Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
seesharp press logo
This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

Glossary of
12-Step Terms

This is a guide to terms frequently used throughout the 12-step subculture. All of these terms appear in at least one story in this book. Thanks to Apple at www.aadeprogramming.com and Chaz Bufe for help compiling these definitions.

12 Steps: The 12 steps are the specific instructions on how to obtain conscious contact with a deity. There is nothing original in these steps; they are merely a codification of principles and practices taken from the Oxford Group Movement, the Protestant evangelical movement of which AA was originally a part. Many AA members, and AA literature, say that one cannot get sober or “clean” without “working” the steps. AA's 12 steps have been borrowed and used with very minor changes by other 12-step groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anony­mous. (In such groups, only single terms are changed in the first and twelfth steps; the remaining steps are exactly the same as AA's.) These are the steps as written on pages 59 and 60 of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous:

12 Traditions: The traditions were written by Bill Wilson, were accepted by the AA membership at a convention in Cleveland in 1950, and are supposed to be the guide for individual groups and AA as a whole on how to manage themselves. Unfortunately, a great many groups, and AA as a whole, ignore or only pay lip service to at least some of these traditions:

13th Step: Sex between AA members, usually between a newcomer and a more experienced program member.

The AA Way of Life: Mentioned several times in Alcoholics Anonymous. Living a God-controlled life. A routine that encompasses all AA activities—meetings, step work, fellowship outside meetings, working with others by visiting hospitals and institutions, etc. The Big Book alludes to dire conse­quences for not adopting this way of life, e.g.:

“One poor chap committed suicide in my home. He could not, or would not, see our way of life.” (p. 16)

Acceptance: According to page 449 of Alcoholics Anonymous, acceptance is the “key” to attaining the much desired state of “serenity.” In addition, the word “accept” is considered a key part of the Serenity Prayer which is often used to start or end meetings. Some AA members translate this into a doctrine that any treatment that others subject us to, or anything that happens to us, must be accepted. This is especially true if the one who must accept bad treatment is someone else.

Alcoholics Anonymous: Published in 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous, the “Big Book,” is the fundamental text of AA. It is almost entirely a restatement of Oxford Group Movement beliefs. Many AA members consider it a divinely “inspired” text, thus placing it on the level of Scripture, and its author, AA co-founder Bill Wilson, on the level of the Old Testament prophets.

Anniversary Medallion: A coin given out at 12-step “birthday” meetings to acknowledge the specified amount of time the celebrant is said to have abstained from the abused substance. In some areas, “medallion” is inter­changeable with the word “chip.” In other areas, the “chip” is picked up month by month, or in the actual “birthday” month, and the “medallion” is not picked up until an annual “Birthday Meeting.”

Basic Text: The NA equivalent of the Big Book.

Big Book: A common AA synonym for the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill W. (Bill Wilson): Co-founder of AA, writer of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, and other AA literature.

Birthday: In the!2-step subculture, the day one began continuous abstinence from the offending substance. If one “slips” or returns to the addiction and then regains abstinence, the birthday is changed and the days, weeks, months, or years of counting start over. Those who are the “oldest,” as far as these birthdays go, have the most prestige in meetings. Regular birthdays are differentiated from sobriety birthdays by being called “belly button” or “natal” birthdays.

Character Defects: 1. Faults 2. According to the definitive text of AA, Alcoholic Anonymous, these personality traits—“selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and fear”—are said to block the alcoholic from contact with God . (Chapter 5) Only God can remove character defects, (steps 6 and 7) According to 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, another definitive AA text, character defects are interchangeable with Christianity's seven deadly sins.

Clancy Group: An ultra-conservative West Coast AA group named after its guru.

Cunning, Baffling, Powerful: Actual traits of alcohol, according to the anthropomorphized description of the substance in Chapter 5, pages 58-59 of the Big Book. At some meetings, “the disease” is also described as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.”

Denial: A recovery-house term that has made its way into 12-step groups. This is a term that would have overjoyed 17th-century witch hunters. Denial of being an alcoholic or addict is seen as a symptom of the “disease,” as strong evidence that an individual has it. The newcomer to counseling, meetings, or anyone who is subjected to an intervention, is asked whether or not they have a “disease” (alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addic­tion, etc.). If they deny having that disease, that means they have the disease. This term can even apply to a family member of an alcoholic who denies needing treatment for a “disease.” (In 12-step ideology, family members of alcoholics and addicts are also considered “diseased.”)

Disease: A term used to describe the behavior of drinking too much. The term is frequently used to describe not only the state of active addiction, but the condition of a person who was once addicted even after abstinence is established. Sometimes character defects, symptoms of depression, feelings of rebellion against the program, sponsors, or meetings are described as “the disease talking.”

Dr. Bob (Robert Smith): Co-founder of AA with Bill Wilson.

Drunkalogue (also Drunkalog): A derisive term for a type of “share” in meetings, generally a long, rambling account of past drinking exploits.

Dry Drunk: A derisive term describing someone experiencing strong emo­tions. Can also be a term describing symptoms of depression, or a dismissive term applied to abstinent critics of AA.

Earth People: Anyone who is not addicted. Sometimes can mean anyone who was once addicted but abstains without a 12-step program. (Synonym: Normies)

Ebby Thatcher: A drinking buddy of AA co-founder Bill Wilson. Thatcher brought the message of the Oxford Group Movement, a Protestant evangeli­cal group, to Wilson, leading to the establishment of AA when Wilson rewrote the Oxford Group's methods and ideology into the 12 steps and Big Book and brought that message to other alcoholics.

Geographic (also Geographic Cure): Moving to a new location to help one stop drinking or to get away from other problems.

Going Out: Returning to drinking or using after a time in AA or NA. Grapevine: An AA periodical.

Gratitude: A desired attitude throughout the 12-step subculture, and often the topic of meetings.

HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired—said to be signals of possible relapse. See the AA booklet, Living Sober.

High Bottom: A term used to describe a drinker whose drinking behavior never caused serious problems—one who was “saved” by AA before his “disease” “inevitably progressed.”

Higher Power: 1. A power greater than the addict or alcoholic, who can be prayed to (step 11), who requires humility (step 6), and who can remove “character defects” (steps 6 and 7). 2. A deity.

Hot Seat: A type of attack “therapy” in which an individual is singled out and attacked, sometimes for hours, by the facilitator and other group members. The purpose is to reduce the victim to a heap of quivering jelly, to destroy his or her defenses, so that he or she may be more easily reprogrammed into the group's belief system. This type of “therapy” is commonly employed in 12-step treatment centers.

Inventory: An account of one's resentments and personal character defects, undertaken in steps four and ten. Sometimes this account of one's defects will be taken by a sponsor or someone else in AA; although this is not supposed to be acceptable, it is accepted, depending on the length of “Time” possessed by the one taking the inventory.

John Barleycorn: Alcohol.

Low Bottom: A term applied to a drinker whose drinking caused serious life problems, as in “low bottom drunk.”

Newcomer: A new person at meetings. In some areas it can also mean some­one who is not actually new to meetings, but who has had a “relapse” and then returned to meetings. (Synonym: Pigeon)

Normies: Anyone who is not addicted and who is not part of the 12-step subculture. (Synonym: Earth People)

Old-Tuners: Those in any given group with the most “Time” abstinent.

One-Stepper: A pejorative term for an AA or NA member who admits to being powerless as per the first step, but who does not work the rest of the steps.

One-Year Piece: A one-year medallion or chip, significant because it marks the point at which, according to conventional AA lore, it becomes per­missible to begin having sexual relations.

Out: See “Going Out.”

Oxford Group Movement (OGM): A Christian evangelical group of which AA's co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, were members. AA bor­rowed its ideology (as codified in the 12 steps) and many of its practices directly from the Oxford Group Movement, and AA was in fact part of the Oxford Groups for the first several years of its existence. At its heyday, around the time AA was formed, the ” fell into disrepute after its founder, Frank N.D. Buchman, a Lutheran minister, “thank [ed] heaven” for Adolf Hider in 1936. AA left the Oxford Group Movement in 1939.

Pigeon: In some areas, another term for “newcomer.”

Pink Cloud: A feeling of elation typically lasting three to six months fol­lowing the cessation of alcohol or drug abuse.

Powerlessness: An addict's or alcoholic's alleged helplessness over the urge to drink or use substances in an addictive way. Some in the 12-step sub­culture say that they are also powerless over “people, places and things.”

Program: The AA method of achieving conscious contact with God. Achieved by “working” the 12 steps.

Qualify: In AA, to “qualify” for the third tradition, mainly by telling one's story of past drinking and claiming the desire to stop drinking.

Real Alcoholic (in NA, “Real Addict”): The terms imply that anyone who can get clean or sober without AA or NA was never an alcoholic or addict to begin with, and that therefore AA and NA are the only way for alcoholics or addicts to deal with their addictions problems.

Relapse: A treatment center term for returning to “the disease” of addiction. AAs also refer to this as having “a slip” or “going out.” Grueling arguments between established members often take place within the AA subculture in an effort to determine whether individuals who have “questionable relapses” should be stripped of their all-important Time. Examples of “questionable relapses” include accidentally swallowing alcohol-containing mouthwash, taking a single swig of cooking wine while preparing food, eating a few liqueur-filled chocolate-covered cherries, or (very commonly) taking doctor-prescribed pain medication or antidepressants.

Rigorous Honesty: Said in Chapter 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous to be a pre­requisite to recovery from alcoholism. Those who fail in AA are often said to “lack honesty,” because the AA program is perfect, and it always works if you properly “work it.”

(The) Rooms: AA or other 12-step meetings.

Serenity A much-desired, emotionally correct state of being. Placid, un­disturbed, content, emotionally flat.

Serenity Prayer: “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.“ Since the 1940s, a great many AA and other 12-step meetings have started with this prayer. Ironically, authorship of this prayer is often ascribed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, an acerbic critic of AA's spiritual father, Oxford Group Movement guru Frank N.D. Buchman.

Sharing: Talking when called on at meetings. Also known as “sharing experience, strength, and hope.”

Slip: A temporary lapse in established abstinence. This results in a major loss of prestige (accorded to those with “Time”). In AA, this loss occurs no matter what the nature of the “slip,” and a member who consumes a single beer will lose his prestige just as surely as a member who goes on a full­blown, five-day bender.

Slippery Place (sometimes also called “Slippery Slope”): A place where a slip is liable to happen—bars, outings with drinking buddies, etc. The term can also mean an emotional state, such as anger, resentment, or fear, that supposedly can lead to drinking.

Slogans: Homilies frequendy used in 12-step groups and thought of as wisdom, such as “Keep it simple, stupid,” “Fake it 'til you make it,” “Utilize, don't analyze,” “One day at a time,” etc.

Sober: A more desirable state of abstinence than simply “dry.” Denotes serenity, emotional correctness, “working a good program,” and/or a high spiritual state.

Sobriety: The most important thing an AA member can possess, and something that goes well beyond what is meant in standard English (being unintoxicated). In AA, “sobriety” means not only absolute abstinence, but also “working a good program.” (Those who are abstinent but reject AA and/or the steps are often derisively referred to as “dry drunks.”) Many AA members insist that they would be better off dead than if they lost their sobriety. The biggest accomplishment an AA can make is “dying sober.” In the AA subculture, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't matter what else a member does or does not do in his or her life as long as he or she keeps the supremely valued “sobriety.”

Sobriety Chip: Same as anniversary medallion

Spirituality: The state of God-consciousness obtained by practicing step 11. Some in 12-step groups consider serenity impossible without spirituality.

Sponsee: A person being indoctrinated by a more experienced 12-step-group member.

Sponsor: An abstinent member of a 12-step group who counsels, guides, and indoctrinates a less experienced member.

Synanon: Originally an AA group, this California-based 12-step drug treat­ment program later turned into a major American religious cult.

Terminal Uniqueness: 1) A contemptuous and ominous dismissal of newcomers who openly disagree with 12-step doctrines and try to preserve some essence of their own identity. Examples might be refusal to admit to being an alcoholic, powerless, in need of a Higher Power, or in need of a sponsor; 2) A “disorder” from which certain alcoholics “suffer” because they see themselves as being different in some ways from their alcoholic peers, when in fact, according to AA lore, all alcoholics are the same (i.e., diseased, defective and frequently in denial). The phrase that often follows “terminal uniqueness” is “we're all the same.” This implies that AA should, by default, work for everyone, since all alcoholics have a Borg-like similarity.

Time: Claimed long-term continuous sobriety or abstinence. The primary measure of prestige in AA, NA, and other 12-step groups.

Tough Love: Abuse of a type particularly gratifying to the abuser, in that it combines the pleasures of sadism with those of self-righteousness. Com­monly employed and widely admired in 12-step groups and treatment.

Two-Stepper: A derogatory term for an AA or N A member who has admitted powerlessness as per the first step, and who “carries this message” as per the 12th step, but who has not worked the steps in between.

White Knuckling: A state of abstinence that is considered to be difficult or unhappy, as opposed to “sobriety,” which coupled with “serenity” is the supposed reward for those who “work a good program.”

Winners: The term refers to those who achieve (or claim to have achieved) long-term sobriety through “working a good program,” and who look and sound good at AA meetings. It is commonly used in the prescriptive slogan, “Stick with the winners.”

Work (or “work it”): Take the steps; follow the 12-step program of recovery.