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Processing Fictional Trauma: Stranger Things Edition



This summer, Netflix took us by storm with the new series that terrified us and gave us all the nostalgic feels… Stranger Things. This show had it all…. suspense, horror, romance, science, Christmas lights, D&D, waffles… all framed around us reliving our past with Trapper Keepers, popped collars, giant glasses, and even gianter hair. What’s not to love?

Stranger Things logo with characters

Despite all the awesome, however, Stranger Things was certainly full of fictional trauma for both the characters and the viewers. Interestingly enough, the two most frequent traumas I’ve seen people talking about don’t necessarily directly involve Will, despite his story being the focus of the show. The two greatest emotional blows seem to be stories of Eleven… and Barb.

While Eleven might seem the obvious choice, Barb’s character really seemed to strike a major chord in many, many people. Barb was the slightly nerdy friend, a bit of a goodie Barb.jpggoodie, who was feeling concerned about being left behind once her best friend started dating the popular kid in school. Every single person that ever attended high school – whether it be in the 80s or any other decade — had insecurities, and Barb is those insecurities personified. While each of us likely had a slightly different experience, the fear in high school that if <insert thing here> happens, my friends won’t talk to me anymore is a feeling we can likely all remember…. As is going places where we’re not comfortable and maybe even drinking when we didn’t want to just to try to keep a friend or look “cool.” The idea that she did all that, and then still got snubbed by her friend… well, the hurt was palpable, and one that I have most assuredly felt in my life, and I’ll bet Barb Diving Board 3I’m not alone there. Seeing Barb sitting on that diving board, alone and devastated… that definitely gave me more reminiscent high school feels than the fashion references. Losing friends is always brutal, but for some reason in high school it’s just exponentially worse. And so, for so many of us who lived through high school – especially if we happened to be slightly nerdy (come on, fess up, we’re all family here!), Barb was us… and we were Barb. Having Barb then be the one major character that didn’t make it… well, the trauma was real.

While Barb was a character in which many of us saw ourselves years ago, Eleven was a character that likely tapped feelings and instincts we have in the present to protect kids, whether they’re ours or someone else’s. As the story unfolded, we saw just how horrible Stranger-Things-3-El-in-cell-850x560.jpgEleven’s life had been. The abuse, the neglect, the complete lack of real emotional connection of any kind… her entire story was tragic, from beginning to “end.” As a mental health professional who worked with abused and neglected kids for several years, seeing Eleven’s story was heartbreaking, as I knew the struggles she’d likely face if she made it through… the PTSD, struggles in relationships, challenges trusting and coping… seeing kids deal with this is so painful, even when they’re out of the abusive environment and healing. As a mom, watching Eleven made me want to rip my kid out of bed and snuggle her and ply her with Eggos and tell her I love her forever… and as my child is a toddler with sleeping problems, you know that’s a big statement. But ultimaWe Can Call You Eltely, after the difference facets of myself reacted in their various ways, a solid take away that I’ve seen with my own eyes to be true is that the kindness of one human really can make all the difference in the world to another human. We don’t know the true fate of Eleven at this point, but what we do know is that if she actually is gone, her brutally dark world had some light at the end… all due to the kindness of a nerdy kid named Mike, and it likely made all the difference in the world to her.

It would seem that one of the primary reasons why Stranger Things became such a massive hit is because the story sucked us in, and made us truly care for and – perhaps more importantly – relate somewhat to the characters on the screen. I was the awkward kid in elementary school that struggled with social interaction (like Mike and even Eleven), and the nerdy kid in high school who the popular kids didn’t talk to (like Barb)… my husband played D&D with his friends starting in elementary school to escape into another world and far away from the challenges of being bullied in school (like Mike and the boys), and felt like an outsider in high school (like Jonathan) . We totally understood the struggles of the kids and teenagers, especially with the whopping dose of 80s nostalgia drizzled on top. But as most of us are likely adults, I think we also related to the adults in the story as well… the Winona Lightsmother who flat out refuses to give up on her child, no matter how crazy everyone thinks she is; the police chief who got housed by the worst kind of trauma but is still trying to make the world a better place in his own flawed way; the mom who desperately wants her kids to talk to her, but knows they aren’t and is terrified for them and frustrated with herself. Stranger Things gave us a unique opportunity to not only look back and see ourselves and our awkwardness and insecurity in the past from a relatively safe distance now that we’re grown, but it also gave us the ability to look back and see how it may have been for our parents. While it’s true we likely didn’t get chased by literal monsters and taken to the upside down back then (I really hope you didn’t… that place was completely terrifying), many of the struggles are still relatable. Maybe we were so caught up in our own problems that we didn’t notice how fiercely protective our parents were, or how hard they were trying to get through to us, or how difficult it was for them to watch us struggle to make friends or deal with challenges. If you’re a parent now, the show might’ve been even more engaging because you could maybe relate to the kids and teens from your past, as well as relating to the adults in your present. An interesting emotional experience to be sure!

Stranger Things was chock full of feels, amazing plots, and engaging characters and dialogue. But ultimately, if I had to sum up the emotional take-aways from this show, I believe I would sum them up as these:

  1. While we may have strongly related to Barb when we were in high school, we have all likely come a long way since we were similar to her, and are probably not her any more. We have survived that life phase (even if she didn’t… *weeps*), and are now older and hopefully wiser. If seeing Barb brought up some old feelings for you, you might talk to a friend about it or journal… but remember, we are not in high school anymore. We made it through!
  2. If you are a parent now, or are around kids in any capacity, use the trip down memory lane that Stranger Things gave you to remember how damn hard it was to be a kid, and maybe apply some of that empathy to your kids or the kids you’re around. Parenting is HARD, and there is no two ways about that. But childhood was pretty tough too. Let’s all remember that we’re all struggling through together, regardless of age.
  3. Be kind to each other. Mike’s kindness literally saved Will’s life and maybe even the world. He wasn’t perfect, and he had anger outbursts and melted down, but ultimately he was kind to someone in need and he apologized when he needed to. And that kindness saved the day. We could all learn a lot from Mike.

Group Hug.PNG

Did Stranger Things stir up any feels for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Processing Fictional Trauma: Olicity Edition



I’ve been involved in fandom throughout my life, but it didn’t occur to me until last night that when it comes to television fandom, my involvement is fairly recent (2012). It also didn’t occur to me that when it comes to television fandom, most of my emotional involvement/devastation has been in shows that I’m watching on Netflix – not live. And so I haven’t lived through a fandom’s real time emotional aftermath of a show which has deeply affected me. (Sidenote: I do still watch Doctor Who, but Moffat’s writing doesn’t do for me what RTD’s did, so I don’t count it). The Arrow/Flash crossover episode last night was… well, emotionally devastating I think is the only thing that even comes close to describing it.And watching the fallout in the fandom was both excruciating as a fangirl, and fascinating as a clinician/researcher.

SPOILERS: The emotional devastation of last night was especially brutal because it happened TWICE. The first time, Oliver actually (in my opinion) does things fairly well, or as well as can be expected given a highly complicated, highly emotionally heightened situation. But Felicity’s control and abandonment issues flared, and Olicity essentially broke up (though that’s up for interpretation). And then, ya know, everyone died (which has its own emotional implications – I can never UNSEE that. THANKS FOR THE TRAUMA, ARROW WRITERS). So Barry goes back in time, thank god, and fixes things. Oliver and Felicity will get a second chance at the baby momma issues, and it’ll definitely be better this time, right? Because nothing could be worse than them breaking up. Right? Second chances are always better? RIGHT? Nope, this time around, it’s Oliver whose issues flare, and he therefore reverts to old habits and his biggest flaw – keeping secrets from those he loves for reasons he believes are noble. So instead of an explosion that can be worked through, now we have deceit. Which is so much worse.

As an individual fan who watched the end of that episode (and who was SO CONVINCED Oliver had grown and was going to do the right thing here…), my reaction can be summed up in one gif:

Arrow Expletives

I was upset, angry, frustrated, sad… you name it. ALL the emotions. I have conversations going on with multiple people through multiple social media, looking at the situation from every conceivable angle, playing devil’s advocate, arguing with other people playing devil’s advocate, venting feelings, trying to understand… and somewhere in the emotional blowout, a few things occurred to me:

Observation Number 1:

Right before my eyes, the fandom was going through the stagArrow Felicity NOes of grief. The first stage – denial – was all over the place. Tweets of “OMG please tell me that didn’t happen” or “NOOOOOOO” were all over the place. I may have sent several of my own.

Denial was quickly (very, very quickly) followed by the angerArrow Im Going To Kill You stage, which is where we all spent a great deal of time. Anger at Oliver, anger at Felicity, anger at the writers, anger at Barry, anger at Samantha… just… all the anger. I’m forever amazed at Twitter’s technological power, because social media was lit up like a Christmas tree. EVERYONE was online, ranting and raving, venting their anger.

Then came bargaining. The “if onlys” and the “what ifs…” abounded. “What if he tells her next episode.” “What if this is all some elaborate ruse.” “What if Barry goes back in time again.” “If only Barry had flashed out of that conversation and didn’t eavesdrop.” “If only Oliver had thought it through.” “If only the writers weren’t lazy and incompetent.” Clearly the bargaining phase has some hand holding with the anger phase, but I still saw it clearly defined.

Then came depression, which started to come out late last night, but I saw a lot more of this morning. After the venting and processing and writing and shouArrow I Cant Do Thislder crying, people seemed to move past their anger. They started to understand that maybe Oliver messed up, maybe Felicity did too, but they’re both human, and it happens. They started to understand that unfortunately, as in real life, we mess up. We make mistakes. And our beloved Olicity, who we love so dearly, is going to have to live with the consequences of those mistakes. The depression centers around knowing what our beautiful couple is going to have to live through, and wishing we could help them avoid it, but knowing we can’t.

Finally we come to acceptance, where I think many people are at this point. The stages of grief are such that we don’t necessarily go through them linearly, and we bounce back and forth. Acceptance doesn’t mean we aren’t still mad at times, it doesn’t mean we aren’t still Arrow Hurts Worse Curaredepressed about it, and wanting to bargain a way out. But it means we’ve come to a place where we can understand what happened and why (even if we don’t agree with it, and even if we’re still angry about it). We can accept that something awful is going to happen, but we can also see a way through. We can accept that Olicity will make it through, because that’s what they do. And even if we still desperately pray for a scene where Momma Smoak smacks Oliver soundly on the back of the head for his idiocy, or perhaps a scene where Zoom beats the holy crap out of Barry again just so we can have that visceral satisfaction of watching it, or even having Samantha be in the grave (with a death that’s hopefully appropriately awful because yep, the anger is still there), we have accepted that there will be awful things to come for Olicity, but that they will get through. People make mistakes, personal growth takes detours, but we will keep the faith, because Olicity is endgame.

Arrow Olicity Crossover Snuggle 2

Observation Number 2:

The second major thing I noticed, which goes hand in hand with the stages of grief, was just how intensely emotional so many people got because of what happened last night. There’s watching something happen to someone else, and feeling upset about it. But that’s not what happened last night. So many seemed to treat it as if it were happening to them, not to Oliver and Felicity. That what Oliver did – Arrow Screams Internallyfrustrating as it may be – was like a personal slap in the face. At first glance, this is the stuff that makes people look at fandom – especially science fiction fandom – and dismiss us all as crazies (even as they paint themselves different colors and weep over the losses of football teams… but okay). But here’s the thing. The reason that we all react so strongly to what’s happening on the television is because TV, film, and literature – all art really – exists because we see ourselves in it, and it reflects our feelings back to us. We process our own issues, our own grief, our own tragedies by watching similar things happen to fictional characters who we, through becoming engaged in their world, come to care about deeply. We see parts of ourselves in Felicity, and in Oliver. We see our own issues, our own shortcomings, our own traumas, and our own hurts. It’s part of why we all react differently, and have differing views on what happened on screen, because we’re all processing it based on our own unique experiences. TV, film, and literature are ways that we can process and manage our own feelings in a safe environment. Having someone we love betray or lie to us is an experience I’ll bet most of us have had. But it is far easier to rant and rave and cry about Oliver doing it to Felicity than it is to dig into our own stuff. But I Arrow Felicity Cryingdon’t believe it’s unhealthy to rant, rave, and cry about Oliver… just the opposite. I think that in expressing our anger about Oliver, and our fears and frustrations and hurt for the future of Olicity, we’re processing and healing some of our own fears, frustrations, and hurts. As long as you’re not completely avoiding your own feelings, and can recognize how they enter into your feelings about your fandoms, I think fangirling/fanboying can be an amazing outlet and a great coping skill.

Observation Number 3:

The third thing that I think is fantastic is how much fandom was there for each other after this episode. The Arrow fandom is a bit different than other fandoms I’ve been a part of, in that there is a lot of bickering and negativity on a day to day basis that I’m just unaccustomed to. However, with that said, when the emotional shit hit Arrow Olicity Hugthe Olicity fan, on my timeline at least, the negativity towards each other diminished, and the fandom was able to pull together and aim those feelings of negativity towards the characters and the show, while supporting each other. I saw fandom support groups all over social Arrow Oliggle Hugmedia, and was part of several myself. People were struggling with their own emotions from the show, but were huddled in groups processing it together. People within the fandom that were long friends, and people who didn’t know each other well at all… were all coming together to talk, to process, to grieve, to cry… and to support each other. Arrow Roy Thea HugObviously there are exceptions to every rule, but I was impressed by the fandom’s ability to support each other last night, and even today. My hope is that we can at some point reach the ability to support each other and be kind to our writers and producers (even Arrow Lance Sara Hugin our fury and disagreement), but I’m still encouraged by what I saw last night and today. And what I saw was a fandom that was hurt, upset, and angry but that could help support each other, help each other process, and take turns helping each other heal and keep the faith.

The Thrilling Conclusion:

While the rest of the world may mock us, our passion, and our excitement for a “silly” television show, what I saw last night was inspiring. What I saw were people who were emotionally invested in the health of a relationship they love. What I saw were people open to discussion and processing of feeling, and open to helping others process and deal with their emotions as well. What I saw was a community of people having strong feelings, who banded together to help and to heal. Set within the context of the bigger picture of the challenges our world faces, the negativity that we face, and the divisiveness… Maybe fandom is just one small piece of the world, and Arrow is just one small piece of that small piece… but I am once again inspired by the power of fandom, and honored to be a part of it.

Author’s Note: I’ve been so thrilled to read all of the positive reactions people have had to this article. I’ve loved hearing how this has helped people view their attachment to these characters in a different light, and give a sense of validation for those feelings. Hearing that so many of you can relate to the feelings described in this article further highlights that while the characters and stories may be fictional, the feelings they invoke in us are very real, as are the relationships we form within the fandom as a way to enjoy, process and cope with those feelings.

As I am writing this at 7:40pm EST on 12/9, I am sending out a collective pre-mid-season-finale hug to the entire Arrow fandom! Here’s hoping we can again pull together to help ourselves process and heal from what is likely to be a new wave of emotional trauma. 😉 Please cope (and drink) responsibly!

Hugs and Love…





Filed under Fangirling, Mental Health, Uncategorized