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Stranger Things: Will Byers and Dissociative Identity Disorder

November 13, 2017
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The second season of Stranger Things was as amazing as I imagined it would be, and it definitely answered a lot of questions while leaving room for more. I had so many thoughts after I finished watching it, but I think I better pace myself and maybe break it up into a few posts. First off, I have to say, I was very happy that they sprinkled in a bit of psych here and there, and that some of the things I'd been wondering about were also covered in the Beyond Stranger Things interviews hosted by Jim Rash. If you haven't had a chance to watch those, I suggest you do! It will be worth it. If anything, you'll get a look at how the actors see their characters and the reasoning behind their behaviors, not to mention learning a bit of history about the Duffer brothers.

In this post, I share some thoughts about Will and how we can use current psychological knowledge, not to "diagnose" him, but to try to understand his experience. This DOES include spoilers for both seasons!

A Bit of PTSD History

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was added as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition in 1980, largely due to research with veterans of the Vietnam War. It was still a relatively new term at the time Stranger Things 2 takes place, and its prevalence was unknown. Diagnostic criteria tend to change with each new edition of the DSM (new research), but the main features have always included, of course, the occurrence of a traumatic event, and intrusive symptoms, such as flashbacks or nightmares. Dr. Owens' suggestion that Will is experiencing PTSD is not too far-fetched. However, as viewers, we know that this is not what is happening to Will, and that Dr. Owens knows this. It is possible that even using the current DSM 5 criteria for PTSD, Will's behaviors may still be interpreted by some as PTSD due to the presence of intrusive symptoms, changes in his affective responses, and his drawings, which could be seen as a form of reliving the traumatic experience. Will may have experienced a traumatic event, but not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD.

However, if he were experiencing some of those symptoms, Will has a very good support system including his close group of friends, his brother, and his mom. He also has the new-to-the-family Bob (*ugly cries*), and even though they are not close, they do share some moments. Having those resources, especially a good support system, is one of the best weapons against the monsters of PTSD. It allows a person to reach out, to not feel alone. Will also has excellent communication skills, which we see in both seasons, that help him be able to reach out and open up to his mom and his best friend, Mike.

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The Hive Mind

One of the things I am curious about is whether there would be any effects, psychological or otherwise, to Will having been part of the darkness of the hive mind for as long as he was. Is the link severed completely? Is there maybe a part of Will that still experiences some effects to having been possessed by another entity? The closest real world example I can think of that may help us psychologically understand Will's experience is the current research on Dissociative Identity Disorders (DID), formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder, which has some overlap with PTSD. Some of the defining features of DID are recurring gaps in memory, lost time, and a "disruption in identity" including behavior, expression, cognition, or consciousness. It is widely believed that DID is triggered by a traumatic event. While Will is under the influence of the hive mind, not only does he begin to forget events and loved ones, but he does things that he normally wouldn't do, including putting others in harm's way. He also occasionally goes into what could be seen as a dissociative trance when communicating with the hive mind.

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Once again, the purpose of this is not to diagnose Will (he doesn't meet criteria for either of these diagnoses) but to use what we know about real life psychology and dissociative disorders to understand his experience. This is important, because individuals with DID should not be compared to characters in movies who are "possessed." I cannot stress this enough!

The first thing to do in cases of dissociative disorders is to make sure the person is safe. Joyce keeps Will home from school once she learns what is happening to him. She doesn't fully trust Dr. Owens or his people, but she enlists a small group of people she does trust, which includes Jim Hopper. She makes it as comfortable an environment at home for Will as she can, including keeping the house cold, keeping as few people around as possible, and getting Will what he needs in order to keep communicating with her (drawing utensils). She makes it a safe place for him until she can gain a better understanding of what exactly is going on, what this thing is that is in her child, and how to get it out.

Some treatments for DID support an integrative approach, that is, helping the individual integrate the different alters or personalities, while some support helping the individual in containing them. The former is done by helping the different alters to connect with each other, or to the main one. Will's loved ones do this by sitting him down and retelling some of their favorite memories with Will, in hopes of reaching his main identity, or in his case, the real Will. One of the main goals in treatment of DID is to help the individual regain their sense of power. Will has such a good sense of himself and such a good attachment to his friends and family, that they are able to get through to him and he is able to eventually regain some power from the entity that is trying to take over, and find a way to communicate --again-- with his loved ones to give them the information they need to figure out how to save the world. It is also his healthy relationships with his family and friends, especially with Joyce, that I think will help Will readjust to his life after having lived through yet another traumatic experience.


"We Don't Take Risks."

My next post will be about Jim Hopper. I hope you found this one interesting! Share your thoughts below, and if you would like to know more about PTSD or DID, see the links below.

If you would like to know more about Dissociative Disorders:
National Alliance on Mental Illness
American Psychiatric Association: What Are Dissociative Disorders?
Mayo Clinic: Dissociative Disorders

If you would like to know more about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder:
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD 
American Psychological Association: PTSD
National Institute of Mental Health

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