06/23/20 #SameHere Hero: Matt Zerker

Today’s #SameHere Hero: Matt Zerker from @tethrformen

Less than 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 every day. 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. I 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 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 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.

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 there 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 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 deep sadness that was poisoning me from the inside. Needless to say, it got a little messy. I cried as 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 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 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 and quickly. Finally, I realized there was something to these open and vulnerable conversations with other men that were 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.

For me, the biggest thing has been finding a safe place to fully explore the feelings and past trauma that had led to me shutting down emotionally for so many years. Finding spaces where I could safely explore years of unexpressed anger, grief, shame, and deep sadness that was poisoning me from the inside.

In these spaces, I was able to acknowledge, express, and not feel shame around the anger that I felt deeply inside for the things that had happened to me and the needs I had that went unmet when I was a child.

The second big thing that helped was realizing that having emotions, feeling inadequate, and struggling to find my path didn’t make me less of a man, it made me human. In my recovery from suicidal depression, 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.

It’s my personal experience that authentic connection and true healing can occur simply by having these conversations in a forum that encourages and supports them. I know from my own experience that consistently having real conversations with other men of integrity 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.

When I was finally able to tell my story so many people in my life showed, provided support, and rallied around me. I decided that I was going to go 100% public with my story and share it on Instagram and people I hadn’t seen in years sent me direct messages with encouragement, support, and even their own stories of struggling with mental illness. It connected me with a community that I didn’t know existed and with so many people on a profoundly deep level. I was terrified to share my story and it was the best thing I ever did.  

Being able to begin the process of allowing myself to be seen as an imperfect human being that has struggles and emotions was liberating.

There is tremendous freedom in knowing that you don’t have to have it all together. In the case of men, we have been fed a story of an impossible standard that we need to live up through societal conditioning, the media, and in some cases the male influences in our lives.

Putting a lid on my feelings and not having a healthy outlet to express them created toxicity within me that would manifest as persistent anxiety, difficulty finding the motivation to do anything, and engaging in a variety of negative behaviors that were harmful to myself and everyone my life touched.

A big thing I’ve learned since first beginning this journey is that I’m not the only man deeply struggling. This is a pervasive problem that has culminated in a largely hidden crisis in men’s mental health. So the MOST important thing I realized was that I was far from the only person struggling to live up to that invisible standard of masculinity that I had internalized unwittingly.

It’s for all these reasons I suggest finding a community that can provide a container where you can begin the process of healing. I would suggest a community where there is support, guidance, and an ability to interact with other people who are on the same path as you.

As a result of my own personal journey, I decided to create a company that provided a safe, barrier-free space where men could find peer support, ask questions to each other, and receive guidance from other men who have ‘been there’.

I created this because I felt like there weren’t enough of these spaces that were readily available and could be accessed on-demand, regardless of where you were. If our values and our mission resonate with you, we would be honored to have you join us on your journey to becoming the man that you know you can be. 

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