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Derek Hale: Love, PTSD, and Maladaptive Daydreaming

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I've seen quite a few posts on my Tumblr dash talking about the scene at the end of The Divine Move, the finale for season 3b of Teen Wolf. Nearly all of them have been positive about the implications for Sterek, and even those which have not been positive have been focused on the lack of "real" Sterek and how that's queer-baiting. Only one has been focused on what this sequence means for Derek, and although that post understood how sad it was, it didn't explain why.

So let me explain why the finale's dream sequence is not romantic, and it's not queer-baiting either.

Derek Hale is consistently portrayed as a victim of abuse, and as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That's a term bandied about in fandom a fair bit, although there are a lot of survivors in fandom so it's usually treated with respect even when not well understood.

PTSD is commonly portrayed in a particular way in the media -- namely the Rambo version, in which combat vets are hyper-vigilant and twitchy, can't sleep, have anger management issues, disassociate (don't feel their feelings or have a delay in feeling them), can't make intimate connections with people, and so on.

However, this is only one experience of PTSD.

Derek Hale is the most convincingly written depiction of PTSD I've ever seen -- even moreso than Rambo, Dean Winchester or Buffy Summers in seasons 6 and 7. It's realistic because it's not the stereotype, while still fitting all the medical criteria. It's realistic because it's the kind of trauma women and children commonly experience, rather than the macho "war vet" version. I wouldn't be surprised if Davis knows someone with PTSD and knows them very well.

One of the things that breaks my heart most is that Derek's PTSD is becoming worse as the seasons pass. That zen peacefulness he was demonstrating in 3b? Disassociation. The way he seems to just not hold grudges and let go of the bad things people do to him? Avoidance. The lack of furniture or a decent place to live? A disbelief that he will survive long enough for it to matter.

I could go on and on, but I won't -- it's easy enough to Google information from reputable sources if you are interested. The point is, Derek is not getting better. He's getting more traumatised, and his symptoms are getting worse.

In the finale, that "dream sequence" is actually a textbook example (albeit exaggerated for dramatic effect) of maladaptive daydreaming. This has various forms, but it's commonly used as coping mechanism by traumatised children, which then extends into adulthood. In maladaptive daydreams, people escape to an idealised fantasy world where they have some control and support. The fantasy will often include an imaginary best friend who actually listens to, cares for, and guides them. In this kind of daydreaming, the person can immerse themselves, but always has some awareness that it's a dream. In this respect, Derek's fantasy is at the extreme end of the maladaptive dreaming spectrum, as its almost a full break from reality, but not quite.

It's significant that Derek saw an idealised version of Stiles in his dissociative escape fantasy. But it's not romantic. It's so fucking far from romantic.

This is the desperate, lonely fantasy of a mind traumatised beyond endurance; someone needing a mental escape hatch in order to survive what they are experiencing, and reaching out for anything at all that will give comfort, without leaving them completely unaware of what's going on around them. Think for a moment about how empty of comfort Derek's life is that this is his escape fantasy. A somewhat sympathetic conversation with someone not actively trying to hurt him, in a cold, impersonal room. He's so fucking traumatised, he can't even imagine a fucking cuddle or a rescue for the few minutes the fantasy allows him to escape/process what's actually happening. That would be too unbelievable and break the fantasy too soon.

As Teen Wolf is a fantasy-genre show, it's possible that Stiles is somehow actually taking part in the dream Derek's having. But whether that's the case or not, what's being depicted is a fictionalised version of a serious psychological condition.

I know we're all hungry for Sterek. I get it, believe me I do. But this? Is not the romance you're looking for.

This is exactly what I was predicting when I said any Sterek moments in the finale would be used to torture Derek emotionally. Stiles is an illusion of safety -- safety Derek doesn't have in reality in any sense -- and a dream/wish for love which Kate will use against him if she gets any inkling of it.

The only good thing which can be said about this in terms of Sterek is that it's not queer-baiting. Derek Hale is in love with the Stiles inside his head -- dream!Stiles is his touchstone, his everything. He probably doesn't even realise how much he's come to rely on the happy memory of imaginary Stiles to help him through each day. He touches in with that day-dream world whenever he's anxious, whenever things are out of control. A dozen times a day. A hundred. This is why he has been searching so desperately for real!Stiles all season, and it's narratively why Derek couldn't be allowed to find him.

It's this day-dream of dream!Stiles that allows Derek to appear zen. It may be an imaginary relationship, but the feelings are real, intense and intimate to Derek. Make no mistake, he loves dream!Stiles and needs that touchstone to live. That is not hyperbole. A coping mechanism like that is what keeps someone living. Take it away, and they better have help or they will die.

Even if the relationship never exists outside of Derek's head and is never reciprocated by real!Stiles, Derek is in love with dream!Stiles (quite possibly asexually, given the shape of Derek's trauma). That's now canon.

But look at the cost. If you have any understanding of PTSD, this is the saddest moment we've ever seen in Derek's arc. Think about that for a minute, because I'm not exaggerating. The saddest, most traumatised moment we've seen.

This is the most realistic depiction of PTSD I've ever seen on TV.

It's not romantic.

Derek is in love with Stiles. It's canon. It's not romantic.