Saturday 7 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned VizziniIt's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (Gift) - Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life - which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan's Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.

Craig's suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.

Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.
From Goodreads.

Trigger warning: Suicide attempt and discussion of suicide.

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is a book I've wanted to read for quite a long time now. And while it was enjoyable, I kind of have mixed feelings.

It follows Craig, who has depression and anxiety due to the stressful workload at his high school for high-achievers. He can't eat, and he can't sleep. His thoughts cycle out of control, and sometimes, the only way to stop it all is to just climb into bed. One day, it becomes too much, and he plans to kill himself. Except, when it comes to it, he finds there's a part of himself that still wants to live. He calls the suicide hotline, follows their advice, and goes to the hospital, not realising he's admitting himself for at least a five night stay.

I really enjoyed It's Kind of a Funny Story; as long as it is, it's actually a pretty quick read, and it's amusing fairly often. It's an #OwnVoices novel inspired by Vizzini's five night stay in an adult psychiatric ward he started writing seven days after he left. However, I felt when it came to describing depression and anxiety, it was kind of lacking. I loved how he described Craig's difficulties with eating as a man in his stomach who was pulling on a rope that would tighten his throat, and would cause him to throw up, and I loved how he described his cycling thoughts. But when it comes to how depression and anxiety actually felt, I don't feel it does that great a job. If I hadn't lived with people with depression, if I hadn't read any other YA books that deal with depression, and if I didn't have anxiety myself, from It's Kind of a Funny Story, I would have assumed they were both just about stress. While stress can trigger and worsen depression and anxiety, you can have issues with stress without having a mental illness, and I don't think this book differentiated between the two. I don't know, really, how it all felt to Craig; I know his schooling was becoming too much, most things were becoming too much, and he wanted to die, but that is what we're told. How it feels to him, we don't get much description of. My worry is that, if someone who knows nothing about mental illness reads this book, they think it's all just stress, and have the opinion that everyone deals with stress, and you just have to get on with it. I worry this book doesn't help with the stigma surrounding mental illness, and will exacerbate the idea that people with mental illness should just "pull themselves together". At the same time, it was published in 2006 (written in 27 days from 10th December 2004 to 6th January 2005) and so is probably one of the first YA books to deal with mental illness in this way - it's probably groundbreaking, but also maybe of it's time? And it has helped so many people, so perhaps I'm just expecting too much. It's also definitely meant to be a funny book, so maybe it would have been difficult to make it as funny with describing the experiences of feeling the effects of depression and anxiety, maybe? I don't know, but I do feel it was a little lacking.

Even so, I did find this quite an emotional read, especially the ending, knowing that Vizzini died by suicide. An LA Times article on Vizzini's death quotes him as saying that It's Kind of a Funny Story was "85% based on my real life," and the book ends so hopefully. Craig isn't "cured" of his mental illnesses, but he's no longer suicidal, and has such a positive outlook on his life for the future, now he's made some changes to his life that will make it easier to cope with his illnesses. Knowing Vizzini wrote this book soon after coming out of hospital for the same reasons Craig was in hospital, it's not difficult to imagine how Craig felt at the end was how Vizzini felt on coming out of hospital. In an article in the New York Times about his death, Vizzini was quoted to have said in an interview on New York Methodist Hospital's website, about his stay, "With my life stripped of everything but the absolute essentials, I got my appetite back, and through individual and group counseling, medication management, therapeutic activities on the unit, sincere care from the people who worked there, and some very eye-opening conversations with my fellow patients, I made it." And he went on to talk to students openly about his struggles, urging them to recognise the signs of depression. And yet, nine years after going into hospital, he didn't seek help again. Knowing all this makes reading It's Kind of a Funny Story so terribly, terribly sad.

There were a couple of other issues I had with the book. One character outs another as being trans by holding up a sign at a window saying, "Beware of penis," (p216) when Craig is chatting to this girl he finds hot, to then start to freak out and look at her trousers to try and see if he can see any signs. I'm also not sure whether Jennifer/Charlie - as the character is called both - was written well, either. It made me a little uncomfortable. And at the very end, Craig describes skipping as "gay", which is just unnecessary.

It's Kind of a Funny Story has obviously helped people in all the years it's been out, and it is a funny, amusing read, but I do think stories about mental illness have moved forward now, so that we have books that better describe the feelings of mental illness. And enjoyable read, but I do think there are better. Even so, still a book that will stick with me for a long time, considering how Vizzini's own story ended.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 1st May 2007
Publisher: Miramax

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