In our written posts, we will explore a wide range of topics including modern issues surrounding masculinity and male identity, how men can connect more deeply with themselves and others, and daily, actionable steps that any man can take to transform themselves and their lives.
On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
Welcome to Tales That Tethr, a series written by and for the tethr community. If you’d like to share your own story of strength and support, click here. Today we’re honored to share Gabe’s story.
At the end of college some of my closest relationships came to tumultuous ends. The kind of ends that left me alternating between a numb silence and seething anger for days at a time. Some days it felt like it was entirely my fault, and other days it just didn’t matter to me.
I moved away from my school and the people I was no longer close to for a job, which became a significant part of my identity and a patch over the hole my close relationships had left. The job made me feel successful, gave me status and a ‘respectable’ income, and it also signaled to others that public service is important to me. The job played into characteristics of being a man that I may not have outwardly endorsed, but certainly subconsciously subscribed to; ‘I am a man with power, I can provide, and I’ve got a good heart.’ The ultimate nice guy!
The job turned on me quickly. Some circumstances of the job presented mental-emotional challenges I didn't have the skills or authority to handle, nor the desire to endure. I tried escapism in my last round of significant issues, and since that totally worked, I returned to it as a solution to this problem set, but in different ways. I worked from home more often, and I smoked everyday after work. A little bit of tobacco and weed takes the edge off and delivers you from your problems for a few hours, if you do it right.
I was anxious and depressed, and although the progression of events that led me there were clear in retrospect, it still felt like the weight of it all had snuck up on me.
I continued to look for fulfillment that my friendships and my job couldn’t give me. I hadn’t thought about it like this at the time, but what else is important to an outdated man’s identity? Dating and sex, of course. I hit the apps as hard as one can in the place I lived. After some positive experiences, I put more thought into a funny bump on my body, and soon discovered there was a name for such a bump.
I discovered I was one of many sexually active adults with a strain of HPV – something my public school sex education did not prepare me to manage, cope with, and live into. I probably read more google pages that year than pages of any book. Blog posts, medical sites, reddit threads, you name it; if it was about HPV, I probably read it. I branched out too, reading about many other STIs as each new blemish or potential abnormality became cause for concern. And, when I wasn’t reading or ruminating, I dreamt about it. I had dreams of discovering new blemishes and of giving HPV to partners, or of crowds of people finding out about it. The irony of that last bit isn’t lost on me.
Okay, trust me, I now know HPV is very manageable, but at a time when I felt lonely, and saw a nearing end to the money and status of my job, the hit to my junk was the blow that brought me down. If I wasn’t powerful, popular, well-to-do, and I couldn’t perform sexually – because who wants to be with someone with an STI – then what do I have left to offer? I come from a place of extreme privilege in so many ways, but at that point in my life, I had reached a dark place.
I confused thoughts and feelings, rationalizing away the things I needed to feel, and dwelling on thoughts that didn’t serve me, and I think that's why my depression felt so suddenly dark.
There I was with a deteriorated support system, a terribly stressful job, bad coping habits, and an STI I didn't know how to handle. I felt undesirable, purposeless, guilty, ashamed, and inadequate. I was anxious and depressed, and although the progression of events that led me there were clear in retrospect, it still felt like the weight of it all had snuck up on me.
I was in the habit of intellectualizing my feelings. I confused thoughts and feelings, rationalizing away the things I needed to feel, and dwelling on thoughts that didn’t serve me, and I think that's why my depression felt so suddenly dark. Despite the long lead-up, once a threshold of internalized feelings was met, it was too much. I needed help. Fortunately, I got help. The two things that enabled me to process my feelings and start a healthier path were talking to my best friend and working with a therapist.
I am a smart guy, but without a therapist, I wasn’t able to unpack my feelings to truly understand how my seething anger in college was coming from a place of shame and hurt. I wasn’t able to truly understand that my deteriorating relationships with folks at work was a result of my changed behavior, because I was disappointed in and hurt by their actions. And, without talking and processing with my best friend, I wouldn’t have been able to fully share everything with my therapist, or regain my sense of self-worth.
Rewinding a bit, when I moved for my job, my only best friend left from college was already in the city, waiting with an open door to his one bedroom apartment. Sharing a bedroom as a young adult wasn't ideal, but the support we gave each other made it worth it. This person is a great listener – not always a good thing when you share a one bedroom apartment – he always listened to me with intent to understand how I was feeling, and he never outwardly judged me for anything I said, or my past mistakes. He also validated my efforts to get healthier, and tenderly challenged me at appropriate times.
it’s so easy for men to be a target or victim of the image society creates for us, so that building the image becomes routine, and soon we’re living into the image of a man chosen for us.
Even with everything this best friend gave to me, it took me a while to develop truly healthy coping mechanisms. John O'Donahue said, in the podcast, On Being, "...stress is a perverted relationship to time, so that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven’t had a true moment for yourself to relax in and to just be."
I'm not sure why – maybe it was his sincerity, or his reassuring, energetic, Irish accent – but this really inspired me to slowly disrupt my unhealthy routines. John’s idea of stress and time led me to think about an analogous relationship between the image of myself and society’s image of me. Reframing John’s words, it’s so easy for men to be a target or victim of the image society creates for us, so that building the image becomes routine, and soon we’re living into the image of a man chosen for us. I decided I want to be a subject of my own time, and of my own image of what is good in this life. Long story short, I decided to make a plan to quit my job, and I started to meditate around candles, take baths, exercise, start climbing outside and cook more often.
Cooking has really surprised me as an effective coping mechanism. Sometimes I will force myself to plan out a new meal a few days in advance. I get all the ingredients at a farmers market if possible, because it's outside and I have to interact with people, and then I take over the kitchen. I sing to my favorite musicals when I prep, dance to garage rock while I wait, and belt out country classics when I wash the dishes. By the time I'm done, I get a healthy meal, I feel super accomplished for doing all that work and trying something new, plus dancing and singing does great things for your body. I also like to share my food with my housemates, which also feels rewarding.
It took the help of my therapist, my best friend, cooking, exercise, reflection, laughably uncomfortable conversations about HPV, and lots of time, but I think I've overcome the worst of my anxiety and depression. Now that I’ve built the skills, habits, and support system to handle it all (always a work in progress) I'm really focusing on how I can have a positive impact on men who are dealing with similar issues. tethr has been an awesome start, because I can give to others, receive from others, and perpetuate the kinds of behaviors that helped get me out of my darkest times.
Oftentimes when I'm in a position supporting another person, I just feel lucky to be sharing such raw moments together.
Despite having disclosed HPV with potential partners, and with my family and friends, tethr was the first place I opened up publicly about my personal journey with HPV and my feelings of insecurity surrounding sex. When I did, guys left comments validating my journey and brought up their own complicated experience with sex, as men. Some guys invited me to DM them, or just left me an orange circle.
My experience sharing on the app perfectly modeled peer support. The guys affirmed me for having the courage to share my story, they showed me they cared about my experience by validating it, and they engaged with my experience by bringing their own experiences to the conversation. I don't think that last part is always essential or appropriate, but it's something I like when I'm being supported. I've also really benefited from relationships where people felt comfortable sharing deeply personal challenges. I've been able to learn about things I can't imagine going through, myself, and about how folks with identities different from my own can have completely different sources of anxiety and stress.
Oftentimes when I'm in a position supporting another person, I just feel lucky to be sharing such raw moments together. When the rawness overwhelms me, I always remember the first times I opened up about HPV or getting high everyday, and how I just needed the other person to listen and be present to show me my problems didn’t define me, nothing else.