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How 'Stranger Things' Helps Me Explain My PTSD

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Editor's Note

This piece contains spoilers for “Stranger Things,” season 2.

When I grabbed my Twizzlers and sat down on the couch to watch Season 2 of “Stranger Things,” I was expecting to face monsters and mysteries from the “upside down” world.

To my surprise, shortly into the show, I recognized a monster from my own life showing up on the screen.

• What is PTSD?

In Season 1, Will Byars is a boy who inadvertently gets stuck in the “upside down,” a world that exists beneath the world we know and is an exact mirror-image duplicate — except that monsters and darkness reign down there.

Eventually, Will is saved (sorry, I warned you there were spoilers) and is safe and sound back in the “right-side-up” world (aka the world we know).

Everything is back to normal. Except for Will.

Season 2 opens with Will experiencing what the show called “true vision,” or the ability to see into other dimensions/worlds/etc. He’s stuck between the upside-down and reality, and he can’t control which place he goes to.

As I watched, Will was simply going about everyday life when suddenly, he’d look up and the scene around him would have changed. The room would be dark and dreary, all his friends would have vanished, and a monster unique to the upside-down would appear.

On the other side (the right-side-up world), Will would be present physically, but not mentally. Try as they might, they could not get through to Will.

It was terrifying.

And it was comforting.

The show played before my eyes, and the images portrayed so clearly what I felt I had experienced at one point in life.

The summer of 2014, I volunteered in a Cambodian hospital, where resources were scarce and education was lacking. As a nursing student, I had high hopes for contributing and learning that summer. Most days I witnessed suffering and slow deaths.

When I returned to the States to finish my last semester of university, I was startled to find myself experiencing anxiety attacks and frequent, tearful breakdowns.

In nursing classes, we would discuss a disease process I had seen in Cambodia, and I would come undone. Physically, my body was in class. Physically, I was sitting up in my chair and staring at a computer screen.

Mentally, I was back in Cambodia. I could feel the humid air and hear the flies buzzing around wounds. I saw the jaundiced liver failure patient, the seizing tetanus patient, the trauma patient. Worst of all, I saw the panic and the pain in their eyes.

I was stuck. Stuck in my worst nightmare.

Not until much later did I learn these were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Actually, no one really asks me what flashbacks are like (though they do ask what anxiety attacks are like). But had they queried, I would not have known how to explain them.

Now I do: flashbacks are like “true sight.”

PTSD is like being caught between two worlds: past and present. We cannot choose which world we’re in, and getting stuck in the past is just as terrifying (if not more) as standing in the upside-down world.

Like Will, we have a visceral reaction to the stress — heart pounding, lungs hyperventilating, adrenaline coursing.

It’s as unpleasant as it sounds.

However, I’m grateful for the picture “Stranger Things” paints of Will Byars and his “true sight.” What a relief to see expressed what I could not explain all this time.

At one point in “Stranger Things,” Will’s “true sight” turns out to be an advantage for his friends. In the real world, we cannot see into another dimension, but perhaps we can see some things others can’t.

We can see into the pain of others who have experienced trauma, and we can relate to those who have flashbacks. We can empathize with the struggle of staying in reality and the anxious anticipation of triggers.

We cannot know the depths of the nightmares each person has lived (and relives in flashbacks) but, in a way that’s clearer than anyone else in the world, we can see into the pain of PTSD.

And sometimes witnessing pain brings a great deal of comfort to the one who is suffering.

Lead image via “Stranger Things” Facebook page

Originally published: July 29, 2018
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