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A Handy Guide to 12-Step Lingo

The most commonly-used AA words and phrases can confuse even the most intrepid wordsmiths. Let us help clear things up.

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By Rachael Brownell

09/28/11

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Did you have a high bottom? Did she go out again? How much time do you have? Use terms like “high bottom” in regular society, and people will likely conclude you’re referring to a nice tight rear end—the result of a successful boot camp, or devotion to Pilates. But AA has a lingo all its own—one that its members find equal parts off-putting, comical, and engaging. It’s no wonder that scientists interested in social groups, language and customs often study AA

If you hang around long enough, you’ll figure out most of it, but why wait? Here are just a few AA terms and phrases, coupled with their occasionally comic double meanings. 

Birthday

Lauren remembers sitting in her first AA meeting and hearing someone announce cheerily, “Today is my belly button birthday!” Everyone applauded and cheered “and I was totally confused,” Lauren recalls. She later learned that when someone in AA says, “Today is my birthday,” they are marking time sober, whereas “belly button birthday” indicates the day of their birth. (This lingo is actually location specific; on the East Coast and parts of the Midwest, AA members tend to call birthdays “anniversaries.")

Old-Timer 

Try calling a 40-year-old woman an “old timer” in regular society, and she’ll scowl you into oblivion. Inside the rooms of AA, this term refers to someone with a lot of sobriety time (“a lot” is a relative term —in some groups it means 10 years; in others, 20 or more). To add to the confusion, older folks in AA are often also old-timers, so it’s sort of an old-timer double down. And newcomers can be in their 80s.

Time

Which brings us to the AA concept of time. When a friend was first asked how much time he had, he replied “time off of work?”—which received a blank stare. In AA, when someone refers to their time, they mean their continuous time sober. It gets odd, especially when folks come into AA after serving time in prison; in which case, they’ve served time and are now acquiring time sober. You get the picture. 

Out

“I went out last week...” a young woman paused and continued, “It was horrible. Hopefully now I’m here to stay.” When I heard this story early on, I assumed she was referring to a horrid evening out with friends. Did her heel break in a grate? Did she embarrass herself? While all of those could be true, when an AA member says they “went out,” they’re referring to a relapse—which is shorthand for drinking or using after a period of sobriety. It’s not uncommon to hear people say to each other, “I haven’t seen you for such a long time, I began to worry you’d gone back out.” It took me a long time to follow these conversations.

Think (Think, Think)

Leigh admits that even after attending meetings for a while, she still finds references to thinking confusing. It’s not uncommon for meeting halls to post signs with AA slogans, such as “Think, think think” —which refers to the importance of pausing before taking a rash action (such as using or drinking again). In seeming contradiction, old-timers will exhort newcomers to “stop thinking and take action” or remind them, “your best thinking got you here.” AA has a complicated relationship to thought. You are supposed to think before acting, but not too much. You are encouraged not to think too much and to take right action.

Drug of Choice

Hearing someone refer to their “drug of choice” sounds odd at first —like we’re selecting the best bottle of wine, or the sweetest line or pill. Drug of choice? Did we have a choice when we used? It depends greatly on whom you talk to and whether or not you buy into the concept that alcoholism and addiction are diseases. “Drug of choice” refers to the primary way you chose to get high in your drinking or using days (see: coke, heroin, alcohol, Vicodin).

Use

“I used last week,” the kid shared with the group. My friend recalls wracking her brain thinking, “Used? Used what? Lysol? Another person?” Like many newcomers, she had to piece together his meaning while trying to listen. When AA members say they “used,” they mean they imbibed their drug of choice (see above). It gets even more confusing when someone refers to “using” alcohol. Can you use alcohol? Don’t you drink it? The underlying assumption here is that alcohol is a drug and alcoholism is a disease. We use it to fix our discomfort and to treat our anxiety, depression, or overarching maladjustment. Thus, we “use.”

Last Drunk

I remember the first time I heard “remember your last drunk.” I immediately enjoyed a day-dreamy interlude recalling the dance we shared, he and I. We were both tipsy and swaying to the music. He was so handsome it hurt my eyes. Sigh. Alas, this is not the “drunk” they refer to in AA. Here, drunk refers to your last big drink-fest...the one that brought you to your knees: when you yelled at your kids’ teacher and remembered nothing the next day. The blackout to end all drug-filled blackouts. The one that made you think you should probably get sober. 

Acceptance

When someone first recommended to Amy that she learn “acceptance,” her first thought was “not in this lifetime.” For Amy and many newcomers, acceptance conjures up an image of a kind of wimpy capitulation; like someone asking you to put your guns down in the middle of combat. What is (usually meant) at first is simply to accept one’s alcoholism or addiction as a fact of one’s life. The harder part, accepting life as it is, comes later (hopefully after one has been sponsored well and is guided through the 12 steps). Most of us take a long time to accept much beyond our own inability to stop drinking or using without help.

To the newcomer, the double and triple meaning of AA lingo can seem insurmountably confusing, or amusing, but it need not be so. A good AA group goes out of its way to include newcomers in the conversation and guide people through their questions without fear of embarrassment. Until then, I encourage them to giggle about how high their bottoms were, or fondly remember their last drunk all they want.

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.

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