November 4, 2007

I never thought of being neurotic as a problem. In New York it means obsessing about things and worrying. Everyone in New York is neurotic; it's hardly an insult. But in England I've found that being neurotic is seen as a personality defect. Someone has to "admit" they're neurotic, like owning up to a criminal record.

Until recently, I had no idea it was such a put-down. Then I got a text that was not meant for me. I had texted a friend and he wrote back saying he was out of town, he'd call when he returned. Then another text arrived. It said: "Did I just send you a text saying I was out of town and couldn't talk? That wasn't meant for you. It was meant for Ariel, the neurotic journalist." When I received this I wasn't angry, I was delighted. Finally, I had the upper hand, a position I'm rarely in. So I texted back: "You sent this to Ariel, the neurotic journalist, by mistake." And waited. If he was embarrassed, he hid it well. He said the text was meant for his girlfriend. She wasn't thrilled about our friendship, so he'd referred to me as neurotic to allay her fears - it was deliberate. How could she possibly feel threatened by someone he called neurotic?

His explanation was good. It covered the mistake and managed to be flattering. But then it hit me: why would calling me neurotic cancel out her concern? He could have said "unattractive" or "obnoxious". But apparently an unattractive, obnoxious woman isn't as unappealing.

I called my British friend Tim. "Do you think I'm neurotic?" I asked. The fact that I was calling him with this question said it all. He paused. "Yes. But endearingly so." What he meant was, yes, but he has a high tolerance level for difficult people.

I wanted to understand why being "neurotic" is a bad thing. "What makes it negative," he said, "is that there's an implication that the anxiety is unjustified by the facts."

So what is the criteria for being considered neurotic in Britain? If I'm in a pharmacy in London and I ask more than one or two questions, it's considered neurotic. In NY, it's making a purchase. It's possible the reason neurotic behaviour isn't acceptable in the UK is because Brits haven't yet come to terms with therapy. The other day I asked a British friend if she was free on Tuesday and she said: "I can't, because Tuesdays I have... " Then she leant in and whispered: "Therapy." She couldn't bring herself to say the word without making sure nobody could hear her. I can't understand why there is still such a stigma about being in therapy. People will disclose intimate details about their sex life in the queue at Starbucks, but ask them if they have a therapist and they look so ashamed.

What amuses me is when someone British does something completely reasonable and benign, then apologises for being neurotic. For instance, calling back to make sure that I got the correct address. That's not neurotic. That's considerate.

I bet I could make a lot of money in Britain teaching classes on how to express sadness and self-hatred, or experience obsessive, paranoid and anxious thoughts. Of course, immediately following the class I'd call everyone to find out what they thought because I'd be worried.