3 Friends Tried Text Therapy for 4 Months and Are Publishing the Sessions Online—Here, They Explain Why

Photo: Friends with Secrets
The golden rules of friendship go something like this: You never miss the opportunity for a shared eye roll, you gas each other up every chance you get, and (above all) you don't shy away from sharing the hardest parts of being human.

In early 2018, Akilah Hughes (a YouTuber and comedian), Robyn Kanner (a writer), and Timothy Goodman (a designer and illustrator)—a trio of creative BFFs living in New York City—made a collective resolution to not only discuss the gritty, raw parts of life with one another, but to each participate in four months of text therapy. And, as if all that vulnerability wasn't lump-in-your-throat-inducing enough, on Monday, the group published the transcripts of their first session online in a collaborative project called Friends with Secrets.

"I think, maybe self-servingly, that my friends take advantage of me because they can sense my fear of letting anyone besides myself down." - Akilah Hughes

Over five consecutive days, the site will unveil a new text therapy session for each friend every morning. And if the first ones are any indication: This is just about as no-filter as it gets. In her first session, Hughes tells her therapist, "I think, maybe self-servingly, that my friends take advantage of me because they can sense my fear of letting anyone besides myself down." Kanner, meanwhile, opens up about the aftermath of past sexual traumas: "I've been trying to just move forward but I can't because every time I try to date or trust anyone I just think about how that person is going to eventually hurt me—accidentally or not—it doesn't matter," she says. And Goodman shares one of his greatest fears: "I always felt like I had to be a dad because I never knew my own. [But] now, I worry I'm too selfish. I worry I'll be no good at it."

Taken apart, each one-on-one session is beyond brave. But taken together, they demand a new definition of friendship: One where prioritizing each another's mental health is just as key as meeting up for Saturday night happy hour.

Keep reading for a conversation with Hughes, Kanner, and Goodman.

Why did you start Friends with Secrets?

TIM: About a year ago, the three of us were hanging out a lot, and we were all in kind of the same mindset about a lot of things—like the state of the world. We get on really well, so we were talking a lot about creating something that might capture how we were feeling and what we are going through. And obviously text therapy is kind of a zeitgeisty thing. It’s kind of trendy right now. People are doing it. And so we thought, well, what if we all participated in these online text sessions as a way to kind of learn more about ourselves, and create a project around that that would hopefully inspire others to seek therapy?

ROBYN: The whole thing’s been a kick. Unexpectedly, we were all just going through really hard times and this ended up being a way for us to talk [about it].

AKILAH: Everything in 2017 was just so hard that we felt it would be really cool to just start dealing with our issues. Maybe once and for all. Maybe once and for a moment. So I think we all kind of trusted each other to go through with it, and make sure we signed up on January 1st.

What were each of you surprised about in the first session?

TIM: I remember the first session I felt frustrated a little bit. I felt like, this is just odd and weird. Because I’ve done therapy a lot, like real-life therapy for years. And I’ve always found it to be incredibly valuable and useful to me. And there was a disconnect to me, personally, doing the text therapy in the beginning, because I didn’t know how this was supposed to work. Because this person couldn’t pick up on my physical expressions, or my nuances, or all that plays into how they can help me.

ROBYN: The first session was very hard for me. I was not in a good place mentally when we did this. My job felt off, I was drinking too much, I was self-harming, I was doing too many drugs. My life was just chaos. And the first session where I talk about Laura [a trans woman I dated] to Jennifer [the therapist], it was just so bottled up inside of me that I felt like I was unloading the whole time. In the next two sessions, there's this moment when Jennifer’s really trying to check in on me, and I’m refusing to let her. Just going back and reading that, it was so hard for me to communicate in a way that was listenable to somebody who was trying to help. So that’s what sticks out to me in the first session: Jennifer’s trying so hard and I’m just all over the place.

AKILAH: I kind of felt the same way I feel with online dating. It’s like, “So now I’m on this app, and I have to meet this strange person, and we probably aren’t going to vibe.” I felt regretful of the fact that I had to [participate], so I was waiting for her to say something that would piss me off so I could be mad about it. But it never really came.

I [went] into it feeling well-adjusted in a way that doesn’t often feel like it necessitates therapy. It’s just, I grew up in a culture where it was taboo, and you had to be really crazy to talk to someone about your problems. And it’s not even that I really necessarily agreed with that. I felt like, "Well I’m not the person with the most problems, so here I am—a frivolous person spending my time whining about things that aren’t, I don’t know... I felt like they weren’t that big of a deal."

What do you hope readers of Friends with Secrets will take away from the project?

TIM: I just hope that it inspires people to think about therapy. And if they’re already considering it, maybe this would be something that would get them over the hump to do it. So many people deal with mental health issues and so few people are proactive about [finding help]. Obviously, there are financial reasons [some people don't seek therapy], but a lot of people don’t know that your job might cover some of the benefits. I had that when I had a full-time job. And text therapy is considerably cheaper than real-time therapy.

ROBYN: It’s complex for me. I think the basic root of all this is I hope that when people read a story, that they find themselves in that story. I hope they can just experience real emotions with it. All these sessions that I did, everything just felt so real to me. And to share that, that’s the root of the human experience: To experience it and tell other people about it. And I just really hope that people read and it resonates with them. And that we’ll all be better to each other, too.

AKILAH: The best-case scenario is to have compassion and empathy for other people. And I don’t think that I’m necessarily the most compassionate person on earth, but I sort of think about app therapy in the way that I think about horoscopes. It sounds crazy, but let me explain! I think that, regardless of what is true about horoscopes, reading about other people gives you an idea of how someone else might process something—even if it’s just like, bullshit. And so, I would hope that people learn to be a little bit gentler with themselves and the way that they deal with problems—or don't deal with problem. I hope that they would be aware that there’s not one right way, but talking about it isn’t the worst thing you can do.

ROBLYN: Akilah said to me the other day that it’s not that these sessions are good or bad, it’s just that they’re honest. And I think that’s how I feel about it.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Speaking of mental health, we recently asked more than 2,700 people about their stress and anxiety. Here's what they had to say

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