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(originally published in Painted Brain News 1/21/14)
When I was 15 years old, I happened by Ned Vizzini’s acclaimed novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story by chance. Finding both the description and cover intriguing I took a chance on the novel and soon devoured. I quickly became an ardent Vizzini fan. I read Be More Chill as well as Vizzini’s adolescent memoir Teen Angst…Nah, and tried to emulate his style by writing down the strange and memorable moments of my own teenage experience. Up until last year when I was 21, I happily anticipated the release of Vizzini’s last novel The Other Normals, and purchased a copy the weekend it was released. Though I have admired Vizzini’s other works and have seen pieces of myself within his other characters, no other book has stuck with me as It’s Kind of a Funny Story has.
For those unfamiliar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story revolves around a 15 year old overachiever named Craig, who is admitted to a prestigious New York high school, and subsequently finds himself in over his head. Unable to meet his own highly unrealistic expectations for success, Craig becomes clinically depressed and ends up checking himself into a psychiatric hospital rather than jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Vizzini based his novel off of his own experience in a psychiatric hospital and ongoing struggle with mental illness.
As your slightly above average teenager, I found Vizzini’s protagonist Craig to be highly relatable. Like Craig, I was as reserved as I was ambitious; I fretted over commonplace social interactions, such as making friends and talking to members of the opposite sex. I was also constantly pushing myself to the limits of academic achievement, even if it meant socially isolating myself in the process. And like Craig, and Vizzini himself, I also came to experience profound anxiety and bouts of depression, both of which came to a climax after I started college, and still continue to this very day.
When I was at the lowest of my lows, Vizzini’s novel and its many virtues gave me solace. I learned to shake my fear and embarrassment of getting help and sought professional guidance at my college’s counseling center. Throughout these times, I found myself turning to It’s Kind of a Funny Story in search of a quick pick-me-up. Things gradually improved, and like Craig, I started to grasp that life didn’t have to be (and moreover would never be) perfect. I learned to appreciate the good things that I have, while striving to live more in the present. Just as Vizzini and his fictional embodiment realized, I accepted that many of the thoughts that drove my anxiety were merely hypothetical scenarios that may or may not happen, and therefore were not worth the anxiety and stress they caused. As Craig says in his peroration at the novel’s denouement, I saw my anxieties not as an absolute truth, but as “a possibility, like it’s a possibility that I could turn to dust in the next instant and be disseminated throughout the universe as an omniscient consciousness. It’s not a very likely possibility.”
Although I still continue to struggle with bouts of anxiety and depression, I’m much better than I was before. Part of that is due to professional medical help. A larger part is due to Vizzini’s novel, which helped motivate me to seek help in the first place, and gave me comfort when I needed it most.
When I learned the news of Vizzini’s death, I of course felt tremendous sadness. I also felt disappointed and angry. I just couldn’t understand why Vizzini (who seemed to have everything going for himself) would be driven to commit suicide, an act he tried to deter others against through both his writing and lecture series.
I know that I share these feelings of grief with others, who were similarly touched by Vizzini’s stories. It is impossible to quantify how many lives Vizzini changed, as well as how many lives his book will continue to impact in the future. His writing transcended all audiences, and in doing so helped to mitigate the stigma surrounding mental illness by providing a highly insightful (and sometimes comedic) look at depression. Vizzini had an uncanny ability to connect with readers, and showed so many others living with mental illness that there is still hope. I only wish that he could have seen that himself.
I wish Vizzini’s loved ones the best. The world has lost a truly remarkable person.
Chaya Himelfarb resides in New Jersey and is a longstanding Painted Brain member and contributor to Painted Brain News