Tuesday, 20 August 2013

On sabbatical with 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' by Ned Vizzini

Being a fairly regular blogger via this site, I also find myself reading an array of other blogs. What I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that for many bloggers, regardless of their profession or specialist subject, the month of August often sees a reduction in activity. Some bloggers simply go quiet whilst others actively wave off their readers for the summer with an ‘I’m going off on sabbatical, see you later folks!’ type post.

This summer it's been the same for me, particularly as I am now in that strange-feeling transition phase between jobs, preparing to move to Assistant Deputy Headteacher at the Pendlebury Centre (a nationally-recognised specialist provision for students with complex emotional-social needs). Under advice from my new headteacher to not get too bogged down in the relevant books and to simply recoup, I’ve resisted delving into the pile on various psychological conditions I’ve gathered over the past few months.

However, I do believe the summer break could be viewed in some respects as a sabbatical – and this can be a productive way of looking at this time. The conceptual understanding and practise of sabbatical has changed over time, having roots in our Judea-Christian culture of ‘keeping the Sabbath’ and relating also to ancient agricultural life, with farming of an area ceasing every seventh year to allow the land to recover. Over the centuries this tradition of sabbatical shifted to universities and to the church, with academics and clergy periodically stepping back from daily duties to undertake a period of reading and reflection. More recently it is a practice taken up by creative technology firms such as IBM and Microsoft, again with a view that those who undertake sabbatical attain something during this time that usual working commitments would otherwise constrain.

So, for my self-declared sabbatical this year, I decided as well as the usual mix of sun seeking, plodding around a foreign city, catching up with family, attending to long neglected chores etc., I would take some time to read and reflect on educational issues. But also, keeping in mind the need to relax, I made sure the reading material would be as light-hearted as possible – and to mix it in with books of no direct relevance to education, which to give a flavour includes ‘I Hate Football’, a diary of a Sheffield Wednesday fan!

One of the books that has stood out during this period which I would recommend to colleagues and parents, and older students, is ‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ by Ned Vizzini. I've since found out there is a Hollywood adaptation of this book although I am hesitant to watch it for fear of ruining the original.

I picked 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' for obvious reasons as it relates specifically to complex emotional-social needs amongst adolescents, with a focus primarily on an older teenager’s experience of anxiety and depression which results in hospitalisation. Although based on many of the author’s real-life experiences, it has to be said the account is fictional and in many ways adheres to teenage narrative, with a fairly typical story of young love and a resolved, happy ending. However, it also – as the best fiction should – makes observations that are true-to-life, providing value to the reader.


The story is told from the perspective of Craig Gilner, a fifteen year old with a bright academic future. Having spent a year working tirelessly to attain a place at a top New York school, Craig finds himself overwhelmed by the pressures of his chosen study route and fitting into a peer group which revolves around cannabis, girls and computer games. As the competing pressures build further, Craig becomes depressed and enters a fairly typical programme of 'learn how to cope' counselling. With this having seemingly little impact, he in turn becomes suicidal - planning to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge - and ends up undertaking a five-day stay at a mental health ward for adults (as the teenage section is being refurbished). From there we gain further insight into Craig’s inner dialogue as he awakens to the triggers for his depression – matched with witty yet warm observations of fellow inpatients.

What is striking about this read is how it serves to remind us of some of the general, actually very ordinary, thought processes and experiences teenagers go through, many which we forget (perhaps conveniently!) as we become adults. What it equally striking is that Craig’s life is not one of neglect, trauma or abuse – he is a fairly-affluent, run-of-the-mill kid (arguably with some autistic traits). Some of the guilt Craig carries, further driving the anxiety and depression, is that he feels he should be more satisfied, more grateful compared to those less fortunate; “Of course I wasn't abused. If I were; things would be so simple. I'd have a reason for being in a shrink's office. I'd have a justification and something to work on. The world wasn't going to give me something that tidy.”

During his stay at the hospital, Craig discusses with Noelle – a teenage girl admitted to the same ward due to self-harming – whether they are in fact experiencing a modernity-induced ‘sixth life crisis’:

“Forget the midlife crisis. It’s all about the sixth-life crisis.”

”What the hell is that?”

”Well, first there’s the quarter-life crisis. That’s like the characters on Friends—people freaking out that they won’t get married. Twenty-year-olds. That’s probably true that people get quarter-life crises; I wouldn’t know. But I know that now things work faster. Before you had to wait until you were twenty to have enough choices of things to do with your life to start getting freaked out. But now there’s so much stuff for you to buy, and so many ways you can spend your time, and so many specialties that you need to get started on very early in life—like ballet, right, Noelle, when did you start ballet?”

”Four.”

”Okay. I started Tae Bo at six. So there are like— so many people angling for success and so many colleges you’re supposed to get into, and so many women you’re supposed to have sex with ... So now, instead of a quarter-life crisis they’ve got a fifth-life crisis — that’s when you’re eighteen — and a sixth-life crisis — that’s when you’re fourteen. I think that’s what a lot of people have. Well, there are lot of people who make a lot of money off the fifth-life and sixth-life crises. All of a sudden they have a ton of consumers scared out of their minds and willing to buy facial cream, designer jeans, SAT test prep courses, condoms, cars, scooters, self-help books, watches, wallets, stocks, whatever… all the crap that the twenty-somethings used to buy, they now have the ten-somethings buying. They doubled their market! So pretty soon. there’ll be seventh-life and eighth-life crises. Then eventually a baby will be born and the doctors will look at it and wonder right away if it’s unequipped to deal with the world; if they decide it doesn’t look happy, they’ll put it on antidepressants, get it started on that particular consumer track.”

The notion of a ‘sixth life crisis’ forms part of the lingo Craig deploys to verbalise aspects of his emotional-social state - terminology we adults could perhaps also draw upon, where appropriate, when talking with students who face similar challenges. Craig talks repeatedly about 'anchors' and 'tentacles', likening himself to a boat bouncing amongst the waves – the anchors, such as riding his bike at the weekend, are those things that help increase his sense of calm whilst the tentacles, such as constantly checking his email for task reminders, are those things which trigger his sense of being under-threat:

“Tentacles is my term — the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life. Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary war, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and email for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the 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.”

Similarly, Craig talks often about the constant drive to have a firmly recognisable ‘shift’, a big sudden moment of cure he can celebrate; "I want there to be a shift so bad. I want my brain to slide into the slot it was meant to be in, rest there the way it did last fall of last year, back when I was young and witty, and my teachers said I had incredible promise..."

When he hits further difficulty, he habitually denounces previous progress as a ‘fake shift’. By viewing things in this perfectionist 'all or nothing' way, this again generates further anxious thoughts (which he calls ‘cycling’) and subsequent low mood. I personally found this a little chastening, as it is perhaps an approach we as adults take in our work with young people, falling into a habit of working towards big, calendar-scheduled ‘do or die’ breakthroughs. Rather than accepting that learning and growth in fact follows a less-fixed pattern of small steps with progress occurring at different speeds, including points of regression. Perhaps this also reflects the dominant organisational culture within education now?

During what we could call his very own sabbatical, Craig does in fact begin to embark on a real shift by taking a step back from actively struggling with the ‘tentacles’ he perceives and simply realising he is on the wrong study route and too immersed with the wrong crowd – and crucially, that there are other options. From there he decides to move from a study route composed of science and maths to a creative arts course, which he has a natural talent in. He also resolves to handle his friendships more assertively. There is of course something true-to-life about this also, that Craig just needed to find his niche, his place in the world.

‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ is ultimately just that, a story that genuinely had me laughing out loud at times but also an insight – albeit a snapshot - of how things can go wrong for teenagers who seem to have so much going for them. There are so many poignant quotes from the book but one of my favourites towards the end has to be this:

“I’m not better, you know. The weight hasn’t left my head. I feel how easily I could fall back into it, lie down and not eat, waste my time and curse wasting my time, look at my homework and freak out and go and chill at Aaron’s, look at Nia and be jealous again, take the subway home and hope that it has an accident, go and get my bike and head to the Brooklyn Bridge. All of that is still there. The only thing is, it’s not an option now. It’s just… 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.”


I guess, going forward into my new role, the mission is simply this – to increase one set of options for a young person whilst decreasing other possibilities, ideally to the point they become very unlikely. Although this is what, in a nutshell, all teachers should in essence be trying to do on their return to school over the coming weeks, each within their own fields.

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