Mental Illness and the Young Adult Novel

it's kind of a funny story cover

Have you ever been reading a book, and had a narrator or a character describe yourself to yourself?

I don’t believe that, for a book to be good and worth reading, it must have characters that you can relate to, that you can see yourself directly reflected in. Arguably, fiction’s greatest gift – both to people individually, and to people (or society) as a whole – is the access it can grant us to thoughts, feelings, and experiences – to lives, essentially – that are utterly alien to our own.

But still. When you find a narrator or a character that seems to be reaching into your brain and slapping your thoughts down on the pages, when you see your feelings and experiences mirrored so truthfully in a book, it’s an amazing, magical thing.

I recently experienced this while reading Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But before I get into that, I feel like I should say something about why I’m only reading this book – often lauded as one of the best young adult novels of all time – now.

For years, all I knew about this book was that it was about a boy’s troubles with anxiety and depression, and this much I’d only gleaned from a preview I once saw for the movie adaptation. Now, there are lots of books that fit this description (minus the movie part), and I have read a lot of them. Such books make up a substantial subgenre of the YA book world. There’s even a section on Amazon dedicated to it – it’s called “Depression & Mental Illness,” and currently, at 9:21 a.m. on Thursday, February 25th, 2016, there are 487 titles listed. (There are separate sections for “Emotions & Feelings,” with 939 titles; “Physical & Emotional Abuse,” with 489 titles; “Self Esteem & Reliance,” with 1,293 titles; “Self Mutilation,” with 55 titles; “Sexual Abuse,” with 258 titles; and “Suicide,” with 252 titles.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled such books exist. They can provide solace and understanding, can foster discussion, honesty, hope, and resilience. They can even, in certain cases, save lives. And many of these books, separate from the good they do by tackling difficult issues and situations, are simply exquisitely crafted works of art, and worth reading for this alone.

But some of them . . . well, they’re bad. And those ones upset me. Those ones scare me. Because as much good as a good book can do – the solace, the understanding, the hope – not-so-good ones can do not-so-good things. Someone looking for understanding can end up even more confused, someone searching for solace can be left feeling more isolated than ever. This, of course, is all subjective. A novel I call “bad” might be somebody else’s all-time favorite. But having been a teen and then young adult who struggled with anxiety and depression, and now being an adult who writes for teens and young adults and who, also, still deals with anxiety and depression (though now much more capably), I take these sorts of books fairly seriously. Novels don’t have a duty to do anything but tell a good story. But if the novelist is going to write a story about something like depression or suicide or abuse, they have a duty to do their darnedest to get it right, and frankly, it sometimes seems that authors simply choose “hot” or “controversial” topics and blast off a few hundred pages without putting in the necessary time and effort to do their story the justice it deserves.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story isn’t like that at all. For me, it does everything right. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that the novel was written in a month-long burst immediately after Ned Vizzini had a set of experiences very similar to the ones his narrator/protagonist endures. But just as much, if not more so, the book’s greatness comes from Vizzini’s writing.

In terms of form, the story’s structure and shape, the novel isn’t exactly revolutionary. For me, the greatness comes from Vizzini’s painstakingly honest and vivid depiction of anxiety and depression, especially the varieties that commonly assail teens and young adults.

Like I said above, this is all subjective. Someone else – and perhaps someone suffering from anxiety and depression – may read this book and think it terrible. But I defy anyone who’s read it to claim that Vizzini didn’t sit there and do his darnedest to get it right, to articulate his character’s thoughts and feelings and capture his experiences as accurately as he possibly could.

All of which is to say that I understand now why this book is lauded like it is, I know why, when you visit that “Depression & Mental Illness” section on Amazon, it’s the second title to appear. And I know, too, that while I still believe my past behavior justified, there was really no reason for me avoid the novel for fear of it being one of the “bad,” or not right, ones.

Ned Vizzini spent only 32 years on this planet, but in that time, he left us several little gifts, It’s Kind of a Funny Story included. Whether you yourself suffer from anxiety and depression, know someone who does, or know absolutely nothing about either, it’s a book worth reading. It’s one of those novels that does what, in many ways, only novels can. In giving us such immersive access to a life other than our own, we leave the book changed, and so return to our own lives both thinking and feeling in broader, sharper, truer ways.

. . .

Below are a handful of those breath-snatching passages from It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the ones that made me feel like I was reading about myself. The first comes during a conversation between Craig, our narrator/protagonist, and one of the nurses at the psychiatric care facility he kind of accidentally checks himself into . . .

“As you know, we have certain activities on the floor.”

“Right.”

“On your first day you are excused from activities, but after that you are expected to attend on a daily basis.”

“Okay.”

“That means you start today. This is an opportunity for you to explore your interests. So I ask you: what are your hobbies?”

Bad question, Monica.

“I don’t have any.”

“Aha. None at all?”

“No.”

I work, Monica, and I think about work, and I freak out about work, and I think about how much I think about work, and I freak out about how much I think about how much I think about work, and I think about how freaked out I get about how much I think about how much I think about work. Does that count as a hobby?

. . .

The next passage comes during a discussion between Craig and his therapist, Dr. Minerva, who he saw before entering the psychiatric care facility and who visits him while he’s there . . .

“How anxious would you say you are about all of this, Craig?”

I think back to what Bobby said, about anxiety being a medical thing. The e-mail has been in the back of my mind since I got here, the nagging knowledge that when I get out I’ll have to sit on the computer for five or six hours going through everything I’ve missed, answering it in reverse order because that’s the way it comes in and therefore taking the longest time to respond to the people who e-mailed me in the most distant past. And then as I’m answering them more will come in, and they’ll sit on top of my stack and mock me, dare me to answer them before digging down, telling me that I need them, as opposed to the one or two e-mails that are actually about something I care about. Those will get saved to the end, and by the time I have the time to deal with them, they’ll be so out of date that I’ll just have to apologize: Sorry, man. I haven’t been able to answer my e-mail. No, I’m not important, just incapable.

“Craig?”

“Very anxious,” I answer.

. . .

This one comes immediately after Craig shares some of his drawings with Dr. Minerva (the bit about peeing will make sense within a few minutes of your picking up the book and reading) . . .

“Craig, these are wonderful.”

“Thanks.” I sit down. We were both standing. I didn’t even notice.

“You started these because you used to do them when you were four?”

“Right. Well. Something like them.”

“And how do they make you feel?”

I look at the pile. “Awesome.”

She leans in. “Why?”

I have to think about that one, and when Dr. Minerva makes me think, I don’t get embarrassed and try to skip it. I look to the left and stroke my chin.

“Because I do them,” I say. “I do them and they’re done. It’s almost like, you know, peeing?”

“Yes . . . ” Dr. Minerva nods. “Something you enjoy.”

“Right. I do it; it’s successful; it feels good; and I know it’s good. When I finish one of these up I feel like I’ve actually done something and like the rest of my day can be spent doing whatever, stupid crap, e-mail, phone calls, all the rest of it.”

“Craig, have you ever considered the fact that you might be an artist?”

. . .

This one comes after Dr. Minerva suggests that perhaps Craig transfer schools, from the one that is, in large part, responsible for his anxiety and depression, to one that he might actually enjoy being at . . .

I stare ahead.

I hadn’t. I honestly hadn’t.

Not once, not in my whole life, not since I started there. That’s my school. I worked harder to get in than I did for anything else, ever. I went there because, coming out of it, I’d be able to be President. Or a lawyer. Rich, that’s the point. Rich and successful.

And look where it got me. One stupid year – not even one, like three quarters of one –and here I am with not one, but two bracelets on my wrist, next to a shrink in a room adjacent to a hall where there’s a guy named Human Being walking around. If I keep doing this for three more years, where will I be? I’ll be a complete loser. And what if I keep on? What if I do okay, live with the depression, get into College, do College, go to Grad School, get the Job, get the Money, get Kids and a Wife and a Nice Car? What kind of crap will I be in then? I’ll be completely crazy.

I don’t want to be completely crazy. I don’t like being here that much. I like being a little crazy: enough to volunteer here, not enough to ever, ever, ever come back.

. . .

7 thoughts on “Mental Illness and the Young Adult Novel

  1. “I work, Monica, and I think about work, and I freak out about work, and I think about how much I think about work, and I freak out about how much I think about how much I think about work, and I think about how freaked out I get about how much I think about how much I think about work. Does that count as a hobby?”

    The resemblance with what I experience now is, uncanny…

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Aruna! I, too, experience such thought cycles frequently. I hope you know of and are able to use some techniques to get you out of such mental “ruts.” Reading good books can be one such technique.

      • For now, I wrote a personal journal to release the thoughts and still, it reminds me of the work that I should do or the accomplishment that I haven’t reached yet. And I wrote the other things here, but it didn’t help much. Maybe I can take your advice.

        Thanks, anyway.

      • I certainly encourage you to try to find some things to combat or at least ease the anxiety. Finding a therapist I trusted and enjoyed speaking to changed my life. I can’t recommend that enough.

      • A friend that I trust? Well, I should probably let myself open to one of them. Or getting a good book before that. Thanks again, for encouraging me even though you don’t know me. By the way, I forget to tell you. Nice post you have here, Jarrett!

      • Of course, Aruna! I would encourage anyone like this in a similar situation. And a good friend is great. Therapists, however, offer something slightly different.

        And thank you for the kind words, and for taking the time to read the post and discuss.

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