It's not what you think. We are not a nation of sheep or a nation of shopkeepers or even a nation of wimps. We are a nation on the mend. We are trying to get better . . . all by ourselves.
Self-help is the biggest thing to hit this country since unsliced baguettes. California, the self-help capital of the self-help world, weighs in with 3,500 support groups. The California Self-Help Center ((800) 222-LINK) is part of the burgeoning self-help bureaucracy. The center fields about a hundred calls a day, according to Eve Lee, referral specialist.
"Someone will call and say, 'I need a support group,' " Lee told me. She usually responds by saying, "What are you interested in?" Then the caller says, "What have you got?"
Marlon Brando couldn't have said it better.
News of the dialing-for-dollars trend came to me by accident. And for that I owe the people of Los Angeles an apology.
Some weeks back I wrote a facetious column about Lazoholics Anonymous--people who were compulsively laid back. I was inspired by a serious article on Workaholics Anonymous. Not that workaholism isn't a terrible disease, but somehow the concept doesn't even exist in other cultures, like, say, Japan.
I attempted to signal spoof-time in my column by interviewing people with goofy names and having them say what I thought were unreal things. I didn't think anyone would take me seriously. But maybe I'm a candidate for Wolf Criers Anonymous.
Although the column appeared in many papers, it was only in Los Angeles that people started phoning the paper and saying, "Hi. My name is Shaun--and I am a compulsive lazoholic." They wanted to know where they could get help.
I received a call from a frustrated TV producer who wanted to do a segment on the group. "Hi, I can't seem to find a contact person for Lazoholics Anonymous," he said rapidly. "I tried phoning Santa Cruz, and they don't list an L.A. chapter there. Nor could I get hold of the people mentioned in your article."
That's because there is no Myrna Stemware in Akron, Ohio, or Lou X in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.
The following day I got a letter from Eve Lee on UCLA stationery: "Dear Alice: We read with interest your column, 'Trampled in the Rush to Relax.' We are a clearinghouse for support groups and have received a number of calls for the group you mentioned, Lazoholics Anonymous . . . ."
I began forming one of those oh-so-pompous theories about Los Angeles as the Kingdom of God on Earth, where people really do believe they can achieve perfection--Utopia with tanning salons, Shangri-la with sushi bars, Heaven with high colonics. But after talking to Eve Lee, I understood why people took it seriously.
While the California Self-Help Center's extensive listings include organizations that deal with substance abuse, violence and emotional problems, some of the groups revolve around issues many of us may not see as problems. Like Sarc Anon (Sarcastics Anonymous), Fundamentalists Anonymous, Marriage Anonymous, Messies Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous--all real.
The center's list also includes Ups & Downs (for manic-depressives), Ashkickers Club (for ex-smokers), Alcoholics for Christ, Dental Consumers, a Pet Loss Bereavement Group, Oxygen Users Support Group and Speaking for Ourselves (the self-help group for people with multiple personalities).
Lee explained that self-help is a national movement with 40 regional clearinghouses like her own and up to 500,000 self-help groups nationwide. (The national self-help number is (212) 840-1259.) While laziness may be seen as a problem in Los Angeles, in a mobile country anything can spread.
One Oregon group attempted to anticipate a self-help need by calling Lee and telling her to list Disorganized Persons Anonymous. "But," Lee replied, "we have no such group in our state."
"We're moving south," the caller warned her. "Disorganized People are coming!"
Even as we speak, Disorganized People are organizing. Hey, Lazy People--get going.