So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience
In this memoir, author Mark Henick tells the story of navigating a dysfunctional homelife and struggle with depression while seeming “normal.” Many of the “so-called normal” people in his life are skeptical of his illness. During his journey from childhood to young adult years, the reader follows as Mark deals with an abusive stepfather, bullying classmates, and persistent thoughts of suicide. The book details his repeated hospitalizations and treatment (or lack thereof) before eventually achieving stability.
This story is well-crafted, so much so that I had difficulty sometimes remembering that it is a memoir, not fiction. Memoirs are often written in a confessional, journal-like style rather than story-like in structure. Fiction is usually better structured, formed into a narrative. The author has taken that care with this work: introducing characters and conflict, building suspense, and leaving cliffhangers. It is, for this reason, a compelling story and difficult to put down. It is structured in four parts named “Summer,” “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Spring” to correspond with Mark’s mental status of decline and then rebirth.
The book is critical of the state of mental health care in Canada, the author’s country. The problems, however, are not unique to Canada. Mark’s story could take place in the United States, for example, as far as mental health treatment goes. There are the same tendencies to medicate rather than listen to patients’ anxieties and provide therapy. There is also the stigma and silence surrounding mental health problems.
After a number of setbacks, including a suicide attempt, Mark begins to take control of, and participate in, his own treatment and life. He learns to recognize his “triggers”—those events that might provoke crises for him. He also writes an article for his high school newspaper detailing his struggle with depression and treatment for it. Rather than being shunned by other students once they knew his “secret,” as he feared, Mark is instead approached by many of his classmates with empathy. Some share their stories with their own struggles with mental health, and Mark begins to see his commonality with other “so-called normal” people.
The article is a life-changing experience, leading to a professional life of speaking and writing on mental health. Meanwhile, Mark’s journey somewhat mirrors his mother’s, who is struggling to gain her own freedom from an abusive relationship. She, like her son, finds a kind of peace at the end, although it is not a storybook happy ending.
This is a strong, well-written book that informs the reader on the topic of mental illness and its treatment.
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