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Why I Relate to 'Stranger Things' After a 14-Week Partial Hospitalization Program

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I was late to jump on the “Stranger Things” trend. It wasn’t until this past summer that I finally sat down with my mom and started the show. It didn’t take long to see what all of the excitement was about: the actors and actresses were talented, the plot was engaging and the characters were unique. It also didn’t take long for me to find a special interest in Eleven. It makes sense, of course. Eleven’s character is full of mystery, and every scene with her leaves you with more questions than answers. As the season progressed, though, her past became more clear. We saw flashbacks of her past, and we saw her reactions to these memories. We saw how haunted she was by the people who hurt her, and how much they still affected her. And as I saw that, I felt a precarious mixture of anxiety and camaraderie.

• What is PTSD?

Only a month before I first sat down to watch “Stranger Things,” I started having my own frightening flashbacks. I’d just finished a 14-week partial hospitalization program, where I spent every living moment in the hospital, driving to or from the hospital or doing the CBT homework we were assigned. It was hell. I’ve had a lot of horrible moments in my life, but those 14 weeks were some of the darkest, in part because I was misdiagnosed, and no one believed me for the first seven weeks.

There were many afternoons I sobbed the entire hour my mom and I drove home. When I went home, I would crawl into the guest bedroom downstairs and pray for sleep so that I could forget for a while. It was haunting. It wasn’t all bad, though, of course. The kids I met, and some of the staff, are people I am eternally grateful for. The times we were together didn’t erase the awfulness of the day before or after that point, but they were times that were filled with laughter and compassion and inside jokes I still find myself smiling about when I encounter a reminder of them.

When I was discharged, I tried my hardest to focus on those good parts of it. I tried to convince myself they meant something, that they might even be equal to all the bad the experience had also carried. For a week or two after, it didn’t feel real that I was really free. I kept feeling like I was stuck in an eternal weekend, or like I was going back, and someone had just paused my hospital stay.

I can’t remember the exact day things changed from that odd halfway world to the repetition of days past. All along the way, things outside of the hospital reminded me of my time there. Once I wasn’t there anymore, though, the reminders keep coming, faster and faster. When you spend 14 weeks in the hospital, you encounter just about everything, which means just about anything can become a reminder of that time. Even the smallest things would send me back to a specific memory of my time in the hospital. It was so vivid as I relived what I’d experienced there. Even when I remembered something positive, it would trigger another memory, which would cause another, which would eventually lead to something that was hard enough to live through the first time. It made my anxiety skyrocket. I knew about people experiences post-traumatic stress before, of course, but I’d never expected it to come from a hospital program that was supposed supposed to help in some way, no matter how small.

So, as I was watching Eleven’s reactions to her flashbacks of her past, a past that was in a medical setting, it was a shock. My experience was nothing like hers, obviously. There was no abuse, there was nothing illegal. And, of course, I know Eleven isn’t a real person who went through trauma. I’ve always looked to fiction for understanding, though, because it isn’t always easy to find in real life. And so seeing this character going through trauma and the aftermath of a painful experience was jarring.

The first time it happened, my heart sped up. I clung to my Tangle and kept my breathing steady. The entire time, though, I couldn’t help but feel this tug at my heart. She feels it, too. She’s going through it, too. She kept going back to her time as a test subject, because after spending her entire life in a sketchy government program, pretty much everything reminded her of her time there. She was always upset by the memories, but they weren’t all solely horrible. She would look back sometimes and think of a kindness that was shown to her, mainly by Papa. This kindness didn’t have to make her experience adherently good or take away from the bad parts of it. It was simply a part of her experience, just like the good and the bad of my experience don’t make it more or less traumatizing.

Then, in season two, Mike starts having these visions of the Upside Down. The doctor who is monitoring him says that Mike is going through PTSD, and that the visions he’s having are flashbacks. In the show, it has been a year since the events of season one began, and the doctor mentions how the one-year anniversary of a traumatic event can increase someone’s anxiety. Living with chronic illnesses my entire life means that I’ve experiences many especially rough patches. One of the worst, though, which later tied in to my 2017 hospital stay, was the fall of 2015. I started a new antidepressant, and I began birth control in an attempt to help with what my doctors believe is endometriosis. Since the fall of 2013, I’ve had treatment-resistance depression, so I’ve switched medications many times. It got to the point where the only options left included medications discovered in the 1960s. For those who don’t know, modern-day antidepressants have some pretty terrible side effects; I was used to almost passing out, being too weak to stand, being lightheaded and dizzy, blacking out for  30 seconds at a time, and many more effects from the past mediations I’d tried.

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I switched medicines that fall, though. I became increasingly depressed and hopeless, and the birth control caused wild mood swings. All of the antidepressant side effects I usually got occurred, but I also got a dangerously fast heart-beat. I could hear my heart thumping inside of me, racing along faster than I’d ever heard it, all the time; I could feel it rapidly contracting and relaxing if I pressed my hand against my chest. On top of that, the medication I was on commonly decreases someone’s appetite. I’ve also always had severe stomach problems, and the combination of those stomach issues and increased cyst pain from the ineffective birth control further deferred me from eating. I lost a lot of weight in two months. I spent two years trying to gain it back to no avail. I was met with doctor after doctor who refused to believe weight restoration could be so tricky. I faced doctors who refused to believe how I’d lost the weight or that I was eating the amounts of food presented in the journals in which my mom and I meticulously tracked everything I ate, because to them, believing that I was a teenager (a.k.a. someone with a high metabolism) who was extremely hyper-metabolic (a.k.a. someone with a super, super high metabolism) just wasn’t probable.

It was a time of complete and utter despair. I had spent the majority of my years beforehand suffering, but this was a whole new level. It got worse as time went on and reached its peak in spring of 2017. I am still very unwell mentally, but my weight is thankfully back to where it should be. Those years have not left me, though. I think about them every day. The timeline of things is constantly replaying in my head, over and over and over. The people I met, the reactions I got, random moments of time constantly have run through my mind since the end of my PHP (partial hospitalization program) stay. It is especially poor now, though. November of 2017 is exactly two years after taking the worst antidepressant I’ve tried to date, my first adverse reaction to birth control, and the beginning of my struggle with weight restoration. Since it is the same time of year, many of my surroundings are exact replicas of what they were back then, which just makes it so much easier for my brain to lock me there, in the past, and throw away the key.

In “Stranger Things,” Mike (minor spoiler!) isn’t exactly just going through an extra bout of anxiety due to the anniversary of being in the Upside Down, but even hearing those words on screen made me feel less alone. It reminded me that, hey, other people have gone through this, too. The characters of “Stranger Things” may be fictional, but everything that is fictional is created from something that is real, especially when it comes to characters.

While it was at times triggering to see topics so close to my own heart being portrayed and mentioned on television, it was also relieving. It was comforting to be reminded that though no one will ever know exactly what I’ve gone through and am going through, and I can never know what someone else was or is facing, we have common ground. We have similar experiences that can tie us together, that can breed sympathy and that can create understanding. To see glimpses of my own experiences in the characters of this show, who aren’t that much younger than I am, was something I didn’t know I needed. Seeing a part of my life, an isolating and often misunderstood part, displayed on television was something I will always be thankful for.

Follow this journey on Sara’s site

Lead photo via Stranger Things’ Facebook page

Originally published: November 30, 2017
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