There are moments in your life that are true turning points and only recognized as such in hindsight.
For me, that moment was January 16th, 2018 when one of my closest friends, Christian, died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism at the far too young age of 30.
Christian was a rock for me. He was equally capable of shooting the breeze about sports or politics as he was talking about deeper topics. We shared a similar history of childhood bullying that left us both healing from this feeling of being apart from and never quite fitting in. While we both had a lot of friends by any measure, there was always this deeper feeling that we never truly belonged.
I was much more vocal about how I felt, often sharing with Christian that I felt this dislocation and like I wasn’t ‘measuring up’. Christian was much more silent and would retreat inwards, often telling me that he was under the spell of the ‘black dog’ – the euphemism he used for his depression that let me know he needed some time to himself.
For a few months after he passed away I hung in there. I went through the grieving process the best I could and did my best to make changes in my life befitting such a life altering event. But then the black dog caught up to me and wouldn’t let go.
I fell into a deep depression. I was consumed by existential dread and anxiety and could barely get out of bed in the morning. I had to go on mental health leave at work because I knew I simply could not perform my job any longer. I tried therapy, medication, experimental treatments, and pretty much anything else I thought could help ‘fix’ me.
It wasn’t until I found a local men’s peer support group that things started to shift for me.
In that first meeting, for whatever reason I found the courage to express how I was truly feeling. At that point, I didn’t want to live anymore but I also didn’t want to die either. It was a horrible state of existential limbo that made the world seem utterly surreal and very scary.
Instead of telling me all the things I could do to shake the funk (i.e. exercise, diet, therapy etc.) the men in that group simply held space for me that night. They allowed me to simply feel what I was feeling without trying to change it or offer some platitude about how things always seem darkest before the dawn. Looking back with what I know now, what they were doing was validating the way I felt.
In many ways they neutralized the shame I was feeling for the struggles that I was experiencing. They normalized struggle for me and modeled a positive attitude towards vulnerability and open sharing. It was something I’d never experienced before, especially from other men. I always felt that I needed to impress and achieve in order to be worthy and here I was being validated for showing up authentically.
Something shifted profoundly in me that night, though I wouldn’t realize what that shift was until much later. I continued going back to that group every two weeks (as was our cadence) and every time I went things got a little better and I began to ‘know’ myself and what I needed more and more.
In April 2019, I went on a men’s retreat down in Massachusetts with one of the men from the group. At that retreat, I had what could only be described as a spiritual experience, even though that’s really just me trying to put a label on something I can’t quite describe with words.
I returned home from that retreat on a Monday and quit my lucrative job in finance on the Wednesday with no backup plan. When I sat down at my desk after returning from that retreat, I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing and that I needed more purpose and meaning in my life. It was only a few months later that I decided to start building tethr, and I’ve been trying to bring this type of transformation to other men ever since.
There is an ongoing crisis in men’s mental health and it is hiding in plain sight. 77% of men are dealing with some form of stress, anxiety, or depression and yet 40% of men say that it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm in order to reach out and get any help. This reflects itself in the fact that men underutilize mental health and well-being services and are significantly more likely to resort to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Most troublingly, men are substantially more likely to die by suicide and currently it is estimated that 79% of deaths by suicide are committed by men.
At the root of this issue is that men have been actively socialized to believe that vulnerability and sharing about one’s struggles is inherently unmasculine. Thus, when confronted with struggle in their lives many men feel that this is a sign of inherent weakness.
I know in hindsight that the fact that I couldn’t ‘get it together’ without help and support made me feel like there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I looked around and saw other men in my life who seemed to have it all together. The fact that we weren’t talking about it openly with each other only made me isolated and broken.
What I’ve come to learn is that the more unique you feel your struggle is, the more universal it actually is. As I began my journey building tethr and having hundreds of real, intimate conversations with other men I realized that many men felt this way. That they somehow didn’t measure up to this invisible standard of masculinity.
More than ever we need safe spaces where vulnerability in men is actively encouraged. Peer support serves the function of being a life line for a man before, during and after he gets the professional support that he needs. We need to normalize struggle as something that is inherently human and not something that will result in getting one’s ‘man card’ revoked.
It is imperative that we model positive attitudes towards openness, vulnerability, and struggle. One method is listening to each other’s stories and showing up for each other in the spirit of true brotherhood. This reduces feelings of isolation and increases feelings of connectedness. These two things together, in my mind, are the key ingredients to help more men begin the process of healing and utilizing mental health and well-being services in greater numbers.
I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the transformation of so many men in our community since we started tethr in November 2019. Through the process of sharing openly and being received in a warm and supportive space we’ve witnessed powerful transformations.
It’s for this reason that we’ve made our core ethos “struggling doesn’t make you any less of a man – it simply makes you human.”
— Matt Zerker, Founder & CEO of tethr