This group psychotherapy gathering, initially an in-person weekly session started in the Washington area 30 years ago, was the high point of my week for more than a decade until I moved to the San Francisco Bay area three years ago.
Now, though, I am again savoring this intimacy with other men, more than ever. In the most psychologically disruptive time of my era — not just covid-19, but the deepest racial turmoil and the most perilous moment for American democracy — I have regained a profound sense of community at a time when I didn’t even realize how much I missed it. As a special bonus, two of us are Black men, and we have had some of the most honest discussions of race I’ve ever participated in.
On our most recent Zoom group call were:
●Our benevolent but challenging 83-year-old psychiatrist/father figure who frequently expresses his pride in our modest achievements.
●A 38-year-old ex-spy and war veteran who just moved west to start a new job and live with a new woman after a series of difficult relationships.
●A 76-year-old retired computer guy who moved to a remote lake in New England with the woman he found late in life after several turbulent romances.
●A 72-year-old salesman whose father squandered a fortune and whose mother took out her frustrations by mistreating him since childhood.
●A 68-year-old retired defense contractor who recently married an Indonesian woman partly to help her avoid deportation and because he is a big-hearted man who loves needy women — sometimes several at a time.
●A 42-year-old ex-lawyer who moved to the Sun Belt to be near his only child after learning 10 years ago that a) his mother had been a high-priced prostitute, b) his father was not his real father and c) his wife was cheating on him with his best friend.
●A 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who continues to optimistically struggle to recover trust and find a good woman after being sexually molested by his oldest sister as an 8-year-old in the Midwest.
And then there is me, a 70-year-old semiretired journalist happily married for 46 years with two great sons and daughters-in-law, four sweet grandkids and a lovely Northern California lifestyle — with the underlying challenge of being bipolar and occasionally suffering severe breakdowns, though thankfully none in the past 15 years.
We all started as private patients and — once we had overcome acute conditions of depression, manic depression and other ailments — were invited to join the group of men who convened in our therapist’s den at precisely 7 a.m. every Thursday. We had only one strict rule: everything that happened in that warm, familiar place stayed within that special place.
We treasured the group because over time it truly became a family — but not a dysfunctional one. Under the warm blanket of confidentiality, we felt increasingly liberated from our inhibitions in a shame-free, guilt-free zone of trust. Family problems, work anxieties, existential, political, financial and, yes, even sexual problems were all laid out.
It wasn’t all idyllic, though. Like any family, ours had its blowups: hurt feelings, perceived insults, inappropriate humor and sibling rivalries when one guy thought another was getting too much attention from Dad. Despite such wrinkles, that cozy den always provided, and remains, a unique shared space in all our lives.
Over decades, the group’s membership expanded and shrank frequently; some men lasted a year or two, a month or even just a single, fearful visit. We had compulsive gamblers and workaholics, sex addicts and virgins, gender-benders, mother-haters, father-haters and wife-haters, just to name a few among the infinite variety of human conditions.
We virtually never socialized outside the 90-minute sessions — except occasionally the younger guys got together to barhop in search of women. A few times we came together for funerals, hospital visits and, in a moment that was very meaningful to me, for a memorial service for my mother when three of the men in my group appeared.
After more than 10 years, I had to drop out in 2017 when my wife and I moved cross-country to be with family. Others moved away, too. I missed the group a lot, but moved on. But two months ago, as covid-19 anxiety spiked, a few of the younger guys got the idea of getting back together. Every one of us jumped at the chance. We have been meeting every week since.
At a moment of isolation, alienation and the loss of community, my group is a soothing oasis that every week reminds me of a few very important life lessons: People — or in this case men — are fundamentally very similar in our needs and our hopes, regardless of race, class and circumstance. Yet we are all ultimately alone because nobody truly knows the depth of what another man is confronting. Finally, though, we are very deeply connected because there are few things more meaningful than getting a chance to really be heard and understood by the people you love, even virtually.
In our very latest sessions, something remarkable seemed to be happening: Most of us were clearly making some progress. The former spy who moved to the West Coast was really learning how to be patient with his latest potential mate, and how he cannot fix his family’s serious psychological problems. The ex-lawyer found himself growing closer to his daughter and making peace with his father’s impending death. The tech guy was finally realizing that his current romance is toxic and he needs to move on.
We all sensed these signs of incremental progress and commented on them. Nobody has “resolved” their issues, but clearly there has been a lot of personal growth and learning. In the time of the pandemic, we are able to help each other in powerful ways, and that’s about the best that humans can do.
Peter Perl was a writer and editor at The Washington Post for 33 years, where he retired as assistant managing Editor in 2013. He now lives in Oakland, Calif.