Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's Kind of a Funny Story

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007)

All Craig Gilner wants is to gain entrance to the Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan, thus ensuring that he'll then get into the right college, then get the right job. He's got it all planned out. But after getting into the school, everything goes a bit crazy until one night Craig finds himself calling a suicide hotline and checking himself into a local hospital. This was not part of the plan. A teenager in the adult psychiatric unit of a local hospital, Craig meets a variety of interesting characters and starts trying to work his way back out of his depression.

In addition to having depression, Craig placed a lot of pressure on himself to excel which led to "cycling" - an internal monologue in which not doing well on a test would lead to failing school, not getting into a good college, not getting a good job, and ultimately being homeless. In the psych ward, he met people who were homeless, who didn't have families to fall back on, and this helped Craig maintain some perspective on his life. If they could pull themselves up and go on and improve their life situations, then surely he could.

There are few young adult books that tackle mental illness head-on and I appreciated the straightforward honesty of this story. Craig wasn't as screwed up as he could have been, his family not as dysfunctional, and the story not as dramatic, and this lent believability to his story. In fact, it's based on the author's own experience in a psychiatric ward and he wrote the book almost immediately afterward. Unlike in many YA books, our protagonist had a great family, a therapist he liked, and supportive parents. I suppose it doesn't add to the narrative tension but I found it a welcome change. This novel sends a clear message that help and support is available and that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But not in a way that is too messagey, or that interrupts the narrative flow.

One of my favorite parts of the story was an exercise that a counselor walked Craig through when he called the suicide hotline. The counselor, Keith, says it's a five-step exercise for managing anxiety and tells Craig to begin by picking any event that he had experienced. Craig picks "ate pizza last week." Keith says to then record how he felt. Then he goes to prompt Craig to record anything about the event that he regrets or felt that he should have done better, at which Craig realizes he picked the wrong sort of event and furiously erases his work and picks something else. I loved this because I've participated in many exercises where you pick a situation and build off it, and I always feel like I began with the wrong thing. If it's in a conference session or something similar, the presenter always has a carefully crafted example that works, but mine never do. Same thing with working through the activities in What Color Is Your Parachute? in which a bad choice could lead one down the wrong career path. I felt so validated reading this scene.

Another way in which I related a bit to Craig was when he was given a menu to fill out for hospital meals. It was so simple, and Craig wished that everything in life was like this: you're given a set of choices, you check off what you want, and you're taken care of. He concluded from this that he wanted to be in preschool. He's not even an adult, yet he's already feeling the burden of all the choices and tasks one must complete just to get through daily life. I feel your pain, Craig.

True to the title, it was kind of a funny story. Craig's voice was not only honest and straightforward, but fairly light and humorous. He was self-aware and able to step outside of his own head enough to wittily observe his surroundings and his new friends. He was also very compassionate and selfless, helping out his fellow patients as much as he could. I liked Craig a whole lot. Although he will likely struggle with depression his whole life (I say as though Craig Gilner is real), I feel confident that he'll be able to manage it enough to have the fulfilling sort of life that he deserves.

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