final scenes of The Gate, as she dances with Mike at the Hawkins Middle School Snow Ball, is all too familiar. Those fleeting moments of seemingly faultless happiness can feel few and far between when living with PTSD, and to see somebody who has been through so much finally find a place she feels safe and loved is moving – and hope-inspiring – to see.