The Parallels Between 'Stranger Things' and My Anxiety
Coincidentally, the second season of “Stranger Things” premiered on the first day of my mental breakdown last year. I had woken up that morning at 1 a.m. throwing up stomach acid every hour while in the midst of a panic attack. Needless to say, that day didn’t go very well. However, I still had “Stranger Things” to keep me company. It’s all about finding the silver lining, right?
I watched the episodes in amazement primarily because of the plot, but for something I had not anticipated. Will Byers’ battle with the Shadow Monster had striking similarities to my own battle with mental illness. During the next meeting with my therapist, which occurred after a trip to the ER after an apogee in my breakdown, I was struggling to explain what I was feeling and how my anxiety was affecting me. In frustration, I asked if she had ever seen “Stranger Things.” To my utter amazement and relief, she said yes, a spark of excitement lighting her eyes. I then realized this was going to be so much easier. Here’s how “Stranger Things” helped me explain my anxiety.
Warning: This list contain spoilers for season 2!
1. Will Byers hides his affliction.
This isn’t new in season 2. We see this cover up at the end of season 1 right after he’s brought back from the Upside Down. The scene is set during Christmastime and Will goes to the bathroom to cough up the slug-like creature (that I will forever say is pre-Dart). He returns to the kitchen to the slight concern of Joyce and Jonathan, only to say that nothing is wrong and everything is fine. This is also exemplified in season 2.
By extension, Will is also able to have periods of seemingly “unaffected” moods or personalities, even though he knows the threat is still there and he is still affected. (Example: excited at the arcade and dressing up for Halloween.) This also leads me to make the connection that his affliction taints possibly good experiences, as anxiety or mental illness can do. Two standout “good” moments or memories for Will Byers in season 2 are later spoiled by visions of the Upside Down, eventually culminating in two of his “episodes.” (More on this later.) Anxiety is much like this. We often hide it because we don’t think people will understand because of perceived stigma or because it’s just not that commonly talked about and we are afraid to be a trailblazer. Those with anxiety are able to have good days and socialize with friends, but we are often burdened by the thought that anxiety is still an ongoing problem and could strike at any moment, ruining otherwise wonderful experiences.
2. The affliction can be difficult to pinpoint.
In this scenario, I am referring to the scenes in which Will is seen by Dr. Owens at Hawkins Lab. No, those with anxiety aren’t often hooked up to machines and experimented on, but the process of identifying any triggers, possible underlying diseases or conditions that could have brought on the mental illness can be frustrating and draining, as experienced by Will.
3. The sudden periods of dark dissociation.
This point, for me, shifts over to depression. After the culmination in my anxiety, I stopped seeing the world as a good place. I saw the town that I lived in, parks that I played at as a child and other previously happy places as places of sadness and with a negative view. Something about these places was wrong, perverted or tainted. Call it a weird experience of nostalgia or something else. These episodes Will experiences are much like that: being in one place, seemingly happy, then seeing that same place but now in a darkened, more frightening, less forgiving way, as the Upside Down portrays.
4. “Go away!” — the flaw in Bob’s advice.
This was, in fact, one of the first analogies I discovered in “Stranger Things.” Countless deep breathing sessions were attempted, only to be overpowered by the deluge of panic I was feeling. Then, after weeks of trying to keep moderate-severe anxiety at bay, I still managed to reach my worst in a full breakdown. I felt tears leak from my eyes as I watched the pain, torment and desperation of Will Byers trying to stand up to the Shadow Monster after Bob’s well-meaning advice. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to anxiety. I found myself standing at a precipice, mentally screaming for it to, “Go away!” just as Will did, only for it to swoop in and invade every part of my being more completely than I ever thought possible.
Later, Will’s frustration was shared as he tearfully told his mom how hard he tried to make it go away, to no avail. I found a similar situation after I admitted to myself that I needed to go to the hospital for IV fluids. I called my mom at work in tears, telling her what I decided to do. Later, when seeing my therapist, I lamented that I tried so hard, but nothing I seemed to do helped me prevent what ended up happening. Sometimes, anxiety has a strong mind of its own and what you do to appease it may not be enough or right for recovery.
5. “I felt it everywhere.”
This is somewhat of a continuation on #4. When Will admits,“It got me, Mom,” he continues to say how it invaded every part of his being. When I was in the throws of my overwhelming anxiety, it was my only reality. It was the only thing I could see, hear, taste, smell and feel. My very DNA seemed to be on fire with panic. I could only look through the keyhole of a locked door anxiety had slammed in my face. When anxiety affects me, it physically affects my entire body. From the top with headaches, to coldness and numbing in my feet, shivers and aches in my arms, shaking legs, tingling skin, stomach cramps and nausea, it’s a whole body ordeal. Sometimes, when I’m able to suppress it, I can appear normal, like Will does. However, when the right person asks, I will admit that while I’m not screaming in terror or hysterically crying, as Will stated, “I still feel it.” This leaves me exhausted and drained, following with his last desperate plea that, “I just want this to be over,” even though we both are no closer to figuring out how to get rid of it than we were before our episodes happened.
6. Parent’s devotion, but confusion.
If I felt awful, it was equally as hard on my parents. Mental illness is tricky. There isn’t one certain thing you can do to make it better. You can’t fix it like putting a cast on a broken leg. The worst part is, you often don’t know what’s wrong yourself and what will help. Joyce Byers was my own mother saying, “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on.” I just don’t know what’s happening sometimes. That is the most frustrating thing about mental illness. Joyce Byers spoke again, “Whatever’s going on, we will fix it.” I can’t tell you how many times my own mother told me some version of that statement. It comforted me, but also saddened me. This would be a long road of trying to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. But I would have her help.
7. “He likes it cold.”
This was a more recent discovery and was a quick, spur of the moment connection during a therapy session. I discovered that the relationship with my anxiety can often be compared to Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve been its prisoner for so long. Now, I am a willing prisoner. I feel like I need it to survive. Anxiety has been my go-to for every situation. I worry about things I can’t control because, by worrying about them, I feel like I am doing something about them, which in truth, is impossible. There have been situations where my life has been dictated by how I will respond to situations because of my anxiety. I am not free to live my own life because of the filter of fear I feel like I am obligated to place over it. Will Byers is not allowed to do things for his own health, like get his temperature back up because of what his affliction dictates is best for him and what will ultimately serve it best. I discovered I’ve avoided stress reduction techniques like meditation and positive self-talk because my anxiety is convincing me that I don’t want to get better because then I will be defenseless and vulnerable. My anxiety is unwittingly making decisions on my behalf, like the Shadow Monster does for Will.
8. “What if you didn’t have to use words?”
This is the most direct and straightforward analogy in the season. I often don’t know how to express what I am feeling, as do many with mental illness. I prefer using analogies. Beyond anxiety, it is my favorite way to communicate because I am very good at finding real life situations to explain difficult concepts. Some use music, drawing, painting, writing, physical movement or other creative methods to express what speech can’t say. Will Byers uses drawing, his preferred medium, to communicate with his friends and family and help them understand what he sees.
9. “I feel what the Shadow Monster is feeling. See what he’s seeing.”
There are many times when I feel as though there are two battling forces inside of me: my rational brain and my anxiety. Will Byers is fighting for his own mind vs. the Shadow Monster. It is truly the devil and angel on our shoulders. It is like having some evil conjoined twin sapping the life from me so I’m unable to detach. I am trapped in my mind, fighting for allegiance with this dark entity. My rational self is forced to be subjected to the torment my anxiety puts me through, all the while knowing it is irrational and that I shouldn’t feel this way. I know all the answers to how wrong my thoughts are, but I still physically feel what my anxiety wants me to feel. Will is brought on a similar unwilling journey with the Shadow Monster
10. The extraction of the affliction.
This one is hitting close to home for me at the moment. I am resisting treatment and many things to remedy my situation. Anxiety has such a hold on my being that I know it’s not going to let me go easily, quietly or painlessly. There have been times of intense effort in recovery, like in the scene where, in the midst of the screaming and heat, Nancy yells, “Look at his neck!” as a black virus-like substance creeps up Will Byers’ neck and throat. During times of intense revelation or progress, I feel as though I am bringing up and attempting to expel a similar dark stain in my veins. It is painful and uncomfortable and every instinct in my mind is telling me to give up just to feel relief from it. Periods of progress (much like therapy) can also make me feel drained and exhausted, much like Will did after the Shadow Monster was finally expelled.
11. Eleven’s confrontation.
This is similar to #10, but with a few differences. Eleven knew she was the only one who could close the gate. Now, this analogy doesn’t quite sync up to the rest of my descriptions. If it did, Will Byers would be the one closing the gate. Therefore, I’m going to pass it off as we all need to find our inner Eleven. She did not approach Hawkins Lab with eager eyes. She was terrified and there were moments where I expected her to turn back. However, she went in. The entire journey to the gate was filled with fear and uncertainty. The look in her eyes made it seem like she did not know if she could do it or not. In all of her power and bravery, when finally eye-level with the gate, she reaches out for Hopper’s hand as a last means of comfort. Facing mental illness is terrifying. Many have trouble simply “reaching the lab” in this analogy and recognizing it as a problem. When Eleven finally faces the gate, the process is terrifying, draining and agonizing. It takes every ounce of Eleven’s strength to beat this obstacle and the process arguably nearly kills her. Many times, I feel myself looking at the gate, but I’m too terrified to lift a hand to close it. In the moments where I do make efforts to face it, my mind is screaming in rage and frustration as Eleven does. It almost feels as if it would be even more symbolic if my nose even bled from the effort as Eleven’s does.
12. A team effort.
Finally, the battles of Will Byers, Eleven and season 2 could not have succeeded without the effort of the entire group of characters. Season 2 is where we really see the friendship between Mike and Will and the support that Mike is willing to give. Mike accepts and loves Will exactly for who he is and what is happening to him.
Next, Hopper is the rock for Eleven as she faces the gate. He’s there to protect and then catch her when she falls. Steve, Max, Lucas and Dustin are supplementary characters that will do anything to clear the road for Will and Eleven, taking away any unneeded complications and even distracting the demo-dogs at the risk of their own lives. The Shadow Monster and the gate are not beaten alone. Yes, there are key players, but Will and Eleven had a support system that made it all possible. I never realized the support system I had until it came out of the woodwork when I truly needed it most. I had friends of my parents praying for me, my own friends sending me mail and periodic text messages just to let me know I was loved, my parents who would go to the ends of the earth to help me, fantastic doctors who refused to let me fall any further than I already had and a therapist who helped me — and is still helping me — pick up the pieces.
Mental illness should not be fought alone. Eleven couldn’t do it by herself and neither could Will Byers. If our heroes shouldn’t do it alone, neither should you.
Follow this journey on Adventures in Grad School.
Screenshot via “Stranger Things” Season 2 Trailer