“If you’re life has become like a shoe that pinches, try EA.”
That advertisement brought Marilyn* to Emotions Anonymous 40 years ago.
The St. Paul resident had a reasonably happy upbringing. Her parents had some mental health issues, and she began experiencing anxiety and depression in high school. “Once I started EA, I was so happy to find that other people had similar problems, or felt the hard feelings that I felt,” said Marilyn. “I felt less alone.”
Marie* credits Emotions Anonymous with keeping her alive. “When I started adult life, I was so depressed that I didn’t know what to do,” she said. She had a feeling that group support might help, and she started calling around to charitable organizations.
“The receptionist of the next place could hear that I really needed help. She directed me to ‘First Call for Help,’” recalled Marie. “In addition to suicide prevention, they had referral information.”
“First Call for Help gave me two numbers. One was for a free program, so I started with it. In those days, EA groups had a saying: ‘Come six times and if you still don’t like it, try six more.’ So, I sat through a couple of meetings. “
“Then at the next meeting, a woman shared her feelings of desperation from that week. This was the first time I heard my feelings voiced by another person. That person never showed again but she transformed my life. I wasn’t alone. I knew there must’ve been something here and I could share my burdens that I’d been keeping locked up inside.”
‘EA GAVE ME A PLACE TO BE MYSELF’
Marie recalls having a fine childhood, but points to a move during junior high and that sent her into a downward spin. “I never recovered and eventually let self-doubt control my life,” said Marie. “This left me in a depressed state. EA kept me functioning and finally I allowed it to lead me to a happier life. Without EA, I’m not too sure I would have been able to continue living. EA gave me some place to be myself and to find other people with similar issues to me, including people who would become my friends.”
She appreciates hearing personal stories from others, along with the strength and hope that others share. “Pearls of wisdom will often drop during a meeting,” remarked Marie. “The acceptance of all, as well as the space to share uninterrupted, is very powerful.”
LIVING AT PEACE WITH UNSOLVED PROBLEMS
After about five years, Marilyn stopped going to EA meetings. She got married, raised a family, and led a career. When she retired in 2018, she found that the loss of external demands on her time meant that she had more time to think. By autumn 2019, she was playing computer games for hours, long into the night, to avoid her feelings. It was damaging her marriage, her mental health and her physical health.
“My loving husband reminded me that I’d gotten some help in the past from EA’s 12-step program, and wondered if that would help me again. I went to a meeting, and decided to go to several to try to break my compulsive, self-destructive habits,” said Marilyn. “It’s recommended to alcoholics that they attend 90 meetings in 90 days. I did more like 30 meetings in 90 days, which helped a lot.”
Her initial reaction at her first meeting was that “this is a bunch of losers,” she admits. How would it help her to sit around listening to other people talk about their problems? But EA is not a sounding board for continually reviewing miseries. It is a way to learn to live at peace with unsolved problems.
“And I realized these people here at the meeting were the winners – they were trying to do something to make their lives and the lives of those around them better,” said Marilyn.
“By the time the pandemic started, I had EA meetings, loving family and friends, a weekly exercise program, healthy eating habits, a good therapist, and a meditation group. I felt lucky to have such good support systems in place.
“My time in EA has had ups and downs. Sometimes I get lots out of the meetings; sometimes I don’t. There’s a saying, ‘Take what you like, and leave the rest.’ These groups are made of people - regular, imperfect people.”
One of the first things Marilyn learned in EA is that emotions are neither good nor bad. As she realized that others have emotional problems, she became more accepting, giving people slack to not be perfect and treating them with compassion and understanding. “I’ve started to change my thinking to the idea that ‘people are available, not to threaten us, but to support us,’” Marilyn observed. She is less reactive in relationships and has fewer angry outbursts. She reminds herself that she has a choice. In her volunteer life, she feels less need to control others even when in a position of responsibility.
“Every day I read the ‘Just for Todays,’ said Marilyn. “These give me a way to approach life and other people with optimism, gratitude, cooperation, responsibility for my own actions, positive intentions, and the possibility of happiness.”
She added, “I have stayed partly out of fondness for my EA friends, loyalty, and wanting to give back to others, but mainly because I get reminders during the meetings that help me keep my life in balance.”
‘PEOPLE NEED BELONGING, COMMUNITY AND HEALING’
The first group of what is now Emotions Anonymous met on April 13, 1966, at the Merriam Park Community Center. The group began as Neurotics Anonymous (NA) and then transitioned into its own entity, growing from there into the international 501c3 it is today. The EA international office is based in St. Paul.
As an anonymous program, confidentiality is respected at all times. Members are not required to share any personal details. As a spiritual program, there is an emphasis on a Higher Power but experience has shown that the EA program works equally well for any religious affiliations and those without religious beliefs.
Meeting leaders rotate and are non-professional volunteers with no mental health training. The leader’s function is to conduct the meeting, ensuring the layout is followed and there are minimal disruptions. No one person has more power than another.
A helpful concept that guides the group is this: “We do not judge; we do not criticize; we do not argue. We do not give advice regarding personal or family affairs.”
People may attend in-person, virtual and via phone. In some cases, a meeting can be oriented toward a specific group of individuals, such as men, women, specific ethnic backgrounds etc. and/or groups with unique shared experiences. In Minnesota, there are two groups in St. Paul. Groups also meeting in Bloomington, St. Cloud and Brainerd. There are groups across the United States and also internationally. There are no fees.
“EA is unique as it is the 12-step group for emotional turbulence,” stated Marie. “Some use EA solely; some also have psychological or psychiatric help which may consist of therapy or medicine.”
The concept of emotional sobriety goes back to the beginning of the 12-step movement, pointed out Marie. “There were early groups that broke out to focus on emotional issues as the addiction qualifier isn’t always present for those with mental health challenges,” she said.
“People need belonging, community, and healing. Being able to gather in an accepting atmosphere (as 12-step groups foster) provides that,” said Marie. “This is one of the most basic building blocks of creating a civilized society.”
*Editor’s note: In keeping with the tradition of Emotions Anonymous, we are referring to people by their first names in this article.