This is a full and frank review of Mark Henick So-Called Normal and does have spoilers. It may contain information that may trigger my readers. I was gifted an uncorrected proof.
So-Called Normal is the memoir of Mark Henick. Growing up he had a troubled childhood and suicidal thoughts from a very young age. Until the day a stranger saved his life and prompted him to reframe his thoughts and help others. Mark hopes that So-Called Normal will give rise to real conversations about suicide and break the relentless stigma of mental illness.
About So-Called Normal
Readers are taken inside the mind of Mark Henick through this candid, intensely personal account of his life. Hearing how he struggled with abandonment, abuse, bullying and trauma. We are shown the efforts to help him as his mental health progressively worsens, but why Mark kept quiet about his feelings.
What So-Called Normal isn’t About
So-Called Normal isn’t going to tell you how people who are suicidal think. It is not an insight into how to change their thinking to stop. Mark Henick is clear that this is his story and that no two people feel or experience things the same. In fact it is this realisation when he comes to jump off a bridge that changes his life. With one person experiencing the situation being cruel and unkind and the other just the opposite. It was reflecting back on this moment that he realised that he did have a choice about how he behaves.
A Note from Mark Henick
Mark Henick begins by explaining about how he came to write the book. He makes it clear that things have been pieced together and some things changed a little (mainly to protect others. I think this is important as a lot of the book has a real feel of knowing he has been helped by counsellors. Other things I just can’t imagine he would remember a lot of things quite so clearly.
The thing I think is most important to note is that the contents of So-Called Normal are not light. Mark provides a trigger warning in the author’s note and even suggests the reader take a break when needed. It is a very emotional book around a lot of emotive topics. This is even before you consider the young age of Henick at the time when the events occurred.
So-Called Normal Family Life for Henick
Henick then starts at the beginning and takes us with him on his journey through life. Mark begins by introducing us to what his family life was like. A family so big he feels unimportant – where his Nana can’t even remember his name.
He talks us through his parents’ history and his own childhood. How his parents “fought constantly,” and there subsequent breakdown of marriage when he was 3 years old. However, he always wished they could get back together. He also did not understand why his dad wanted nothing to do with him.
Themes in So-Called Normal
The Feeling of Abandonment
The feeling of abandonment is just one of many reoccurring themes throughout So-Called Normal. This carries on throughout his young life with the fear that people will leave/not love him if he does not behave how he believes they want him to. “The people whom I loved might think differently of me, they might leave me, and I couldn’t risk any change to the few close connections I had.”
Henick Feeling Bad about himself
Henick definitely felt bad about himself. He always felt behind at school and just couldn’t catch up. In fact even when he was doing really well he just couldn’t see it. It is almost like he felt he needed others to validate his existence.
“I was needy and craved reassurance, and without it I was becoming increasingly introverted, afraid and insecure.”
“I had a desperate need for connection at all costs.”
“I wanted to be seen, to feel seen.”
Even in a big family he felt alone. “I wanted to be close to my brother too, but he never seemed to share those feelings.” When brother Raymond discovers he is being abused, instead of helping him he uses it against him. “Being alone and feeling alone are kind of a chicken-and-egg thing, and in the earliest days of depression It’s hard to tell which is which. That’s one reason I didn’t realize I was becoming depressed.”
The Abuse Henick Suffered
His self-esteem so low that he even “internalized this shame” of being molested by a boy when he was just seven years old. It is also mentioned that on this night Gary had abandoned them and gone home.
I believe there to be a lot more to Mark’s traumas than mentioned. For example there’s a brief mention of one of his cousins abusing him further than explained in the book.
However it is Gary, his stepdad, who is blamed for a lot of Henick’s trauma. A controlling bully, who made him scared in his own home. Gary is seen as the main reason home-life was so unsettled and also why Mark felt he shouldn’t show his emotions. Mark internalized a lot of Gary’s negative stories, which made Mark feel like a bad person. For example – like the fact that his family were Nazis.
Henick’s Relationship with his Mother
Henick often talks about his mother’s love for him, how understanding she was, and ultimately it was his feeling that he would bring shame to her which first triggered an actual suicide attempt. “I didn’t want to let her down.
Life was hard enough without my complaints.” “She had so much to worry about as it was, I didn’t want to worry about me too.”
That her death helped set him free.
“My mother’s death made me think a lot about my childhood experiences. Grieving her finally forced me to also grieve and eventually accept that entire time in my life too. Now it’s over.”
Dealing with Challenges
Things started going wrong slowly for Henick and he didn’t feel like he had somewhere to turn to that could help. “I felt it had been going on for too long by then for me to say anything. Besides, whom would I tell?” “I looked around for options to address them, but I often found none.”
Henick Asking for Help and Not Getting it
Mark clearly shows that he felt that he did not receive the help he asked for. The first example is when he asked to go to the toilet in class. “I had asked for help, but here I sat helpless.”
Then there are the repeated trips to Mr Nichols. Who although arranged help straight away and even saved his life, Mark just couldn’t be helped at this point. I think looking back however, you can see him reflecting on all he tried to do, “Speaking up apparently changed something, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.” But how he felt was, “I asked for help, no help was given, so the problem got worse.”
He began to feel uncared for.
“With the exception of a few notable figures, the vast majority of people encountered were indifferent. Either they didn’t notice and so did nothing, or they noticed but didn’t care and so did nothing.”
“I felt that people didn’t fully appreciate the amount of pain and loneliness I felt.”
“I thought I was hard to like.”
The counseilling – “she talked – about how it seemed to be a frustrated response to not knowing how to deal with my emotions.”
Lisa – “I had the impression she was doing therapy to me rather than with me.”
“I was sick of repeating the same stories, to the same people, only to be given the same pamphlets and pills but never much else.”
Getting the Help
Mr Nichols arranged the hospital straight away and Mark started therapy ten days before his 13 birthday. He was taught some “positive affirmations” by Amy. She also encouraged him to keep a mood diary to track his feelings and changes. Together they developed a crisis plan – to help when emotions were overwhelming. Mark developed practical tools that gave him a sense of control.
Amy and Mr. Nichols “took time to validate my experience.” Whilst others made him feel like a lost cause, “there was no referral for counselling, community support or any other services this time. It seemed the more times I came to the hospital for help, the less help I got.” Tablets for depression could actually trigger his suicidal feelings and “I sensed that people preferred to medicate my experience away instead of helping me to understand it.”
Heather tells him life choices mean that he could decide to be positive but sometimes you need to travel far enough away to be able to listen. “Nothing changes if nothing changes, but eventually, something changes everything. Sometimes things change right under your nose and you don’t realize until you’ve got enough distance.”
I was surprised that more of the book wasn’t about the stranger but I guess he triggered the response that all the help before suddenly mattered. This man just chose to be kind. Be interested. Be present.
Mark Henick constantly explains to us how he does not want to die. He just wants the pain to end. To not feel alone.
Conclusion of So-Called Normal
There are so much more I could have written about this book. So many complex themes and things to consider. It is extremely well-written by someone who never believed in their academic ability. I am going to leave you with this final quote and suggested that we all just help one another keep even a single domino standing then we can make such a big difference in the world.
“If one domino falls on its own, it’s no big deal. It’s the successive lining up and falling down of dominoes, a chain of cause and effect, carefully built over time and trial and error; that creates the problem.”
Watch Henick’s TedTalk
Release Date: January 12, 2021
Available from Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Audible and others