Because why not?
Image: Lukasz Wierbowski
Two facts about me: I'm an incredibly depressed person and I'm sort of a dickhead. Evidence to support statement one: Last month, after getting far too drunk at my own birthday party and sneaking out in a fit of manic weeps, I got home and began taking Klonopin because I wanted to die. After pill four, I called my therapist and flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet. (I subsequently quit drinking, and found a reinvigorated passion for life.) Evidence to support statement two: Multiple IRL friends have cut off contact with me because I made fun of their political beliefs on Twitter. Struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, accented with being a smartass, poses unique challenges to both my mental health treatment and social life. Ideologically, I think snark is beautiful—and necessary to our cultural survival. When you've spent most of your existence haunted by your own miserable thoughts—which turn you miserable—freely speaking your mind is straight up therapeutic, even though it may be ill-advised.
What I mean to say about all this is that I am not the ideal candidate to try out a mental health support group walk because I don't come across as a particularly soft person. The thing is, I really do want to be happy. The work that needs to be done in order to get there can feel impossible. Making major life changes involves liking yourself enough to want to do good things for yourself. That's the conundrum of the depressive.
Nonetheless, I found myself at a mental health support walk at 10:30AM on a recent Sunday morning. I didn't fancy myself a support-group type, but I wanted to try out talking to strangers about my darkest shit because why not? I jotted down in my phone, "Suicidal tired don't rly wanna be here."
We met on the steps of the Brooklyn Library, right by the Grand Army Plaza arch. I realized it was the first time I'd made it out of the house in the morning in a very long time, and it's a nice time of day to be outside. The walk was in Prospect Park, and being "in nature" was likely good for me, considering I live alone in the industrial wasteland of Bushwick and work from home.
The support walk, called Mental Health Mates, was started in the UK by depressed person Bryony Gordon, and brought to New York by Olivia Goldhull, who writes for Quartz. It was the first New York meet-up—I don't believe there's been another since. The ground rules were simple—we were free to talk about whatever but we weren't allowed to give each other medical advice. Gordon came up with the idea for Mental Health Mates when she was in a funk while writing a memoir about her mental health issues. "I posted on Twitter, suggesting a regular meet-up for people with mental health issues, where they could walk and talk without fear of judgment," she writes.
In an article about Mental Health Mates for Quartz, Goldhull says, "I love this group exactly because it isn't formal or clinical… Mental health doesn't have to be a secret locked behind a doctor's door. Indeed, Gordon's second book, on her struggles with OCD, explores just how normal it is to be weird."
It is normal to be weird, and we all have our shit—the concept of a support walk is very much founded on those values. This pushes against my neurotic tendency to view my problems as special and unique. There are benefits to exploring the nuances of your own neuroses, but there are also benefits to addressing your problems by tapping into something universal. "It is simply going back to basics; allowing individuals to connect on a truly human level," says licensed clinical social worker Tracey Weiss. "We cannot underestimate the value of community and live human interaction." She does, however, stress the danger of using such support groups as your sole form of mental health treatment. "If individuals suffering from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness are utilizing only these walks as a form of treatment then they are most likely not getting the tools necessary to cope with their mental illness in the long run."
I talk about my mental health online all the time—when I was younger, this worked to my detriment when I more or less live-tweeted a breakdown I had in college. Now I've figured out a more beneficial way to talk about my mental health issues online—I try to be analytical about my emotions. "Sharing online is safe in that you choose what you want to divulge and when and how to divulge it," Weiss explains. Talking about my mental health online makes me feel smart, and therefore good, about myself. "I'm self-aware!" I proclaim to the world. "So I don't ever have to adjust my problematic behavior as I long I know it exists," I whisper sadly to myself.
"Human interaction is raw and unrehearsed, we don't have the ability to construct what we're going to say, hit delete five times and then start fresh," Weiss explains. "In person we also receive verbal and facial cues that may otherwise go unnoticed behind the protection of a screen, these cues can be super important in knowing what someone is truly feeling." The digital world alone is not an adequate way to make connections. But it can be an important tool. Jaime Gleicher, a licensed social worker and therapist, explained me in an essay I wrote for Cosmo about mental illness and social media that posting about your mental health issues can help people feel connected "and find community and support in their struggles can be positive and liberating." I thought going on a Mental Health Mates walk adhered to a similar theory of mental well-being: the belief that sharing your feelings with strangers can be helpful. And Mental Health Mates is far more private than what I do on Twitter and in my newsletter—I send out an email every time I cry. But there's a totally different dynamic because you're with someone in the flesh. Outside! In a beautiful park!
But the real difference is that the conversation is two-sided, unlike online. An IRL meetup lacks a certain comfort the internet provides—being physically present can be taxing, and you lose the ability to log off whenever. On the walk, I talked to five or six other people, and most of the conversations felt like work. The walk involved a considerable amount of emotional and physical energy—valuable commodities for the depressive. Nevertheless I liked talking to the participants on the walk because getting to know other people is fundamentally interesting.
The premise of Mental Health Mates is that you go on a walk with people who are also struggling and have a safe space to express the pain you're in. But on the walk I went on, there wasn't a whole lot of depression talk. Which I was fine with, but I wondered why I was there. There's a loneliness to depression, for sure, but I have a lovely support network of friends and family for whom I am extremely grateful. When I talk to loved ones, I feel connected and understood. But the walk was a group of twelve or so other lost souls, mostly making small talk, all varying degrees of stilted and sad, imbued with an implicit knowledge that we were there because we have serious problems we can't always manage. I felt lonely, trapped inside of myself—anxious I'd make a snarky suicide joke or some wildly dramatic misanthropic claim that would alienate me from the group.
I chatted with an IT guy about our psychiatric histories for a while. He told me about how taking too much Klonopin fucked his memory for a while. I shared my Ambien horror stories. There's a sadness to commiserating with someone over the science experiment your body becomes when you're trying to treat mental illness medically. I talked an older woman professor about gentrification and the history of New York. It was all very friendly but I wasn't there to make friends. Throughout the walk, I kept wondering why I was even there. To find some sort of emotional respite? To feel better about being alive?
Something that did successfully make me feel better about living: Being in the park was a reminder of the majesty of New York, something I'm largely immune to because I grew up here.
While the walk wasn't a bad experience by any means, it wasn't right for me. In the company of strangers, I don't feel less alone. Moreover, being lonely isn't my fundamental issue. Mental Health Mates seems useful for people who don't already have a large support network, who feel like their mental health issues make them freaks. But I'm not afraid of being a freak—I actually enjoy it. The walk was nevertheless valuable—it reminded how lucky I am to have a huge support network, people I love who I'm effortlessly straightforward with about my mental health.