BERLIN, Feb 5 – "Hello everyone. My name is Louise. I am 68 years old and I have been bankrupt since 2007."
Welcome to a session of "Insolvents Anonymous", a German support group for failed business people based on "Alcoholics Anonymous", the support group for drinkers, that has boomed as the economy has bust.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, participants are known only by their first names. And like Alcoholics Anonymous, those attending run the meetings, sharing their bankruptcy pain in the hope of helping others come to terms with theirs.
"There’s something particularly German in the fact that people here have so much difficulty bouncing back from bankruptcy," said Attila von Unruh, the network’s founder.
"There is this feeling of failure, of blame, that is very difficult to talk about, even with your nearest and dearest," he added, noting that the word "Schuld" in German can mean both "guilt" and "debt".
Centuries ago in Germany, people were thrown into jail for bankruptcy and "the same taboo remains today," he said.
Unruh, a 48-year-old father of two, went bankrupt after his events agency went out of business and came up with the idea of "Insolvents Anonymous" to meet a growing demand.
Germany last year suffered its worst economic slump since World War II and the number of bankruptcies and insolvencies rose accordingly.
According to specialist institute Creditreform, business insolvencies rose by 16 percent. Personal bankruptcies were broadly stable at just under 100,000 but were expected to shoot up in 2010 as the crisis takes its toll.
The organisation bears the motto: "Just at the moment the caterpillar thought his time was up, he turned into a butterfly". It started with one meeting in the western city of Cologne and now has six groups across Germany.
Others are set to open this year to meet "an enormous demand", said Joachim Niering, a 50-year-old dressed all in black, who offers free advice to people who have been declared bankrupt.
"You can’t rent a car or buy anything on the Internet because you’re not allowed a credit card. You are totally shut out of a whole part of social life," he said.
For this reason, "to know you’re not alone is a huge relief," added Niering.
Louise, an excitable lady with a streak of blue through her white hair, said: "This group is a blessing."
"I had stopped opening my post to avoid seeing the bills," the former lawyer and notary said. She fell into debt then declared personal bankruptcy after suffering depression following a divorce.
She now lives on 350 euros (488 dollars) per month.
In many countries, notably the United States, bankruptcy gives businesses or individuals time to get their house back in order while keeping the creditor wolves from the door.
There, groups such as "Debtors Anonymous" cater to those with compulsive money troubles.
But in Germany, bankruptcy is a long and painful process, and even one instance leaves a black mark.
A person declared insolvent must agree to have his or her finances scrutinised and to live on 980 euros per month. Anything more than this must go towards paying down debt.
"Your life changes completely," said Niering.
Nevertheless, insolvency acts as a great social leveller, Unruh said.
"In our meetings, a chief executive who has presided over the bankruptcy of a multi-million euro business can explain to an unemployed person with 15,000 euros worth of debt how to prepare for a meeting with his bank manager.
"In return, the unemployed person can tell the former boss the cheapest place to do his shopping."