How a Men's Group Saved Me

Bouncing off rock bottom into brotherhood.

How a Men's Group Saved Me
Image by CDD20 from Pixabay

Bouncing off rock bottom into brotherhood.

On the surface, everything was good. Vancouver Island was in a housing crisis, but my girlfriend, our dog, and I had scored a beautiful apartment near the beach. I had crushed my first semester of school in a decade and had a job I loved.

A couple of months into this new life, my girlfriend came home way too late from work. Not usually a big deal. But the messy hair smeared makeup, and lame excuse she mumbled crawling into bed couldn't have been more obvious. She passed out, and I stared at the ceiling until the gray dawn entered our bedroom.

Driven by rage, I ran a yellow light and was almost T-boned on the way to work. I arrived in a savage mood. Everyone could tell something was up, but the guys were too afraid to pry it out of me. All day I ignored my girlfriend's calls until suddenly I was clocking out, realizing I had to address the situation.

The real kicker was my girlfriend's mother and brother was arriving that night from the other side of the country. I could have blown it off, but I respected her mother and brother. They were good people, and I wanted to see them. So I went to the most awkward dinner of my life.

I blamed my obvious discomfort on being tired. The desperation in my partner's face was awful, but thankfully she couldn't hold eye contact, dropping her gaze in shame. I kept up appearances and cracked some jokes. But my heart knew it was over. What my soon-to-be-ex had done was a symptom of too many other problems.

We went home and broke up.

Fast forward a few months later, and I'm living in my van with my dog by the beach. Remember I said there was a housing crisis? It's extra hard with a puppy.

I spent my evenings on Tinder to fill the void. I'd leave the city to camp in the forest on the beach. It was lonely. Van life isn't so romantic when you have no choice.

One night, feeling guilty after a Tinder hook-up, I sped out of town to be alone. I was distracted. En route, I filled my diesel van with gas. That mix-up can ruin engines forever. Especially if you drive it.

The van (Delilah) was my baby. A super weird right-hand drive 4X4 Japanese import. A West Coast adventure machine that I'd spent countless hours painstakingly converting to look like a cabin inside with recycled wood. It even had a custom miniature wood stove with a cute stovepipe popping out the roof.

Clueless, I drove into the woods, camped, and then work. I covered over a hundred km because gas and diesel separate, so I was burning diesel at the bottom of the tank with no hint anything was wrong. It wasn't until I drove up a hill leaving work that horrible screeching, crashing, and smoke informed me Delilah was dead.

As I watched my house leave on the back of a tow truck, my boss took pity on me. I stayed in his loft and borrowed his truck. Nobody knew what to say to me. I'd destroyed my prize possession. My personal life was a shambles. Embarrassed facepalms seemed like the only response.

I knew I couldn't stay with my boss and his girlfriend forever, but the truth was I had very few places to go. My family lived on the other side of the country, and I had few friends in the city that could take a dog and me.

The money I needed for a deposit on a new apartment I used to buy a truck. My boss was not easy to work for, but he was rock solid when his people needed help. But there were limits. When I asked to stay longer, I got a flat "no."

I don't blame him, but I'd say that moment was my rock bottom. Or maybe it was driving away knowing I had to sleep with my dog in the back of my truck.

The next few weeks were a lot of sleeping under the stars and on friend's couches. And not a lot of sobriety.

It was a period that made me appreciate how quickly someone can become homeless. A couple of things break, you make a couple of bad calls, and suddenly you are sleeping outside drinking out of a paper bag.

It was actually Tinder, shamelessly used as a vice, that saved me.

One date, smoking her e-cigarette on a hunk of driftwood, figured out I needed more than a fling. I was never sober and had no real support. She didn't know I was homeless, but it was obvious my life was a disaster. So she gave me the number of her roommate, who organized a men's circle in town.

My First Men's Group

It was misty and gray, a classic Pacific Northwest afternoon shifting into dusk. I drove out of town through the countryside, past farms, and into the woods.

The address wasn't on Google Maps, but I eventually found a cluster of cars and a couple of older men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. They had warm smiles but didn't say much. I followed them down a path through dripping cedars to a large yurt.

Inside, a guy approached me and hugged me like a brother. It was the roommate of the Tinder date- a hipster with Native American-style double braids, thick glasses, and a trucker hat. Other guys could have just walked out of a bank. Leather jackets, ponchos, and three-piece suits all made small talk, waiting for whatever was about to happen.

I don't know what I had expected, but this was not it.

I learned this particular group followed protocols laid out by the Mankind Project. Some were already initiated into the organization during a weekend retreat they made to sound epic. They kept the retreat details pretty mysterious but assured me they came out changed men.

Thankfully a couple of others were first-timers too. We chatted nervously but were mainly in the dark about what we were about to do. Finally, we were all invited to sit in the chairs laid out in a circle.

The leaders laid out the rules, like using a talking stick, keeping each other accountable, and their protocols for conflict resolution.

The vibe was, unmistakably, masculine. Not a surprise, but I was reminded how a group of a dozen men wasn't exactly my comfort zone. I had worked in forestry, liked tools, drove trucks and tractors, drank beer, and fit all kinds of other Canadian masculine cliches.

But folks at work or casual acquaintances don't immediately meet the quiet, sensitive kid I've been since forever. I quit team sports because groups of guys competing were too intense as a kid. I just wanted to mess around on the computer and play with Lego alone.

As I got older, I liked talking about my emotional world and got along with women easily. But many men remained difficult. This discomfort led to a "becoming a man" journey that had repaired my confidence by receiving respect for my skills, work ethic, and leadership.

But here I was, sitting in a circle with a bunch of friendly and open men, and none of my previous accomplishments mattered. My life was a mess, and it was clear those around me chatting easily had unlocked something I had not.

I was relieved when we all went outside and stood in a circle. The vibe changed immediately. Someone lit up some sage and started calling in the four directions.

A man smudged me, bathing my body in the calming smoke of burning sage. He firmly placed a hand on my heart, looked in my eyes, and proclaimed, "Welcome to the circle of men!"

A chorus from the rest of the circle echoed his statement. Cleansed and subdued, we silently made our way inside and sat in a circle.

The talking stick moved around the circle; I was floored. Men shared about their week and introduced themselves.

But it wasn't just words. People got fucking mad. Screams. Sadness. Tears. Rants and complaints. Gratitude and celebration. It was all good, all welcome. Watching this odd collection of men encourage and support each other in expressing themselves, or even better, getting mad at each other in a mediated session hit something inside me.

I would never have guessed what watching other men get raw would affect me. How people were really doing had nothing to do with how I perceived them when I walked in.

My inner shy, sensitive kid suddenly felt safe. He usually hid behind talking about work or some project. Feeling utterly defeated and crying would be met with the same acceptance of needing to be angry. Instead of judgment, the group would thank me for sharing.

Over the years, when in conversation with other men, I've avoided getting any more profound than simply complaining about what was bothering me. Maybe admitting I was pissed off. Definitely avoiding something like sadness.

I watched the group guide each other deeper into whatever they brought to the circle. Over the past few months, I became aware the men around me avoided exploring just how shitty my situation was.

My co-workers and acquaintances were there in person, but something was always held back. As I watched a greater spectrum of emotion explode around me, I saw what had been missing.

Even solid old friends would rather talk about work than feelings. When we hung out, maybe they would bash my ex or empathize about how the housing market was out of control.

But my inner situation felt so much more complex.

When another first-timer across from me started crying about his breakup, a wave of empathy hit me hard. I would never have approached him in the regular world. But I deeply related to his situation. He also had a custody battle with his ex for the dog. Dividing up the furniture in the apartment had been complicated. Finding a new home was a battle.

He felt alone. But was experiencing the same struggles as me.

It was my turn, and it was a decent-sized circle. I didn't know anyone and had spoken little. I could feel everyone's curiosity. But I felt safe. My insides could come out here without anybody changing the subject or cracking a joke.

I finally got out my breakup story to people who wanted to listen. The empathy was palpable, particularly the connection as I thanked the guy across from me for sharing. There was someone in it with me. A total stranger, but it helped.

Most importantly, I felt respected by other men for sharing in an authentic and vulnerable way.

Brotherhood

I've never had a brother.

When it ended, I left, giving everyone hugs. I felt different—excitement signaling discovery of something that resonates on a core level.

Until I was with that circle, I didn't fully grasp what felt off in my relationship with men. The rage and defeat and despair and so many other things had all been there. Even before the breakup. Life gets complicated all the time and the program we men run is to "handle it."

That men have difficulty with expressing emotion age-old. It is a topic that is traditionally an open and shut case — guys can't talk about their feelings, too bad.

But we have emotions, and they are seriously powerful. And identifying and expressing them usually doesn't happen until we hit critical mass. And releasing that emotional charge can be destructive.

The other reality is complete ignorance of needing to express anything at all.

I'm an upper-middle-class white guy from North America. My life looks like a free ride to many.

When my life exploded, I had a job, friends, and family to help me. In case you're wondering, a wizard mechanic friend fixed my van, and I ended up moving into a fancy new condo closer to work. I met the love of my life about a month later.

My particular rock bottom was nothing compared to much of the world.

But the isolation and emotional disassociation from other men is real. Men have privilege, but we also have a tremendous amount of work to do. If we don't, all that we have been given is wasted.

So for my fellow humans out there frustrated with men, I'd ask for the tiniest bit of patience. Some of us are trying. Many more are too terrified to even begin. Some don’t feel anything is missing.

And for my brothers out there, I'd encourage a bit of curiosity and a lot of courage.