The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things intrigued me with the fantastically ’80s splash screen on the Netflix series page and totally hooked me with the title sequence. And then my wife and I watched the entire, too-short eight-episode series in, oh, a weekend. I reveled in the plethora of cinematic and musical nods to the decade of my youth, in the gripping suspense, and in the (largely) three-dimensional characters. I was horrifyingly entranced by the fantastic monster design. I became emotionally invested in the characters, in their struggles, failures, and successes. It was a darn fine weekend, to be honest. But the series gave me one thing I didn’t expect: A poignant reminder of what it was like to grow up with a mother who has borderline personality disorder.
A brief warning for those of you who have yet to delve into Stranger Things: There will be spoilers in this article. Feel free to leave now and return in approximately eight hours after you’ve watched the series.
Ready? Okay. (And now that you’ve watched it, you should check out WWAC’s August newsletter for some recommendations of how to fill that hole in your heart.)
Allow me to set the stage: It’s 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana, your stereotypical small, Midwestern town. The last time anything untoward happened there was decades ago. And then, middle-schooler Will Byers disappears one November evening after a day spent playing Dungeons & Dragons with his three nerdy friends—Mike, Dustin, and Luke. What follows is a many-pronged quest to find Will. His three friends stumble across a mysterious girl, Eleven, who has psychic powers and is somehow connected to a scary government project on the edge of town. Will’s older brother, Jonathan, teams up with schoolmate Nancy to track down the monster they believe stole both Will and Nancy’s friend Barb. Local sheriff Jim Hopper conducts his own investigations, tough guy style. And then there’s Will’s mother, Joyce, who believes what no one else does: That Will is alive and nearby, even if no one can see him.
It turns out that Will is in what they come to call the “Upside Down,” a dark, fungus-infested mirror version of our own reality. He was taken there by a Guillermo del Toro-esque bipedal monster with way too many teeth (seriously, kudos to the creature designers) that continues to break into our world to hunt for new prey, like poor Barb. Folks in our world can track activity in the Upside Down through electrical fluctuations, a device which is used to great dramatic effect. Naturally, the government spooks got the town into this trouble through their abusive misuse of Eleven, and they want to keep the Upside Down a secret.
Joyce Byers, played by the fantastic Winona Ryder, is a single mother raising two sons, and the loss of one of them becomes her galvanizing purpose. Over on Vox, writer Todd VanDerWerff describes Ryder as “playing less of a character and more of a stereotypical harried, worried mother.” He goes on to say that Joyce is “the one character the writers never really get a firm grasp on” and that Ryder’s acting is on-point when Joyce is focused on the “seemingly bonkers” attempts to locate Will, but fails in other scenes by “counting on raw emotion to carry the day.”
I couldn’t disagree more. I found Joyce to be a near perfect, heart-wrenching portrayal of a woman with borderline personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD for short) was first recognized as a diagnosable mental illness in 1980. (Make of that date what you will, but it’s an interesting correlation with Stranger Things.) Hallmarks of the disease include difficulty regulating emotions and thoughts, impulsive behavior, and unstable relationships. One particular characteristic is a deep-seated fear of abandonment, which can often lead to seemingly contradictory behavior. It’s often paired with depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse, and diagnoses of BPD can easily be obscured by a focus on these associated disorders. The disease also occurs twice as often in women as in men.
In her review of Stranger Things for The Ringer, writer Alison Herman nearly says it herself: “A potential stereotype of hysteria becomes an actual portrait of borderline (understandable) madness, ground Ryder’s tread — and tread extremely well — before.” Winona Ryder has played a character with borderline personality disorder before, in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted, for which she was also an executive producer. She’s been rumored to have the disease herself, and although that’s unconfirmed, she has openly discussed her battle with depression and anxiety.
Although Ryder’s portrayal of Joyce certainly influences my interpretation of her, it’s Joyce’s interactions with others that led me to believe she suffers from borderline personality disorder—rather than simply being a mother put through an extremely stressful, horrifyingly supernatural experience.
Throughout the series, Joyce’s mental health is used as a talking point. In the second episode, Sheriff Hopper tells his deputies that Joyce is “one step from falling off the edge.” Deputy Powell replies, “She’s been a few steps for awhile now, hasn’t she?” Jonathan later tells Hopper that Joyce has had anxiety problems in the past, but also tells him that she’ll be okay because she’s tough. Joyce’s ex, the boys’ father, heatedly tells Jonathan, “Your mother is sick,” and says that Jonathan “is going to push her right over the edge.”
To a very real extent, Joyce’s existing mental health challenges are used to undermine her assertion that Will is alive. She is quickly slotted into the “hysterical woman” stereotype and correspondingly discounted by everyone except Hopper, who approaches her with calm reason and a measure of exhaustion, but does not belittle her. (And thankfully, Joyce and Hopper’s relationship is treated throughout as one between equals.) This stereotype is too often used to bolster a protagonist at the expense of the person struggling with mental illness, and I rebelled against seeing it applied to Joyce.
However, I found myself vaguely troubled—read, triggered—by Joyce’s mental state in the first episode, “The Vanishing of Will Byers.” In this flashback scene, Joyce ducks into makeshift castle of sticks and blankets in the forest near their house and sits down next to Will. Joyce flashes two tickets to Poltergeist at Will and explains that she got off work early. Will exclaims, “I thought I wasn’t allowed to see it.” Joyce doesn’t look Will in the eye as she explains that she changed her mind, then shifts to teasing him about getting nightmares, and a swift mother-son bonding scene follows.
It was Joyce’s inconsistency that raised caution flags for me. In her book Understanding the Borderline Mother, Christine Ann Lawson describes someone with the disease as follows: “Like all borderlines, [she] is driven by her need to avoid abandonment. Thus, in her relationships with her children she is likely to secure their attachment through unlimited gratification.”
In the second episode, “The Weirdo on Maple Street,” the first scene after the title sequence left me with a clenched stomach and tears in my eyes. In this scene, Joyce is smoking while sitting at a table piled with papers while Jonathan makes breakfast. As Jonathan brings two plates of Eggos (in this show, what else would they eat for breakfast?) to the table, Joyce startles out of her reverie and warns him to be careful of the “Have You Seen Me?” posters on the table. “I just need you to eat, Mom,” he says, setting down the plates. Joyce mutters, “I can’t eat,” then segues into a list of things to do to deal with Will’s disappearance. She gestures with her hands, cigarette trailing smoke, and has trouble completing sentences. Jonathan says, “I told you, I’ve got it,” indicating they’ve already had this conversation, but Joyce ignores him and continues to repeat herself. Jonathan tries to interrupt her, saying “Mom” over and over again until he breaks through her litany by placing his hand on her arm and raising his voice. “Mom, you can’t get like this,” he says. She apologizes and takes a drag on her cigarette as he rubs her shoulder and tells her it’s okay.
Lawson, again: “…caretaking roles are reversed for children of borderlines whose mothers are chronically upset. Children repress their fear in order to calm their mother.” And there it is. I had been attributing my empathetic reactions to Joyce, in response to her distress at losing her son. But it was Jonathan I was empathizing with. In many ways, Joyce is my mother.
My mother wasn’t diagnosed with borderline personality disorder until I was in my early thirties, after she and my father separated. Throughout my childhood, she was treated for depression and anxiety in various ways, none of which got to the root of the challenges she (and we, her family) faced. I’m the eldest of two, and my role in her life was as her staunch supporter and protector. When she experienced conflict at work, or got in a fight with a friend, I was right there, comforting her and forestalling as many of her emotions as I could.
My mother once called me “the rock” that kept her from hitting bottom—and I believe (then and now) that by “bottom” she meant suicide. While I could do nothing to protect her at work or with adult friends, I often intervened in her relationship with my younger sister and even my father. For years now, we’ve all struggled to untangle the rats’ nest of destructive behavior patterns that we fell into. It’s a work in progress.
This is what I see in Jonathan. His caretaking. As Lawson points out, “Children of borderlines become preoccupied with reading their mother’s mood in order to ward off a possible crisis…” This is exactly what Jonathan does. When he and Joyce are in a room together, he is constantly paying attention to her. When in conversations with others, his body is often turned toward hers. When she begins to ramp up, voice loud and words tumbling over one another, he touches or grabs her shoulder and speaks in a low tone. In one scene, he loses his temper and yells, “Mom, this is not an okay time for you to shut down. We have to deal with this!” Clearly, Jonathan is used to Joyce’s patterns of escalating emotions, and he’s equally familiar with deescalating her.
Joyce shows other signs of borderline behavior. For instance, take her job, where she’s never taken a sick day and works all holidays. Beyond her family’s demonstrated poverty, this could be reflective of borderline tendencies toward martyrdom as an attempt to forestall abandonment or to maintain the good opinions of her peers. (Lawson: “Validation is the antidote for denigration and is the glue that repairs a fragmented self.”) In another instance, Joyce shows the borderline tendency to fly into a rage when she snaps after talking with her ex on the phone and slams the receiver down repeatedly in anger, which causes Jonathan to exclaim and intervene. And, when arguing with her ex (who is a neglectful, selfish father), she displays reviewer VanDerWerff’s “raw emotion,” an outpouring of unregulated emotion typical of someone with borderline personality disorder.
These scenes, along with subtler clues that elicited an emotional reaction from me, are why when I watch Joyce, I see someone struggling with BPD. But here’s the thing I appreciate about Joyce as a character: She’s not weak.
When Joyce picked up the ringing phone and got static, she heard Will’s breathing, and she hung onto that in spite of everyone else’s disbelief. She doggedly pursued methods of communication with Will. She took an ax to her living room wall in an attempt to save him. When she watched a horror movie monster stretch into her reality through the bedroom wall, she ran from the house—but she went right back in.
Joyce is strong. She confronts a monster for her son—but more than that, she confronts herself. She stands up to others, relinquishing any need for approval, and boldly states what she saw, things she herself acknowledges sound “crazy.” As the series progresses, others validate and value her strength. And she does what she sets out to do: she saves Will. (At least for now. The ending of the season leaves little doubt that there’s plenty of strange shit in store for Will and everyone else in season two!) Joyce’s struggles are apparent, but so are her victories.
When I told my mother I was writing this article and asked her how she felt about my discussion of her illness and its effect on me, she said, “I’ve had to work very hard not to feel guilty. But at the time [you were young], I did everything I could. I did everything my doctors told me to do. And now, I know what I’m dealing with, and that I’ll deal with it for the rest of my life. But I’m not ashamed. I’m not ashamed of this disease.”
And that’s why Stranger Things meant so much to me. In it, I saw someone with mental illness who was more than a scapegoat, more than a plot device for someone else’s story. It reminded me of my childhood, but it didn’t tell me to be ashamed. And I hope that others got that message too.