Film / TVHealth

real-life shadow monsters: ‘stranger things’ and my experience with depression as a black woman

November 21, 2017
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By Taylor Steele / AFROPUNK contributor


Netflix’s hit Stranger Things has quickly become a cult classic. The show, which takes place in a boring, 1980s Indiana suburb, serves magical realism and horror in an engrossing tale against a backsplash of that decade’s pop-culture phenomena. Through its many references, though, Stranger Things manages to speak to more a horror that is all-too real for me.

The first hit season of Stranger Things followed a motley crew of teenagers — Will, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven — as they battled the darkness of an alternate dimension called the Upside Down, a dark and dilapidated world. The plot centered on Will being kidnapped by a creature we’d later learn to call the Shadow Monster. By season’s end, with Will rescued, all ties to the Upside Down seemed to be severed.

They were not. And Season 2 does more than entertain and frighten me. Together, the Upside Down, the Shadow Monster and the influence they exert on the show’s characters, paint a metaphorically accurate depiction of not only the lasting effects of mental illness, but how it interacts with a Black woman’s body. How it interacts with mine.

The Shadow Monster, a black, skyscraping figure with long spidery legs and mist composition, controls the Upside Down with the help of Demogorgons, its reptilian-esque killer minions. The monster’s power lies in its ability to infiltrate Will’s mind. Though Will was brought safely home, the Shadow Monster has infected him with a virus. His most pronounced symptom is “now memories,” inadvertently recalled images that occur in the present. They are visions of the Upside Down, of the monster rooting itself through the town’s fields to create a world for its followers to thrive in. Season 2 centers on the kids’ attempt to destroy the monster before it destroys Will.

If my depression existed outside of me, it would be a Shadow Monster. My depression is an intangible, invisible, looming beast whose power adversely affects me, changes the way I see the world, how and when I feel pain. Its Demogorgons are my own harmful and masochistic behaviors. Depression tries daily to unmake me, forcing me to become a vessel and conduit for its profound ache, simultaneously holding it in and unleashing it out into the world.

The connection between Will  and the Shadow Monster is frighteningly intimate. Infected with the monster’s virus, Will’s plan to get it out of his mind and body is to tell it to go away. Will does this on the advice of his mother’s boyfriend, who once rid himself of a recurring nightmare figure by challenging it directly.  

Unfortunately, it is advice working under the pretense that all make-believe villains can be destroyed by being confronted; another way of saying that it’s all just in our heads. That’s the thing about illnesses that really do live in one’s head, they are not make-believe and cannot be confronted by a few simple, spiteful words. If that were true, I’d have cursed my depression to hell by now.

When I was a child, I told my parents that I suspected I was mentally ill, but they did not believe me. They thought that I was making it up, that I could get rid of my depression by merely willing it away. It is often like this in Black households, who — in part, due to a justified skepticism of an anti-Black medical industry — often don’t regard depression as real, dismissing it as sadness, over-sensitivity or laziness, leaving those who suffer to self-medicate, with drugs and alcohol, and stay silent. (Or, pray yourself out of.) But options that don’t correct chemical imbalances only beg for more intervention.

Once, my father told me not to take medication, but spend more time with family, and “decide” to let my sadness go — as if it were a choice to feel like an invalid. But it is never enough to tell our enemies to disappear, because when you’re sick, the frightening thoughts and visions do not just go away.

Will learns this the hard way. The Shadow Monster bombards him with its mist, forcing itself into the boy’s mouth, eyes, ears, nose and surrounding his body. When I think about my depression, I imagine it as just such a force, with all five of my senses succumbing to it. Mental illness changes how food tastes (and whether I eat it at all), how I interact with light (choosing darkness), and how I hear others (misunderstanding and misinterpreting everyone around me). My perception mutates to paranoia and indifference. My sense of smell turns acute, and touch causes numbness, overstimulation, and makes my body feel too heavy to move.

Will’s sense of touch seems most deeply impacted. Whatever the Shadow Monster feels, Will feels too. Whatever conditions the Shadow Monster needs to live, so does Will. When the monster’s poisonous roots are attacked with fire, Will feels the burning throughout his body. Once the assault on the monster ends, so does Will’s pain.

When my friends try to attack my depression head-on, the struggle hurts me in the process. My depression forces dependency on me, making it known that I am nothing without it. That, because it is literally part of my body, I might die with it gone. So, when one of my friends invited me to the movies to see a film I had been ranting about wanting to see, she was met with protests. She was light in an unlit room my eyes had already adjusted to, whose entrance painfully blinded me. I stayed home, shifting between fits of uncontrollable crying and an inability to do so at all. I told her I couldn’t be around people because I was too anxious, wanted to die, and would inevitably bring her down. This is often my reasoning for being alone, which makes me feel guilty and lonely, pushing me further into depression and away from potential happiness. My friends’ persistence, though, teaches me that my chemical imbalance is simply well-versed in the art of dangerous deceptions.

Because it can see through Will’s eyes, the Shadow Monster spies on the boy, tracking him so he can’t fight back. My depression often forces me to spy on myself, too, so that I can’t resist it. When I hear a happy song, eat my favorite meal, play my guitar, or write a poem, it tells me there’s no point to any of it because it will always be a part of me. It says, “happiness isn’t real”; or, that it’s real, but far too fleeting to rely on. This is easy to believe when I am in the throws of my depression,when it sucks me in into a seemingly bottomless chasm. My depression tells me that I can rely only on it.

My longest depressive episode lasted three months. I wanted to die every moment of it, but still showed up to work daily, despite myself. It is hard not to internalize the myth of the Strong Black Woman, propagating the un-human-ness of Black Women by placing us on a pedestal where nothing can stop us, and therefore we don’t have to stop for anything. We are deemed so strong we can take any pain without faltering. So, I attempt the climb. It is hard to see Black death and not feel the pressure to remain resilient and alive — even when the person you have to fight in order to live is yourself. Being Black and mentally ill is to face one more thing that aims to kill you. That episode finished its run but returned months later. So, I understand Will’s fatigue after believing he was done with the Upside Down and its malevolence at the end of Stranger Things’ first season.

Just as the Upside Down discolors and morphs reality, my depression forces me to gaze at the world through its eyes. Others can see and interact with Will and I, but only we, the carriers of this darkness, are forced to see or engage it. It is such an isolating experience. To see what others can’t.

My world remains recognizable, just coated in different textures, and I am alone in it. What was once my home becomes the badlands. During an episode, everything is something I can’t escape. My “now memories” are daydreams where I can’t move — or stir only to enact self-harm. Suicidal thoughts plague my mind until I fall asleep, or choose not to open my eyes at all. Let sleep be release enough.

Calling the Shadow Monster’s control of Will’s body a “virus” acknowledges that this corrupting entity within him as a sickness. Its debilitating symptoms — fatigue, body aches, nausea, changes in appetite — can be fatal. However, many don’t believe that depression is an illness. If Will’s friends refused to see the Shadow Monster as viral, Will would have died. If people continued to refuse to see my illness as real, I would be dead.

For many years, my parents disregarded my depression, until a therapist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. Within weeks of taking my first medication, I began to see more clearly. At the time, I was suicidal, and Lithium helped clear the fog in my head. I wanted to live for the first time in a long time.

The major difference between Will’s scripted Shadow Monster and my real one, is the hope of remedy. Will’s friends fever the virus out of him, turning the room into an exaggerated sauna, forcing it from his body, every trace of it gone. My depression, on the other hand, can be managed, but not cured. I take daily drug cocktails to keep myself alive. When they work at peak efficiency, I definitely feel as though depression has left my body.

However, that will never be comprehensively true.

I have a chemical imbalance that requires constant monitoring, care, and lifestyle changes. The most important additions to my life have been journaling and therapy. Giving myself space to be free and honest about my pain has helped me recognize and adjust my behaviors and thought patterns, allowing me to be my fullest human self. I get to laugh at my monsters because I continue to survive them.

The writers of Stranger Things probably did not have depression in mind when they wrote the Shadow Monster into existence. How apt, though, that it makes me see it everywhere. The final image of Stranger Things 2 that we are left with is that of the Upside Down and the Shadow Monster. I have learned the importance of anticipation, of knowing when a fight isn’t over yet, so this callback did not surprise or scare me. Still, just because my monster lives does not mean I don’t get to enjoy the lengthy spaces between episodes. Between one season and the next. No matter what happens in this show, the Shadow Monster will always have a fighter to contend with.