By Matt Zerker
10 min read
Just over a year ago, I was suicidal and could not get out of bed.
In January 2018, I lost one of my closest friends Christian very suddenly to a pulmonary embolism (the sudden blockage of a major blood vessel in the lung, usually by a blood clot) and it turned my world upside down.
Christian was a rock for me. Because we lived right across from each other we would see each other almost everyday. While we only met in our late twenties Christian very quickly became one of my closest male confidants. I told Christian everything and vice versa.
We both struggled with inner demons and many of them overlapped. In hindsight, I know this to be the reason why we became so close so quickly. Both Christian and I had been bullied as children — a lot. We both struggled to find connection and feel worthy of love and acceptance even when it was abundantly obvious that we were both well liked by our friends and family. It was something that gnawed at both of us and made us overly self conscious of the way others perceived us. It filled us both with a profound sadness and emptiness at times. In fact, Christian had a term for his depression and sadness — ‘the black dog’. He would use this euphemism when he wasn’t feeling great and didn’t really want to talk about it.
When Christian passed, I went to the darkest place I’ve ever known. I felt like a fraud in my career, my relationships with family and friends felt hollow, and dating had become an unending cycle of shallow optimism and deep disappointment.
While I had struggled with a variety of mental health issues (anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and addiction) for as long as I could remember, this one was different. It was dark, it was hopeless, and it felt like a place that I would never come back from. I was dangerously close to giving up on life. Thoughts of ending my life spun through my head many days and during that time I tried everything I could to make the suffering stop. This included medication, therapy in various forms, energy work, supplements — the list was endless.
One day in October 2018, I was talking to a friend of mine, who happened to be a therapist-in-training, in a desperate attempt to figure out what else I could do to make the pain stop. He invited me to join a men’s group with him. I was no stranger to group therapy at this point and figured things couldn’t possibly get any worse. While I didn’t immediately realize it, going to that men’s group would profoundly alter me and the course of my life. That first night, a group of men I’d never met held space for me to be exactly who I was. I was encouraged to be entirely open and to say exactly what I was going through. They honored my courage for speaking so honestly and acknowledged how painful it must be to be exactly where I was at that moment. No one tried to change anything, they simply listened.
Soon after that pivotal night I booked my first men’s retreat down in Racebrook, Massachusetts. I also had the good fortune of driving down to that retreat with one of the men from my group who was deeply engaged in ‘the work’ and was already intimately familiar with what we would be doing that weekend.
They calmly acknowledged where they identified with my story with the soft placement and tapping of their fist on their heart. I felt seen that night. While I wasn’t a stranger to telling people that I wasn’t okay, this felt different. I felt like some of the burden of my experience had been lifted off my shoulders by the simple fact that here was a group of men who could connect with what I was feeling on a profoundly deep level. My experience suddenly wasn’t something that isolated me from people, it was something that connected me to them.
I’m deeply thankful for his presence on that car ride because I was a wreck with a combination of nerves, anxiety, excitement, fear, and exhilaration. More than anything that car ride gave us the opportunity to talk. We talked for hours, seven to be precise. I realize now that the car ride gave me back some of what I lost when Christian died. It was that feeling of having the kind of connection with another man that implicitly gave permission to speak about anything. It meant the world to me. It also crystallized in my own mind just how critical this type of connection was, maybe for more people than just myself.
The weekend retreat was transformative in many ways. I was able to go much deeper into what I was experiencing and feeling at that moment in my life and allowed me to fully express years of anger, grief, shame, and a deep sadness that was poisoning me from the inside. Needless to say, it got a little messy. I cried like I’d never cried in my life, the type of full body crying that feels like your entire being is dry heaving. I also realized that I was angry, really angry. It was an anger that I’d never been able to express and it manifested in a full throated screaming that left my voice hoarse and me collapsed in exhaustion and sweat on the floor of that cold, poorly insulated barn.
But what was truly incredible was that no matter what I expressed or how I expressed it, the feelings were always met with respect, kindness, love, and the honor of all the men present. More importantly, the second night was the first time I had slept through the night in over 8 months and did so without waking up right into a panic attack. I was able to lie in bed and be at peace. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to, but it was certainly welcome.
There was a lot I realized that weekend. First, I was deeply sad and angry. Second, I was profoundly unhappy with the way I was living my life and needed to change things quickly. Lastly, I realized there was something to these open and vulnerable conversations with other men that was profoundly impacting me and shifting how I felt for the better. This was something I could hold onto. I knew I needed more of whatever this was.
When I returned home, things moved fast. I arrived home on Monday and by Wednesday I had quit my corporate job with no idea of what I was going to do next other than a vague idea that I wanted to go to Asia and travel for a bit. I also had this vague idea of wanting to start a company that operated in the mental health space, though I had no clear idea of what that would look like or how I would even start. This all happened in April 2019 and what a wild ride it has been since.
Real Men Don’t Cry
One of the biggest things I’ve learned since my first foray into the area of men’s work is that I’m not the only man deeply struggling. I quickly discovered a hidden crisis in men’s mental health that very few people were talking about. I knew that many men felt isolated and unable to share what was going on inside them, but I didn’t fully appreciate how deeply this problem ran. While I couldn’t identify the origin of this issue, it quickly became clear that it was due in no small part to antiquated notions of what it meant to be a man. As men, we are often told that ‘real men don’t cry’, real men don’t share their emotions (especially with other men), and that men need to ‘man up’ when the going gets tough.
Even more insidious was the fact that these beliefs were socialized in me (and men generally) from a very early age and they encouraged men like me to bottle up how I felt and put on a strong face. Putting a lid on these feelings and not having a healthy outlet to express them created this toxicity within me that would manifest in a variety of negative behaviors that were harmful to myself and everyone my life touched. I know now that this is the case for many men. The problem is most don’t talk about it.
When I was at my worst I felt trapped, angry, fearful, and unloved. When I expressed these emotions, I felt as though I was implicitly being told that these feelings weren’t acceptable or worse, that I just needed to push past them and continue on because everyone had to deal with these things. I felt like I couldn’t be authentic nor open up about what was going on in my life. When I did, I felt like people (especially men) looked at me differently afterwards. At the very least, it felt like they didn’t know what to do with the information I’d just given them. I now realize that all I wanted was for people to hold space for me the way my men’s group had done that first night. I really just wanted to identify with another man and have how I was feeling acknowledged so that I knew I wasn’t broken, or worse, alone.
The Hidden Men’s Mental Health Crisis
Since this experience, it has very much crystallized in my mind that outdated notions of what it meant to be a man kept me sick for a long time and sometimes still stands in the way of me feeling like I can be truly authentic. From my own personal experience in men’s groups, retreats, and speaking with other men openly, I know that this is something deeply held and largely unexpressed outside these circles. I want this to change and it is why I am building tethr.
There is a hidden crisis in men’s mental health that we are still untangling because so many of the causes are deeply held, socialized beliefs about what it means to be a man. The statistics around this problem are staggering and deeply upsetting. Currently, suicide represents the largest cause of death for men under 50 in Canada and the United Kingdom and is one of the top three largest causes of death in the United States. More painfully, currently 75% of the suicides committed are committed by men and, more than women, men respond to mental health issues by isolating, taking personal risks, and misusing drugs and alcohol. Beyond the age of 30 men have significantly fewer supportive peer relationships than women and over 50% of men report that they have less than two people they feel they can have a serious conversation with.
In my estimation what is currently needed to solve this crisis are more spaces where men feel ‘safe’ to have these conversations with other men they identify with and who feel or have felt the same way. We need to encourage men to talk and give them the permission to be vulnerable without fear of being seen as less of a man for doing so. Men need a space where they can be authentic.
I’ve learned from my own personal experience that real connection and healing can be accomplished simply by having these conversations in a forum that encourages them, supports them, and destigmatizes them. I know from my own experience that consistently having these conversations has profoundly shifted my personal outlook, attitudes, and behaviors. I can honestly say that I feel like a better man today because of this work.
It is for this reason that myself and my two co-founders are currently building tethr, the first online peer-to-peer support community for men to have open and honest conversations about issues going on in their life and their mental health. We believe that tethr will provide any man regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or anything else to create new friend groups and support structures, connect directly with other men through common experience, and have the open and honest conversations that are the antidote to isolation and despair.
And if you’re struggling like I was, I want you to know that today and everyday hereafter I am available to talk to any man — friend or stranger. So please send me an email at email@example.com and let me know how you’re doing.
Matt is the CEO of tethr. Prior to founding tethr Matt was a Portfolio Manager at a quantitative hedge fund in Toronto. Despite accomplishing great professional success and having a life that looked great on the outside, Matt was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled in life. After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in 2018, Matt was sent spiralling into a deep depression that left him on mental health leave at work and unable to get out of bed. Going to therapy, trying four types of medication, and doing several experimental treatments Matt still felt stuck. It wasn’t until he was invited to join a men’s peer support group and went on a men’s emotional awareness retreat that things started to change. After going on that fateful retreat in April 2019, Matt returned home on a Monday and quit his job on the Wednesday. He has been building tethr ever since. Outside of building tethr Matt is extremely passionate about spending quality time with family and friends, walking his dog Dennis, and actively supporting and coaching other men through difficult life challenges. Matt graduated with Honors from the University of Toronto’s International Relations program where he received the Rex Luther Graduation Award for standing first in his class, and is also a CFA charter holder.
If you’re experiencing grief, anxiety or depression, please read some of our other BroglieBox blogs below.
Where To Start in Finding a Mental Health Therapist
When Do I Need to See a Mental Healthcare Professional?
Mental Health is a Team Sport: I Have Anxiety/Depression and my Husband Doesn’t, But We Both Fight It.
How to Manage Your Anxiety Around the Coronavirus
It’s Not You – Tis The Season. Quick Tips for Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder