So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience
by Mark Henick
HarperCollins Publishers

"Being suicidal was not how so-called normal people were expected to cope with the stresses, mistakes and disappointments of life, but that reaction was becoming normal for me."

"Good boys aren't supposed to have hard times." This belief plagues Henick as he struggles with a mental health issue that nearly devours him. With his new memoir, he chronicles his lifelong struggle and diagnosis with major depressive disorder, a condition that continuously defines him from age twelve. Before that, his childhood was a series of ups and downs, propelling him toward an ensuing crisis at the onset of becoming a teenager. He writes plainly of his dysfunctional family, his suicide attempts, and the numerous episodes that lead to his "mind breaking down, gradually shutting down."

Normality doesn't come easy to Henick. Feelings of unworthiness, isolation, guilt, and shame constantly afflict him. They are triggers and stressors that pull him "back down into the drain" at any moment. He wants only to be a normal teenager but instead feels trapped by depression that lives in the "dark recesses" of his mind, "screaming" in his head. Between ages twelve and fourteen, the formative years which forge the most pivotal sections of his book, Henick drifts in and out of hospitals while grappling with the instability of his home life.

He begins his story with the singular moment that profoundly changes him at age fifteen. On the verge of suicide, he pauses to shift backward in time, where he reflects on his earlier years and hometown of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia). Here, Henick sets up important contexts for the events that occur later. It is his parents' strained marriage and eventual divorce that he remembers most. His father's abandonment leaves a lasting mark for Henick and his siblings, Krista and Raymond. They are left in Krista's care while their mother works long hours as a nurse until Gary enters their lives. Gary is the dominating male figure who heavily shapes much of Henick's upbringing. But Gary is complex and moody, his "dark days" revealing a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Coupled with a deep-rooted need for control, frequent arguments with their mother and Gary's aggression ultimately drive the "happy little family" apart.

For Henick, routine becomes his "armour against uncertainty," and the constant instability at home unsettles him. He dwells on being liked, if not by family, at least by teachers and classmates. But this burden of pleasing others develops into anxiety issues. In time, a crisis assessment ushers Henick into the world of hospitals where he navigates the nuances of being a teenager in the most atypical way. As "a desperate fourteen-year-old-kid, alone on a psych ward in the middle of the night," he traverses unfamiliar and surreal terrain in the basement of Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

With his depression worsening over time, Henick wrestles with mounting stressors, straddling the psych ward, school, and home precariously. It is both fascinating and chilling how Henick describes this period, his depression like a "parasite, or a cancer." The narrative fills the pages with painful reminiscences of living with this nightmarish disorder, the depression speaking to him, consuming him like a "demon" hijacking his mind and body.

After a particularly frightening incident involving a knife, Henick descends to a critical state, whereby he transfers to a more specialized hospital nearly five hours away. His family remains helpless, vainly trying to convince him to shrug off this "depression thing." So Henick is left alone to learn about and understand his illness. He works to build confidence and gain needed skills to cope. At the same time, he strives for normalcy as a teen: going to school, dating, hanging out with friends, attending wild parties. Eventually, he comes to accept the depression that never leaves him. He probes the makeup of his identity, finds comfort in those who help and love him, and seeks a purpose for his life as he progresses into adulthood.

When reading Henick's story, some readers may recall Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story, another memoir that recounts teen mental health struggles and experiences in a psych ward. Sadly, Vizzini succumbed to his depression and committed suicide in 2013. Though Henick shares a similar experience, he reminds us, "This is my truth," and "We may have a lot in common, but your story and your recovery journey are as unique to you as mine are to me." His memoir enables him to share his truth in the only way that he can. It serves as both a kind of healing and part of his ongoing coping methods. Openly sharing his experience allows him to gain control over his illness.

The author's book is highly readable and extremely candid. And while much of his account is sad, there are still uplifting moments where Henick finds small glimmers of light in the darkness. He is unflinchingly forthright in approaching the subject of his mental illness and the depths to which it takes him, acknowledging the exhaustive pain it inflicts on him and everyone else. One could argue his beautifully rendered memoir is obligatory reading for anyone in the medical profession who works with depressed patients. It is also good reading for anyone wanting to appreciate the power of the human soul. Henick asks any who may be struggling not to "struggle in silence." His book could truly help someone dealing with depression or trying to help another with depression. It could even help save a life.

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