This story appears in the March/April 2018 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

I turn in to the parking lot shortly before seven p.m., though I’m still not sure this is the place. It’s been dark for hours and the air is crisp for a December night outside Los Angeles. Finally a text comes through: “Where are you?” That’s when I spot them: nine men alone in a public park, standing in a circle.

This may not be Fight Club, but there are definitely rules. First things first: Don’t call them “guys.” These are not dudes, homeboys or someone’s brother from another mother. They’re men. The second rule of not–Fight Club: Whatever happens in the park stays in the park. Participants may share lessons learned here with friends outside the circle, but any personal secrets the team members reveal tonight must remain confidential.

Right, team. That’s the third rule. “There is a negative connotation to the term support group,” says Jason (who asked me not to use his real name). “A support group is a bunch of men making each other feel better. We don’t do that. We believe life is better lived as a team sport. We’re here to help you do everything you say you want to do.” Perhaps he’s splitting (receding) hairs, but over the next three hours I’ll witness grown men confronting some of their ugliest fears and worst memories. Some will cry. One will reveal a personal secret so dark it feels like an episode of HBO’s Room 104.

But first, some context.

These guys—sorry, men—are members of MDI, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is “to cause greatness by mentoring men to live with excellence and, as mature masculine leaders, create successful families, careers and communities.” The credo may be clunky, but the underlying message apparently resonates. MDI (which stands for “Mentor, Discover, Inspire”) claims more than 1,000 members across North America, with 101 teams concentrated in major cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto and New York. The organization was founded in the late 1990s, but its mission feels right on time, as we continue to learn that many of our heroes (and Matt Lauer) have been taking their dicks out at work.

MDI’s teams host philanthropic events and participate in the occasional overnight retreat, but the weekly team meetings are the organization’s raison d’être. Support groups for men to (gulp) talk about their feelings certainly aren’t new., an online platform for finding people with similar interests, lists 360 groups in the United States dedicated to men’s support, according to a company spokesperson. That number doesn’t include groups such as City Dads that offer camaraderie for men but don’t label themselves specifically as support groups. Other organizations where men can hug it out include the ManKind Project, a nonprofit founded in 1984 that claims more than 900 groups across 22 countries. (MDI and groups like it, with their focus on personal growth and respect for all, are a world apart from the so-called men’s rights outfits that frequently spout misogyny and often fall on the alt-right end of the spectrum.)

Despite a proliferation of available options, men remain unlikely to seek help. Last February, Psychology Today reported on the “silent crisis in men’s mental health”—the suicide rate for men is four times higher than for women. The problem has long been culturally entrenched. Fredric Rabinowitz, psychology professor and author of Deepening Psychotherapy With Men, tells me in a phone call, “Men have internal shame for not living up to whatever ideals they imagine they should have achieved—whether it’s having enough money, being further along in their careers, providing for their family. Because men mask their emotions, they feel isolated. One of the benefits of the men’s group is the relief of finding out you’re not the only one who feels shame.” Participating in a larger community may explain the popularity of the Movember movement, in which millions of men grow mustaches every November to raise awareness of prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s health. Because the only thing worse than walking around with a mustache is having to talk about your butthole.

It may seem obvious that men don’t like to ask for help, but the problem is so systemic and perplexing that a landmark 2003 study on masculinity and self-help was convened. What two Ph.D.’s determined was that men basically have to be tricked into seeking help by changing “the services to fit the ‘average’ man.” In a way, that’s what MDI has been doing. Men may see joining a support group as a sign of weakness, but joining a team? Good talk, coach.

And so, here I am in a parking lot chasing a half-deflated volleyball into the bushes. All MDI team meetings start with a half-hour activity referred to as Fun & Physical. Tonight, these men are playing a modified game of volleyball with wacky rules (you can spike only with your non-dominant hand) and a “net” made from a row of folding chairs. This particular game is called Bro Ball, which is maybe the most embarrassing thing I’ll hear tonight, but the rationale tracks. As Abe Moore, a 52-year-old IT specialist, says between rotations, “Fun & Physical allows men to get out of their heads. When you come to a meeting, you’re not in a space to open your heart and be present.”

I should admit that I came to this story with my own bias. I half suspected the group might be a cult. (Moore says he wondered the same thing at first.) Or that these meetings were for losers who were still sleeping on their moms’ couches. Or, worse, that MDI was a place for misguided good ol’ boys to talk about how they’re the real victims in this whole #MeToo thing. But pretty quickly the men challenged my assumptions.

At 50, Gregor (not his real name) is still boyishly handsome, a successful music producer who has worked alongside Grammy-winning musicians. He isn’t someone who looks like he needs a support group. (See? Bias at work.) Gregor came to his first team meeting nearly 10 years ago, he tells me, at the invitation of a dad from his kid’s school. He recalls playing soccer that night and admits to some initial misgivings. But he soon discovered something unexpected: The men weren’t being coddled. They were being challenged. Gregor was surprised to find himself talking—a lot—about a problem he had at work: He’d promised to collaborate with a friend on a project but no longer had the time, yet his ego wouldn’t let him walk away. “There was all this made-up stuff in my head about not letting my friend down,” Gregor says. “Within 20 minutes, I had a clear path forward. These men helped me get out of my own way.”

I saw similar exchanges at the meeting I attended—exchanges that are best described as men publicly calling each other out on their bullshit. (This approach may be what separates MDI from more traditional support groups.) I can’t reveal details of their discussion, but imagine how it might feel to watch a man admit he hadn’t had sex with his wife in months, only to have the team grill him about it.

MDI president Geoff Tomlinson later explains that this technique is intentional. “If you got fired, you’d blame it on your boss being a dick. You’d get a beer with your buddies and they’d pat you on the back and say, ‘You’ll get a better job tomorrow!’ But at your team meeting, you get the opposite experience. If you say you lost your job, they’ll say, ‘We’re sorry that happened, but what part of this core relationship with your boss do you have to own? Let’s get to the bottom of this, or you’ll be back here in two years.’ ” It seems to be effective, if not exactly polite. It’s been a long time since a fistfight has broken out at an MDI meeting, Tomlinson says, but it has happened. “If someone gets pissed off,” he says, “that’ll intensify the men coming at him because it’s touched a nerve.”

Tomlinson should know; he’s not only the president of MDI, he’s also a client. He joined his first team in Toronto some 20 years ago at the urging of his boss, who suggested the meetings might help him understand why he kept getting passed over for promotions at work. “We remind people: You are the common denominator in your own story,” says Tomlinson. Anyone who has ever been in therapy will recognize that phrase. What MDI really offers men is a set of action-oriented tools for personal growth and “teammates” to hold them accountable for their own behavior.

At the L.A. meeting, the elephant in the room is Harvey Weinstein and his abuses of power and the wrongs committed by other prominent men. Gregor is eager to address the subject. “If those men had been on a team,” he says, “someone would have been holding them accountable before they hurt somebody. Before it was too late.”

The nine men in this group come from diverse backgrounds, but they appear to be unified by the feeling of having missed out on something, be it an essential life lesson, rite of passage or guide to a life well lived. MDI helps them fill in those blanks. A man I’ll call Jack (late 50s, blue-collar, works in aeronautics) tells me he came to MDI seven years ago, when his marriage was cratering. Jack had been raised by a father who was physically present but emotionally absent, he says. His father took him camping, but the man never provided guidance. “I was waiting for somebody to tell me what it was to be a man,” Jack says, “for someone to say to me, ‘These were the rules then, and these are the rules now.’ ”

What he found in this circle was a group of men willing to take the time to listen, which is increasingly rare. After he owned up to his own shortcomings (“My wife was bored with me; I needed to grow up”), his MDI team helped him rebuild himself and his confidence. For example, Jack had never been good with money—something he felt ashamed about—so his teammates made him treasurer. Encouraging concrete new life skills is just one way the group helps its members; other ways are more abstract.

Time and again I hear a similar refrain: The team saved someone’s marriage, financial future, even life.

Abe—the IT specialist—later shared his own story with me, and it was sobering. He’d never met his father, he says, didn’t even know who the man was. Abe’s mother had struggled with addiction, and his siblings were in and out of foster care. He came to his first team meeting at the age of 40, shortly after his wife kicked him out. His thought patterns were a cesspool of negativity, steeped over a lifetime of self-hate. “I felt like I’m a piece of shit,” he says, “and that because I didn’t have a father I couldn’t be a good father.” He wasn’t the type of man to ask for help. But by learning to show up for his teammates, he learned to show up for his wife too. After a year, she invited him home. “Without the team,” he says in maybe the most earnest voice I’ve ever heard in L.A., “I wouldn’t be married now.”

Time and again I hear a similar refrain: The team saved someone’s marriage, financial future, even life. It had helped men quit smoking or watch less porn. Or confront their own fathers, which is the central struggle of basically every male coming-of-age story ever told in this town.

It’s a difficult time to be a man in America. Professor Rabinowitz, who has hosted his own men’s group meeting for 30 years and has a wait list for new members, says he hasn’t seen such an influx of interest since the women’s liberation movement sent men scrambling to redefine themselves. The whole thing can be corny as hell: At one point during the MDI meeting I attended, one man stared another dead in the eyes, put his hand on the other man’s chest and thanked him for living his truth. But it can also be seriously humbling. It takes balls to be so emotionally naked.

The meeting ends at 10 p.m. with the men shouting their team name, Arrowhead, into the sky like some high school football team. Each team chooses its own name. There’s a group in New York, I later find out, that calls itself Massive Dump, a juvenile but funny play on the emotional release one feels after a team meeting. “Arrowhead” is more pointed, so to speak, hinting at the difficult work these team members must do on themselves to become better men as they shed bad habits and work through past trauma. “An arrowhead’s razor-sharp edge comes from chipping away at what’s not needed,” says Gregor.

In our post-Weinstein world, a man’s best move may be to shut up and listen. But whether in the White House or working the drive-through at White Castle, it’s clear we men have work to do—to chip away at the unnecessary, to craft a better instrument. Go, team.

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Mickey Rapkin’s previous Playboy contributions include reports on denim hunting in rural America and on partying in Denmark. His first book, Pitch Perfect, about the world of college a cappella groups, inspired the hit film franchise.