By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times
4:01 PM PST, January 23, 2013
Hi, I'm J. and I'm neurotic.
The barrel-chested man with jet black hair stops and sighs. Then, with quick cadence and a booming baritone, he shares his obsession: I sniff my girlfriend's clothes for the scent of another lover.
Hi, I'm M. and I'm neurotic.
The buxom Latina, who wears severe black eyeliner and habitually sniffs and sprays her hair with perfume at meetings, talks about her exercise addiction and how she can't stop sobbing.
Hi, I'm A. and I'm still neurotic.
The Mexico City transplant with a well-groomed mustache and pristine white Converse sneakers blinks rapidly and smiles as he explains, proudly, that it's been five years since he punched someone.
Neurotics Anonymous is in session. In Spanish.
Inside a crowded room wedged between a Zumba studio and an income tax business along Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., strangers gather for two hours each night to share their struggles and anxieties. Some people come only once, others sporadically, but many show up every day to this chapter of Neuróticos Anónimos, known as Grupo Serenidad.
Members accept strangers with warmth, make small talk about their favorite Maná songs and show love by sharing good food. Speakers have 12 minutes at the lectern. There's a timer, although no one pays it much mind.
Like Overeaters Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the self-help program for people with emotional issues — not neuroses in the classic sense as much as a struggle to control feelings — is one of hundreds patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step recovery plan.
Neurotics Anonymous was founded in 1964 by Grover Boydston, a psychologist who had spent years nursing his anxieties with liquor. He joined AA and sobered up but still struggled to control his emotions.
Boydston wrote the literature for his new group, weaving tidbits of personal experience with AA's standing methodology. One chapter focuses on some of his favorite lyrics — "No one would care, no one would cry, if I should live or die." He called that song, "What Now, My Love?," the most accurate description of mental and emotional illness he'd ever heard.
He scheduled the first Neurotics Anonymous meeting in the Washington, D.C., area. A small group turned out, but it grew steadily. Soon word spread into the western U.S. and south into Mexico and the rest of Latin America. The literature was translated and Neuróticos Anónimos groups cropped up.
The spread of Neuróticos Anónimos in Latin America was helped by the region's familiarity with Alcohólicos Anónimos. But in some ways, the structure of the group also aligns well with Latino culture: Because of their predominantly Catholic upbringing, admitting to personal struggles isn't out of the ordinary. (Doing so without the veil of a confessional, however, is a bit strange.)
Other hallmarks of the group are more foreign. For the women, whose mothers taught them it's impolite to meddle, listening to other people expose their problems without feeling like a metiche — a busybody — took awhile.
For the men, the public vulnerability of the meetings can be weird.
"We carry things with us from our past and from our culture," a member said through tears, as he addressed the group. "You can't cry or you won't be a man. Now I know that I'm more of a man for crying. Neuróticos Anónimos taught me that."
In the early 1970s, most of the English-language groups changed their name to what members believed was a less off-putting moniker: Emotions Anonymous.
Most Neuróticos Anónimos, however, opted to keep the old name.
"Freud is very popular when you go south of the border. They like 'neurotic,'" said Keith Humphreys, a research scientist at Stanford University who studies 12-step programs. "It has a cachet I don't think it has here anymore."
Grupo Serenidad, one of more than a dozen Neuróticos Anónimos in Los Angeles County, shares the same half-mile stretch with three Alcohólicos Anónimos meeting spots.
On a balmy Sunday, the members listened to a nuevecito, a newbie.
A short man wearing an orange tank top, a leather fanny pack and a wooden rosary stood up to speak. He introduced himself and gave the common confession: "Soy neurótico." The attentive onlookers echoed his name and said hello. (The members asked to remain anonymous.)
"I can't stand to be around gays," he said through a hiss. "They disgust me more than anything in the world." His palms clenched the wooden podium at the front of the room as he took a series of loud, short breaths.
"But the other day, while I was walking down the street, I saw a man." He paused, bit his bottom lip and whispered. "I saw a man and I wanted to have sex with him."
His eyes darted around the room. They stopped for a second with the smiling man in the second row and then with the nodding woman next to him. As he made his way back to his seat, a matronly voice boomed from the back row: "Gracias, pequeñito. Estamos contigo." She thanked him for sharing.
Next up: J., the jealous boyfriend, who perspired under his baby blue shirt as he explained his problem.
Each day he rushes home from work to check his girlfriend's phone for text messages or her wallet for suspicious receipts. He sniffs for the lingering scent of strange cologne. He never finds anything, but he knows why he suspects.
For many years, he told the group, he judged how macho a man was by how many women he was sleeping with at once. Now he wonders if she's satisfied with just him.
Several men in the crowd laughed and shouted in agreement. "Puente," they called out, using the Spanish word for bridge to let the man know they could relate.
The timer's shrill beep interrupted him and he yelled at it: "Shut up!" He finished his thought and walked to the far end of the room for some scorched coffee and animal crackers. He stopped for a second and gazed at a phrase tacked to the wall: "I'm somebody. God doesn't make trash."
At a meeting a few weeks later, as members munched on tacos de pollo someone brought to celebrate Grupo Serenidad's 27th anniversary, a chubby cosmetologist from Mexico City picked a seat in the second-to-last row. She comes here to listen, rarely to share. And she calls it her haven.
Growing up, discipline always meant violence. When she was 6, she lost a set of keys and her mother punched her repeatedly in the stomach. That same year her mother's brother started sneaking into her bedroom. The molestation continued until she was 12, when she tried to kill herself with a kitchen knife.
For years, she felt nothing but numbness. She became a slave to sedatives and antidepressants, even though she said they didn't help much. Then she read about Neuróticos Anónimos in a Spanish-language newspaper 11 years ago. She showed up to her first meeting, heard others share and knew she belonged.
"I learned that we're brothers and sisters in our pain," she said. "And listening to one another we can get better each day."
Fellowship is much of why these groups work, Humphreys said, as is what he called the "anarchist approach" that allows for the creation of niche groups like Grupo Serenidad.
"They can be very easily culturally tailored to whatever people want," Humphreys said. "They don't have to do it the gringo way."
A round-faced grandfather from El Salvador joined Grupo Serenidad four years ago, after a stint at a psychiatric hospital.
He said his hatred for himself and humanity stems from a conversation with his father when he was 11.
"You're not my son," he recalled his father saying. "They switched you at the hospital."
His father was always cruel. He yelled at him and hit him. He told him he was useless and that he'd never get through school.
For years, everyone irritated him profoundly. He spent much of his day screaming and scoffing at people — even the television.
Slowly, with the help of the program, he learned to accept people.
"It's not easy," he said. "It's like a kid learning to walk. You stand up and you fall. It's a process. That's why I keep coming."
Before the group members clasped hands, bowed their heads and recited the Serenity Prayer, as they do at the end of every meeting, a trembling, teary-eyed man walked to the lectern.
"You're friends," he said. "You may not be the ones I want, but you're the only ones who want me."
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