Mental Health

When My Best Friend Died, I Nearly Lost Myself

Connecting with other men who were struggling brought me back.

by Matt Zerker
Originally Published: 
A man crying, looking away.
Johner Images/Getty

Just over a year ago, I was suicidal and couldn’t 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. Although 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. He called it ‘the black dog’ and 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 for 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.

Although 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.

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. Though 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.

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.

I’m deeply thankful for his presence on that car ride because I was a wreck — a combination of nerves, anxiety, excitement, fear, and exhilaration. More than anything, that car trip 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 had 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. I 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 more than eight 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 — and quick. Finally, 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.

Although 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 means 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.

This is what I felt like at my worst. I felt trapped, angry, fearful, and unloved, and when I expressed this, 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 and oftentimes things that were much worse.

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 know now 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.

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. Before the pandemic, suicide represented the largest cause of death for men under 50 in Canada and the United Kingdom and was one of the top three largest causes of death in the United States. Seventy-five percent of the suicides committed were committed by men and, more than women, men responded 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 more than 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.

It’s my 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.

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