THESE two books have a lot in common, although their authors have very different backgrounds and live on opposite sides of the Atlantic — one in Dublin, the other in Canada.
What they share is how young they were when they first started to feel alienated from ‘normal’ life, their searing honesty about their deteriorating mental health and how they eventually learned to cope and to enjoy life again.
Both memoirs are ultimately stories of perseverance and recovery, offering hope to anyone who suffers debilitating depression.
Shane Carthy’s memoir has the sub-title The Despair Behind the Glory — My Journey Back from the Edge.
From Portmarnock, Dublin, Carthy was passionate about sport from a very young age, especially football. His talent was recognised as he rose through the ranks of Dublin GAA, called up to the senior team in 2013 aged 18, and playing in the All-Ireland winning squad that year.
While he was experiencing success on the football field, as well as doing well academically, he was suffering periods of severe depression, which he hid from everyone around him.
Carthy writes in an attractive conversational style, with honesty and courage, capturing his frightening journey, which almost led to suicide. Often he refers to the “idyllic life” he appeared to be living, how he believed others saw him. He’s having great success on the football field, he’s doing fine at school, has friends, a loving and supportive family — all the outward signs of what should be a happy life. Yet in reality, he’s having panic attacks, crying alone for hours and tortured by his thoughts.
Sadly, and a sign that the stigma of mental illness still affects sufferers, Carthy tried for quite a time to manage his feelings alone, mainly using exercise and sport to do so. Eventually he opened up to his family and a few friends, who couldn’t have been more supportive. They tried to help, which included a trip to Sweden to stay with one of his sisters, before his suicidal thoughts led to his hospitalisation when he was 19. Gradually he learned how to overcome his mental turmoil and how to cope with his illness.
Since then he has spoken out publicly about his experience and has been praised for doing so. It is good to learn how supportive the GAA was as he was suffering.
Carthy was fortunate to have the support of his family and friends. Mark Henick’s family situation was very different.
So-called Normal has the subtitle A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience. Growing up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Henick was gradually overwhelmed by anxiety and depression, starting in early childhood. His parents split up and his mother developed a relationship with a controlling and damaged man called Gary. That relationship meant that there was no stability in Henick’s life, as his mother left and then returned to Gary every so often. That instability does not fully account for his mental illness, but no doubt it didn’t help.
By the time he was a teenager, Henick had been overwhelmed by depression and anxiety, which led to a number of increasingly dangerous suicide attempts. One night, he climbed on to a bridge over an overpass and clung to a girder. Someone shouted: “Jump, you coward.” Another man, a stranger in a brown coat, talked to him quietly and calmly. Just as Henick’s feet touched open air, the man in the brown coat encircled his chest and pulled him to safety.
This near-death experience changed his life forever, it was the catalyst for his journey to recovery. Henick went on to give a Ted Talk about that incident, which went viral. He also went in search of the stranger in the brown coat.
As well as detailing his mental challenges, his memoir shows how complex family and other close relationships can be. He had a close and loving relationship with his mother, who tried her best to help him. His sister is supportive too. Henick is compassionate about Gary, despite the misery he suffered in his home.
As in Carthy’s memoir, the reader takes a journey inside the head of a young man who is struggling with debilitating mental illness. He keeps trying to make sense of a “normal” that simply doesn’t work for him, although it appears it does for everyone else.
Both memoirs are vivid accounts of the challenges faced by two young men to their mental health, and of how they made journeys towards recovery. Both also acknowledge that it’s an ongoing struggle; you aren’t cured, you need to learn to cope. Gradually you start to enjoy, even love, life again.
Henick is a great storyteller, who vividly brings his story to life. His vulnerability is moving, and his honesty and courage praiseworthy. Although his challenges may be alien to those of us who are fortunate to never have suffered as he has, you can empathise with his suffering and feel like cheering him on when he starts to imagine a better life for himself.
There is much to be learned from both of these memoirs. Readers can gain valuable insights into what it feels like to suffer from such debilitating illness and how, on the outside, the sufferer appears to be coping while silently screaming inside.
Young people in Ireland would find it easy to identify with Shane Carthy, particularly (but not exclusively) those who love sport. They would gain huge insight into the challenges faced by people suffering from depression. Dark Blue should be required reading in the early years of secondary school.
Young and old will empathise with Mark Henick and learn about mental illness in So-Called Normal.
Parents and guardians of young people, as well as anyone who wants to learn more about mental illness, would benefit greatly from reading either or both books.
Though at times the events Carthy and Henick write about are painful to read, ultimately both books are rewarding and uplifting.
- Shane Carthy
- O’Brien Press, €14.99
- Mark Henick
- Harper Collins, $24.99