Mental-health memoirs are my guilty-pleasure reading for 5 reasons:
Reason 1: They’re relatable. It’s comforting if you have a mental illness (or even if you just get moody sometimes) to know that someone else has had the same experiences.
Reason 2: They provide insights into how to deal with mental illness. You get to follow the protagonist as they grapple with their issues and see where they went wrong and what helped them get better.
Reason 3: They have the most interesting, unique, and mysterious side characters (I will never forget the chicken lady from Girl, Interrupted… *shudder*).
Reason 4: By their very nature they require the writer to dig deep, be honest, and hold nothing back, and consequently by the end you feel like you know the protagonist almost as well as you know yourself.
Reason 5: Schadenfreude – the pleasure of knowing that someone else has it worse than you.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is not technically a memoir, although Ned Vizzini based it on his experience in a short-term-stay mental hospital when he was twenty-three years old. The book tells the story of a fictional teenage protagonist, Craig Gilner, who is fifteen years old and in his freshman year at a high-pressure pre-professional high school. He stops being able to eat, and is put on medication for depression. One day, he decides he’s cured, stops taking his medication, and suffers a mental breakdown. He sees a self-help book on his mother’s bookshelf and following its advice, he decides to check himself in to a hospital. While in the hospital, he makes some friends, rediscovers art, loses one girl and gains another, and settles on a new plan for his life moving forward.
Craig is the type of person who tries to appear cool to compensate for an inner storm of anxiety. He studies extremely hard to get into a school that turns out to require too much of him. Almost every day he comes home, looks at his assignments, gives up, and goes to his friend Aaron’s house to smoke weed and watch movies. He scoots by in school, doing his homework on the morning train, but he’s just barely getting by and he feels dwarfed by the accomplishments of his classmates.
Most of Craig’s problems are caused by pressure to succeed, or more accurately, pressure not to fail:
“[I missed a text from my teacher about extra credit] which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which meant I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing—homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.”
This articulates the basic fear that’s at the root of every American student’s anxiety about school. There’s the sense that you’re constantly on the edge of a cliff. If you miss an assignment, if you get too few grade points, if you give too many wrong answers, you’ll fall off that cliff and your life will be a complete failure. This is especially hard for gifted students, who were told when they were young that they are special and expected to achieve great things, so if they fail then their non-accomplishment is doubly disappointing because of how far they have to fall in everyone’s expectations. This part of Craig’s anxiety is based on external factors: society’s expectations and the hard truth that if you don’t find a paying job as an adult you will either become a parasite or you will die (note: Craig does realize later that his parents will take care of him if he is unsuccessful, and that a lot of people in the mental ward don’t have that luxury, and he feels appreciative and blah blah blah… but he is going to have to face that uncertainty eventually).
The other element of Craig’s issues with school is that he focuses so hard on school that he doesn’t have energy left for anything else. The good thing about being in school is that the parameters of success are easily discernable: do as well as possible. The bad thing about school is that the parameters of success are rigid. Being in high school makes you feel like being a blinkered racehorse: it seems like the way to achieve the most success is to pour all your energy into the task at hand. The only times Craig takes breaks from his schoolwork are to procrastinate. This part of Craig’s problems could be managed – for example, if Craig took intentional breaks it might help him focus.
(this is a big tangent so I’m going to make it pink)
However, intentional breaks are tricky to implement. Say you study for 45 minutes and then take a break for 15. What can you do in 15 minutes? You can doodle, eat a snack, sing or dance to three songs, or go have a conversation with someone in your house… For me, small tasks like dishes always seem to fall into those 15-minute holes, but dishes are still work and I think it would be better to do something fun… It might be good to have a list of break activities on hand so you have a couple of ideas handy for when you need a study break. Alternatively, you could study for an hour and then do 30 minute breaks, which would be long enough to take a walk or watch a show… you could think of what break activity you want to do, and then balance it out with a proportional time period of studying.
Another strategy Craig could use would be to be aware of when he’s spacing out or getting distracted. Tim Urban’s TED talk on procrastination characterizes procrastination activities as a “dark playground” where your “instant gratification monkey” takes the wheel and makes you think you’re enjoying yourself when deep down you’re stressing out because you’re not getting anything done. I think that acknowledging that the pleasure you feel when procrastinating is false pleasure is a good way to get motivated to break the habit.
Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about the Pavlok which is a wristband that can automatically shock you when you’re spending too much time on Facebook (a trackable activity) or manually shock you by pressing the button. The Pavok is $170 but you can simulate the same effect by wearing a rubber band or hair elastic and snapping it on your wrist when you’re procrastinating.
I do the hair elastic method whenever I remember (sadly, not very often!) and it does seem to make you pause before engaging in that behavior because you have pain as well as pleasure associated with the activity. Most of the habits we want to stop (procrastinating, eating sugar, hair-pulling, etc) we are engaged in when our focus is limited to the present moment. Physical pain works as a deterrent because it’s also in the present moment, it’s not some abstract future benefit. Stopping a habit for future benefits alone takes a lot of energy and willpower, stopping a habit because it hurts right now doesn’t require as much mental energy.
The problem with the hair elastic is that it gets wet, and then I take it off and don’t remember to put it back on. I wonder if I could make some kind of functional jewelry that I could use to punish myself for bad behavior (that sounds so wrong… haha). Maybe like a spike bracelet worn inside out, or a ring that you squeeze in the middle and little teeth prick into your finger.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ways to control impulsive behavior. I have trichotillomania (hair-pulling) which is literally an “impulse control disorder”, so I can’t deny that I have a problem with impulse control. It kind of clicked for me that impulse control was something that was keeping me from being successful in my life when I read this article in the New York Times about how the three things that determine success, especially for immigrants and outsider groups, are 1. A superiority complex (got that) 2. A deep sense of inferiority (check) and 3. Impulse control (DOH.)
Thus the interest in impulse control, and the new motto on my desk:
(end of tangent)
Craig is only in Six North for six days, so the scope of this novel is pretty compressed compared to Girl, Interrupted, where Susanna Kaysen is in the facility for 18 months. This causes the book to feel almost light for its subject matter. Craig’s interactions with the other patients are amusing, but they don’t approach the depth of the characters in Girl, Interrupted. Many of the characters are described with merely a description of their physical appearance and a general statement about their psychological illness. Some characters are still unique and memorable enough despite this. The patient named Jimmy has a real presence, even though his vocabulary is limited to the phrases: “It’ll come to ya!” and “How sweet it is!” Humble is a fun mentor figure and the love interests, Nia and Noelle, are pretty well-fleshed-out. Ned Vizzini does well by his female characters, which is a plus.
Of course the main character, Craig, is the one we get to know the best, and he’s very believable. He has a lot of unique strengths (map-making, caring for people, quick thinking) and weaknesses (too concerned what others think about him). The movie version of It’s Kind of a Funny Story focuses on Craig’s relationship with Bobby, but when I read the book I didn’t think Bobby was a central character. Craig lent Bobby his dress shirt, but that was about it.
The characters of Jennifer/Charles and Ebony seemed a little like token transvestite and black characters. Jennifer/Charles’s gender is played for laughs, with him/her hitting on Craig and then gleefully being outed by the rest of the ward. Three things I didn’t like about that: trans people being portrayed as promiscuous, gender nonconformity being treated like a joke, and the way Jennifer/Charles went from trying to pass as female to “admitting” he’s male. All of his/her actions, while I could kind of imagine someone doing them, seem more likely the result of how a cisgender writer would imagine transgender people. There’s a bit of an empathy gap there. Ebony isn’t too annoying of a character, but her minor role and appearance (fat black woman with velvet pants) make her feel like a cardboard stereotype.
Personally, I thought the first part before Craig goes to Six North was the strongest part. I liked all of the metaphors Vizzini used to describe Craig’s mental state, like the Anchors and Tentacles and the drill sergeant in Craig’s head. I also have a “drill sergeant” voice in my head that tells me to do important tasks I don’t feel like doing I don’t want to or to keep it together when I’m not feeling good, so I related really well to that part. It was nice to know that somebody else does the same thing. Craig’s motivations and fears were realistic and very well-written. His recovery in the hospital was a little less believable. Everybody at the ward seemed to get along perfectly, he finds a cute girl who wants to date him, lots of other patients are willing to be his friends and mentors. It rang a little hollow and the lack of conflict got boring at some points. He says that what saved him, what will be a new Anchor, is his art, which is drawing maps of cities which represent people’s minds. It’s a quaint idea, but I doubt that it will be enough to solve his problems once he leaves the hospital.
I don’t know if Craig ultimately learned much while he was in the hospital… he got a respite from his school life to get his nerves back, and he decided to change schools which will help a little (he’s planning to go to art school instead of preprofessional school, which is probably just as much pressure, but shhh he doesn’t know that yet…). At the most, Craig gained some perspective and was made more aware of his privilege, which is a good thing. Craig’s problem of needing external validation was never really breached, though, and I think that is probably the root of his problems. He tries so hard to be cool and to get other people to like him but he’s never really at peace with himself. Hopefully returning to his art, will be the first step in his endeavor to learn about and appreciate himself.