12-Step Lingo and Types of Meetings: How to Find Your Way in the World of Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous

Understanding the 12-step meeting lingo

Imagine you just finished an inpatient recovery program. You’re transitioning to outpatient care, and you start to feel like yourself again. You’re excited to get back to your life, but at the same time, you realize recovery is a lifelong battle, and on your own, it will be anything but easy.

So you find a recovery group that works for you. Maybe it’s Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or some other 12-step group.

It’s likely that you’ll walk into your first meeting feeling positive about your chances to fit right in. At first, however, your experience may be different than what you expected.

In this piece, we’re going to talk about group meetings: the different types, the common AA lingo used within and why the terminology used in 12-step meetings shouldn’t be a barrier to you seeking community.

Different Types of Group Meetings

If you’re in recovery for addiction of any kind, the good news is that there’s probably a 12-step group for you. Some chemical dependency groups are widely publicized, such as AA, NA or CA. Lesser known are the recovery support groups for families of addicts: Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, along with adolescent-focused groups Alateen and Narateen.

There are also 12-step programs for behavioral addictions:

In addition, there are many broad-spectrum and regional 12-step groups depending on where you are and what you need, making these groups accessible across race, class, and socioeconomic lines.

Your first steps into these meetings, however, can be intimidating. Not because you won’t be immediately welcomed — the vast majority of the people you’ll meet in recovery groups are welcoming and compassionate. On the contrary, the learning curve in these groups comes from the terminology and culture.

AA Lingo Explained

There are a few different categories of recovery jargon you’ll need to understand to feel like an initiated member of a 12-step group: terms relating to groups, terms relating to “the program” and “recovery lifestyles” terminology.

Getting Into a Group: What Is a Closed AA Meeting?

A directory key to 12-step meetingsGo onto the website of the group you’re looking for, and you’ll likely see something that looks like this. You’ll be confronted with a choice. Do you want to attend a closed meeting, an open meeting, or less common, a blended meeting? It may be frustrating to find out that there are narrow terms to know before you even get to your first meeting.

Here’s what they mean:

  • Closed Groups: Meetings are closed to anyone who doesn’t have a problem that they’re trying to fix. This is how the majority of AA and NA meetings are run. Although it may help an individual to have their family members and loved ones with them, the privacy from the outside world is a part of what makes AA and NA so effective.
  • Open Groups: A group meeting that’s open to the public. Family, friends and even members of the media may attend. Open AA meetings are not as common as closed ones.
  • Blended Group: Meetings are closed, but attendees have the opportunity to vote on allowing certain people outside the members in recovery.

It should be noted that even when you read that a certain group meeting is closed, it doesn’t mean that you can’t walk in or that you have to be invited.

Other important terms defining groups include:

Chairperson / Chairing an AA meeting: In all formal versions of an AA meeting there is a chair or ‘lead’ for the meeting. This helps welcome the newcomer as well as control the meeting so that it is beneficial to all members.

  • Clubhouse / Club: A Club or clubhouse is a meeting spot for 12-step based programs that is dedicated to the specific purpose of a meeting place. Most meetings occur in community space, so when there is a dedicated space for these gatherings it gains a reputation as a local clubhouse. They regularly have a schedule of meetings for visitors and may provide half-way house services on location.
  • Where & When: This is a common term referring to the directory of AA meetings.
  • Beginner’s Meetings: Some meetings may be designated for beginners, often there will be a more senior group leader present to facilitate.
  • Step Study: Another type of group that generally follows a curriculum to work the participants through their understanding of the steps. It is impractical to work through all 12 steps together as a group, so instead, they talk their way through what has been done or will be done in the future.
  • Speaker Meeting: In this type of meeting a special speaker starts discussion and conversation continues through the group on that topic.
  • Grapevine:  Grapevine is an AA publication. Groups that are Grapevine-focused use the publication as the starting point for conversation and community.
  • Big Book Meeting: A Big Book meeting focuses on material from the Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as material for conversation.
  • Discussion Group: In this type of a group a brief introduction by the chairperson may introduce a topic that opens it up to the group for discussion.

One of the best parts of AA, NA and other 12-step groups is that they aren’t exclusive to different varieties of addicts. If you’re in recovery, there’s a place for you in one of these many communities.

The Program: How to Talk About AA as a Whole

The next series of words you’ll need to familiarize yourself with to succeed in a group like AA are those terms used to describe the program. These explanations are courtesy of AA.org:

  • Big Book: In the earliest days of AA, members published a text about the origins and missions of the group that would become the foundation for 12-step groups as a whole.
  • Cliches: Cliches are the light-hearted, repeatable sayings that set the tone at group meetings in AA and similar groups. Often, cliches like “stay strong” and “hang in there” are posted on the walls of the meeting area. It’s easy to be cynical about the positivity and seeming common-sense sayings, but members often find layers of truth as they progress.
  • Fellowship: A term that describes the bond between members of the 12-step groups.
  • Geographical: When a person is being “geographical,” they’re trying to physically escape their substance abuse issues instead of facing them head-on.
  • Preamble: A sentence read at the start of every meeting. Not all groups have a preamble. For example, at AA meetings the preamble is “AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other…”
  • Program: “The Program” refers to a 12-step group as a whole. The 12 steps take a focal role, and meetings are used to talk about life experiences as well as progress in The Program.
  • Terminally Unique: AA regards those who think they’re unique and thus excluded from 12-step meetings as people who haven’t bought into to their own recovery. There’s a phrase: “Just remember, you’re unique just like everyone else.”
  • Three Legacies of AA: AA’s term for Recovery, Unity and Service, which are the three outcomes of the successful completion of the 12-steps and extended membership in a group of this nature.
  • Twelve & Twelve: The Program is based on the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions, texts that give the group its core values.

12-step adages and cliches

Meeting after the Meeting: Most 12-step groups have a ritual, where the members congregate outside the meeting space for a casual chat and smoke;  many recovering addicts take up smoking as the lesser of two evils. This gives group members the chance to debrief with some lighter talk before returning to life outside the Program.

Recovery Jargon: Talking About the Lifestyle

How to fit in to your aa groupOnce you’ve gotten up to speed on how to talk about AA and 12-step meetings at a high level, you’ll need to learn how to interpret the things people say in the meetings. Usually, a 12-step meeting consists of the group listening to a series of individuals talk about their progress or their past.

Depending how much time each person has spent in the group, their command of AA lingo will vary. Here are some terms you should expect to hear:

  • 13th Step: An intimate (taboo) relationship with another member of the group.
  • Birthday: A group member’s anniversary of their first day sober.
  • Dry Drunk: a person who is technically in recovery but doesn’t have the mindset needed. Here’s a good example of how the term is used in 12-step groups.
  • Crosstalk: Direct response to something someone says during a meeting. This is not allowed in most meetings.
  • Drug of Choice: A person’s DOC is the substance or behavior that they were addicted to.
  • Last Drunk: The last time a person had a slip or relapse in their sobriety.
  • Old-Timer: A person who has been attending group meetings for a long time.
  • Out: Describes a slip or relapse. Example: “I went out last week, but I’m back on the wagon now.”
  • Time or Clean Time: Time refers to how long you’ve been sober or in AA meetings
  • Used: Instead of saying “I drank” or “I smoked,” AA and other 12-step groups prefer “I used,” no matter what the DOC.
  • Winner: A person who has successfully completed the Program and is an exemplary member of group meetings. It’s important to note that although a Winner has achieved a goal of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, addiction is a chronic and lifelong disease.

The Importance of Learning AA Lingo

If you’re planning on becoming a part of a 12-step community, learning the language is the first step. While it may seem intimidating at first, it will get easier. The members of 12-step groups are happy to explain some of the terms and phrases that define them.

Our 12-Step Series:

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