A middle-aged computer analyst related a string of personal woes to the circle of 16 people recovering from what they said were patterns of self-destructive behavior.
His problem is compulsive anger, expressed over the slightest things. He would say mean things to those around him and maybe throw things. He had been trying to remain calm over recent setbacks but the ugly anger was returning. He said he needed help.
His listeners are used to baring their souls. The colleagues say they ate too much, ate too little, got too angry, worked too much, became too anxious and became too controlling or too meek in relationships.
They are unusual friends. They know one another only by their first names and rarely or never see one another socially.
But each week, for months or years, they have unburdened themselves and tried to support one another as members of the Twelve Step Recovery Workshop, adapting the dozen lessons of Alcoholics Anonymous to harmful behaviors.
"We try to help each other avoid dangerous behavior, sometimes with tough love," said Dr. Drew Leder, a professor of philosophy at Loyola College who has advanced degrees in philosophy and medicine.
With the group's permission and as a group founder, he agreed to give his last name. Last names of the others were withheld. The group stresses anonymity, a basic principle of AA, as crucial to protecting privacy and avoiding organizational hierarchy and possible harassment on the job.
"There are addictive disorders besides alcoholism," said Staci, a physical therapist recovering from a compulsive eating disorder. "You can get fired for having a bottle of Scotch in your desk but not a big bag of Hershey kisses. The chocolate's also obsessive and dangerous."
The meetings are free. Also welcome are friends or family members affected by people with obsessive behavior. Participants make small donations to cover the nominal rent, a newsletter and refreshments.
The 2 1/2 -hour sessions are held at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Ascension Lutheran Church, 7601 York Road, Towson. In Bel Air, a second series of meetings has started at 7 p.m. Tuesdays at Christ Our King Church on Emmorton Road.
Leder and six others founded the Thursday group in 1990 as a way to control or confront personality traits that had become injurious to them and others.
"The Twelve Steps can help anyone with harmful, self-destructive behavior," Leder said.
"People who have taken part feel their lives have been turned in a positive direction. Some even think they might be dead otherwise. They may have avoided car crashes or, by recovering from compulsive eating, serious medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke."
The group is nondenominational. On a recent Thursday, participants ranged in age from the 20s to 50s. Most were women and all were white, although minorities also attend.
Some are in therapy. Others left therapy. Still others have never been in therapy.
John, the man grappling with anger, continued his story. Keeping an even but increasingly tense tone, he told the listeners his father had a cancer operation. Two days later his mother had a stroke.
With an hourlong commute, he's had car problems. At work he's had to give up his office and share a telephone. A promised pay raise hadn't come through.
John began to simmer. He threatened to boil. "In the past, I exploded, became very caustic, very sarcastic, very put-down, occasionally throwing things. I got to be very good at it.
"I remained calm at first, but all this started working on me and the resentment built up," he said. "I did key parts of the Twelve Step procedure and said prayers twice a day. I turned things over to God and asked for help.
"I'm asking you for feedback to better handle this."
His friends tried to help.
Debbie, an occupational therapist and nurse, suggested, "You must be absolutely honest with yourself. Were you truly doing Step 10 [taking personal inventory and admitting wrong when appropriate]? You've missed a lot of meetings -- was that because you weren't dealing with the anger? Some anger is normal. I'm a recovering compulsive eater, but I do have to eat."
Sue, a compulsive eater who works for a nonprofit group, said, "I know it's hard to reach out when all this stuff happens. You're a pressure cooker who could explode. Reach out more."
Another idea came from Donald, a teacher whose family has had two suicides and describes himself as a "guilt-aholic" who blames himself for problems and becomes depressed.
"Separate the problems into those at work and at home. Emphasize the family stuff. and Step 12" (spiritual awakening).
John listened carefully and seemed to appreciate the advice. "Thank you very much," he said quietly. Talk moved to others' problems.
The evening began with the group reciting out loud the famous Serenity Prayer used by AA and other groups: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
A cheerful segment was the time for success stories. The speakers smiled as they talked.
Elizabeth described the positive side of a car crash.
"I was beaten up and the car was beaten up. In the past doing adult stuff used to scare me. I would crawl into a hole with food. But this time, I could deal with it. I handled the insurance. I talked with the police. I took care of the car repair. I handled everything myself. I liked it."
Sue was lethargic as well as overweight as a compulsive eater.
"I couldn't set any goals. I began running in January and decided to train for a marathon -- 26.2 miles. I had my first training run Saturday. It's a total miracle. I have to rely on God and have perseverance but I really have a sense I'll be able to do this. I feel fierce about it."
Staci said, "I have an excruciating time making decisions. In October, I bought a house. I was anxious about putting the flowers and plants in. The other day I walked by my big, old, ugly, prickly juniper bush. I chopped that sucker down. It was great to make a decision and kill that plant. I'm on a roll."
Pub Date: 5/14/98