THE BACK PAGES

AA for people who feel too much

CATHY GULLI March 3 2008
THE BACK PAGES

AA for people who feel too much

CATHY GULLI March 3 2008

AA for people who feel too much

Welcome to Emotions Anonymous: 'My name is Amy and I’m powerless over my emotions’

CATHY GULLI

Carly has a phrase to describe what happens to her on a bad day. “I get frozen,” says the 25-year-old, who works for a non-profit organization. “I just can’t seem to get motivated.” The most mundane tasks that she usually accomplishes without a hitch—doing laundry, getting groceries, making phone calls—suddenly seem daunting. Before long, “things pile up,” she says. But lately, bad days don’t get the best of Carly—she’s learned to break down to-do lists into manageable chunks. Now, she says, “I have tools to help me out.”

The change has been obvious ever since Carly, who has struggled with depression, started going to weekly meetings for Emotions Anonymous. It’s a 12-step program that is precisely modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous, but this version is for people whose emotions, not booze, run their lives in an unhealthy way. Unlike AA though, EA is relatively unknown. “People are usually surprised to hear there’s actually an Emotions Anonymous,” says Carly, whose real name has been changed. “And they want to know more.”

Since it was founded in Minnesota in 1971, more than a thousand groups have been established in 35 countries—including nearly a hundred across Canada. Quebec hosts more than half of all those EA meetings, and almost every other province has at least one group of its own. Shawinigan, Que., the hometown of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, hosts four EA meetings a week, the most of any municipality except for Calgary and Winnipeg, which boast five each.

No matter where you attend Emotions Anonymous, though, the meetings always follow the same format and use the same material. (These include pamphlets on topics such as fear or anger, texts on EA concepts, traditions and promises, daily devotionals written by members, and workbooks.) There’s no leader; every meeting is chaired by a different person who’s volunteered for the post. It starts with participants gathered in a circle, usually in a church basement, and one by one they introduce themselves: “Hi, my name is [fill in the blank], and I’m powerless over my emotions.” That admission is the first step of the program; this one and all the steps thereafter are the same as for AA.

At the meeting, everybody gets to talk briefly about their current struggle and effort to overcome it. A golden rule of EA: “no crosstalk”—comments are prohibited, as are non-verbal responses such as furrowed brows or nods. It’s a tough habit to break since so many people do these things without thinking—it’s an emotional reaction. Stopping that is part of the point of EA.

The one thing that varies at every meeting is who’s there. “The age range is 20 to 80,” says Carly, whose group sees a weekly rotation of about 30 participants: “It doesn’t matter if you’re an executive or a janitor,” she says, adding that people from every race and sexual orientation show up. Their issues are diverse too—from diagnosed mental conditions to isolated anxiety attacks to worrying too much. Some people use EA in conjunction with medication or counselling.

That’s not to say that people who go to EA don’t have family and friends to lean on as well. Many participants have unconditional support from loved ones. But “it can be draining on families. This is a relief for them,” says Dafha (not her real name), 42, who is bipolar and has been going to EA for two years. “This is something I can do to help myself.”

Carly sees how the program has helped her. Before joining, the most trivial things would frustrate her—she’d get into a funk when, on opening the door to her disorganized freezer, food would fall onto the kitchen floor chaotically. “The freezer is still packed,” she says, but now, “I’m different.”

Of course, EA is not for everyone, as its members will attest. For starters, the references to “God” or “a higher power” don’t resonate with non-believers, even though EA insists it is spiritual, not religious, and encourages people to identify God however they want—in nature, or the universe. And Michele Crawford, a counsellor in New Westminster, B.C., suggests people may get “stuck” in 12step programs like EA. “You go to a meeting, you hear the same story, so you wind up dwelling,” she says, adding that people should go to several meetings to find out if their local EA group is good for them.

Then again, Crawford supposes “it’s better to be dependent on a group” than to be, well, powerless over your emotions. M