When Your Mind Is an Unreliable Narrator

By Emery LordMay 8, 2016

Here’s what depression and anxiety might tell you: You will always feel this way. This is just how your life is. No one else can relate to this feeling. Therapy or meds may help other people, but they won’t help you. There’s no point.

All lies. All damaging and utterly convincing lies—and very much like being balled up in a dark room. Perhaps you can see the sliver of light beneath the closed door, but you know that door is permanently locked, barricaded shut. You live in darkness now.

Wresting back my health from mental illness was a slow crawl toward the door. It was jiggling the handle, attempting to pick the lock, screaming that I wanted out. Family and friends were waiting to help me out as soon as they knew I was trapped. The whole world was still out there and still mine for the taking. I was never as alone or stuck as I’d wholeheartedly believed.

This perspective shift felt…very familiar. There’s a specific feeling when you see the full picture and realize your seemingly-whole perspective was warped before now.

It’s the feeling of suspecting (and then recognizing) an unreliable narrator.

If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, Lolita, or Wuthering Heights, you may recognize the phrase. It’s used to describe a narrator who isn’t telling you or can’t tell you the whole story. They could be naïve or they could be intentionally withholding information or they could be lying for their purposes. They might even tell you they’re unreliable—the Holden Caulfield approach.

And anxiety? Depression? They’re unreliable narrators. They’re lying—or at least not telling you the whole story. But there are no Holden Caulfields in mental illness; they’re not going to tell you they’re unreliable. But I am!

Let’s break down how you can start to view your depressive or anxious thoughts as an unreliable narrator for the way you’re seeing the world.

So, what evidence might suggest an unreliable narrator?

Most of the other characters seem to have a different perspective.

During the most crippling phase of anxiety, I truly believed it was going to ruin my life. But my mom, my husband, my trusted friends, and my therapist—they all seemed convinced that it was a terrible struggle I was going to get through with treatment and time. (I did not believe them.) ((They were right.)) If every single other proven-trustworthy character tells you the door can be opened, and the narrator says it can’t…whom do you believe?

The narrator has been unreliable in the past.

Maybe you had a terrible bout with depression or anxiety before and found good treatment, but now you’re back in the shadows. When you’re healthy, don’t you think back on dark times like, “Wow, I can’t believe I thought that”? Isn’t it possible that’s what’s happening again?

They share similarities with known unreliable narrators from other books.

What ultimately helped me most? Friends and family who have lived in the dark rooms of unmanaged mental illness…and now are back in the light. That’s my evidence right there—that their anxiety turned out to be an unreliable narrator, so maybe mine is too.

So, you suspect an unreliable narrator is trying to steer your perspective. How does that information even help? How do you get out of the room with the locked door?

Rely on the characters you do trust.

Who are the characters you trust? Your closest friends and family, maybe. A therapist or counselor you click with, someone who makes you feel comfortable and truly listens. Lean on them.

Read other stories.

In other words, reach out to people who know what you’re going through—who have been there. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but you won’t believe the similarities. Things that made you feel so isolated and defeated? Other people have felt them.

Call your unreliable narrator out.

If you have a diagnosis, accept it. When an irrational fear comes raging in, remind yourself: Thinking it doesn’t make it true. I’m thinking it because I have an anxiety disorder. I’m thinking it because I have depression.

Here’s the truth: You’re the protagonist of your life. You decide the supporting cast. You decide which thoughts you give importance to. You make the choices. Those choices can be seeking treatment, relying on trustworthy loved ones, and stepping forward in the darkness toward that closed door. So, shake the handle, scream for help, and break the damn thing down with everything you have left. You belong in the light, and you can get there again. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

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Comments (9)

  1. Sandy

    “break the damn thing down with everything you have left” – this brought tears in my eyes… Thank you for the encouraging words and for sharing such personal experiences

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    1. Bellla

      Love that line too!

      Reply  |  
  2. Debra

    This helped me so much it was here at the right time confirming that I can escape this hell and the demons are liars just like thier father. Ty amen God bless your heart

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  3. Sarah Stevenson

    Thank you so much for this. Wonderful.

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  4. Brandie

    This speaks so much to me. The unreliable narrator is such a great metaphor for the lies your brain tells you. The lies that could ultimately collapse your life. My unreliable narrator is hell bent on destroying things closest to me. Specifically my marriage. My husband has been amazingly supportive. One day I hope to be my own narrator.

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  5. Johnetta

    I hate my life but at least this makes it bearlbae.

    Reply  |  
  6. Willard Carpentier

    Good web site you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to find excellent writing like yours nowadays. I really appreciate people like you! Take care!!

    Reply  |  
  7. Gene

    Here’s a couple of tools I learnt for dealing with anxiety attacks and the horrible thoughts that come with them. This is especially for those of you who sometimes have difficulty arguing them away… (CBT didn’t work for me)

    If you’re in public, find an object to focus on and describe it in detail to yourself in the simplest terms possible. e.g. “that poster on the wall has three colours; red, yellow and white. The poster is square in shape. It has four corners” and so on. Don’t let your description wander away from the physical object in front of you. Just observe and describe. Don’t interpret. Just be immediately mindful of the REAL physical and non-threatening aspects of the space around you. It’s a space that isn’t about to close in on you. It’s a space filled with solid, safe things and you are solid and safe too. Focus on one object at a time. Repeat your observations to yourself as many times as you can. You can switch objects but don’t flit from one object to another too rapidly. Slow and steady, just like your breathing.

    If you are bunched up in terror in your room and scared to even look past your bedclothes because even breathing is terrifying…. think back to last film you saw. Focus on the first scene you remember. How did the first scene become the second scene? Try and follow the story in your mind from scene to scene. You’ll start to puzzle over all the little gaps that appear and your mind will be taken over. You can easily spend thirty or forty minutes trying to remember the details of a film you saw a week ago. That’s thirty or forty minutes where you can sidestep that horrible anxious dread. Your mind might start to wander but keep bringing it back to the film and your strong desire to recreate it. You might even start to remember how you felt when you watched the film a – nothing like your anxious self.

    Good luck. Ride out the storm. It gets better with time.

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  8. Lori

    LOVE this. I’ve said out loud before “Well the evidence shows”…insert unreliable narrator lie here. I’m a burden. My family would be happier without me. Etc. I love the actual tools and suggestions you give! The articles that tell me I’m not alone and I’ll get through this are comfortable (depending on my mindset at the moment), but you call the lies’ bluff and give me some ammunition! Thank you. Keep writing.

    Reply  |  
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