Finding Connection Through Tea With Strangers?

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    Sometimes, when riding the métro to work in the morning, I stare at everyone around me and feel dispirited. I see a sea of bent heads and moving thumbs, the pads of which thump away autonomously on handheld screens. I feel as though we are all existing separately, connected only to our immediate reality by the physicality of our bodies. The vacancy in people’s eyes ties knots in my stomach. I feel alone.

    I grew up in the beautiful tangles of the franco-anglo culture of Montréal. My parents are both immigrants, one from a small town in northern England and the other from Hong Kong. My childhood was happy. I played pretend with my younger sister and our friends in our large suburban backyard for hours on end, making castles out of snow banks; and dreams out of thin air. In high school I developed a tight group of friends and had excellent grades, which led me to have high expectations of self. I filled my time with extra-curriculars of all kinds: dance shows, musicals, rugby and student council. Things were just dandy until they weren’t.

    In University I began to struggle. After being herded like an unsuspecting sheep through the traditional education system, I was becoming painfully aware that it would soon become necessary to make real, tangible decisions about the shape of my future. The immensity of this realization coupled with a staunch desire to succeed and the competitive environment of McGill University kept me awake at night and soon began to keep me in bed throughout the day.

    Depression made me feel like I was sinking in mud. I’d try to lift one foot out, but the other would sink deeper. As someone who always aspired to have it all together , I did not feel comfortable sharing what I was going through with anyone. Shame wrapped its calloused hands around my mouth and kept me silent. It felt that admitting I wasn’t doing well would indicate that I had lost, even though I had no idea what I was trying to win.

    When I did eventually talk about it, it was in a therapist’s office. It took a considerable amount of spilling out the inner recesses of my mind to a professional stranger before I found my footing again. Therapy taught me how to redirect my negative thinking patterns and behaviors. Speaking to a stranger taught me how important the value of human connection is.

    One evening, I stumbled upon an open invitation to collaborate on an initiative that would offer an alternative way to speak to someone: in person, in a cafe, with an empathetic stranger. Sarah, a fellow McGill psychology student, and I connected immediately and she shared her story with me. After spending several days at sea after the ship she was on sank, Sarah struggled with PTSD for years until therapy helped her findways to cope. She continued seeing her therapist even after her symptoms had subsided because she appreciated having an unbiased listener to speak with. We agreed that while therapy is incredibly valuable, it isn’t always what people need. Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them.

    The two of us founded Vent Over Tea , an in-person “listening service” in Montréal that allows people to schedule free Vent Sessions with one of our trained volunteers in a local café. Since its inauguration three years ago, we have had an overwhelming number of people confirm what we suspected: People need to feel heard. People need to connect. The systems that are currently in place don’t afford environments or spaces that readily allow for these types of connection that I truly believe every person craves. What we’ve also realized is that people sometimes need structure in which to make these connections. Vent Over Tea is offering one iteration of this structure in Montréal (we are excited to be launching soon in Sarah’s hometown of Calgary in June!), and we know there are many other ways to open space in similar and effective ways.

    In a recent and invigorating development, we have begun hosting monthly community events in an effort to provide the space and the structure for people to connect as a group in authentic and meaningful ways. We offer people the chance to have a mini vent session with one of our volunteers while also holding space for friends, strangers and neighbors to share coffee, tea and conversation. It has been beautiful to see people sharing and supporting, being vulnerable and holding space for others’ vulnerability.

    Giving people the framework in which to be vulnerable is a powerful tool. I am astounded by the love that comes from our one-on-one vent sessions and the group meetups - not romantic love; but a genuine caring love that is shared amongst all who attend. In these moments, I feel far from alone - as though we are all connected in this shared experience of being human and all that it encompasses: the good, the bad, and every shade in between.

Chloe Chow

Co-Founder of Vent Over Tea