Let’s talk about a dirty little secret. You may have noticed when you read recovery articles online, or listen to recovery podcasts, that instead of the author or speaker specifically referring to their membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, they say “12 step.” It took me a while to realize this unusual phenomenon was actually a thing. I just assumed writers were substituting AA with 12 step and vice versa, you know, to spice things up a little bit. It’s normal to read or hear writers in recovery talk about frequenting 12-step meetings or their membership in a 12 step fellowship without batting an eyelash. Why might a writer in recovery do this you ask? Replace AA or NA with 12 step? It’s a question that I have asked myself many times; one that might sound silly to people who don’t know about this phenomenon.
The answer is that people are engaging in this subtle switch of vocabulary because of the Eleventh Tradition in Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s right, the dreaded anonymity tradition. The one that states, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” Interpret this statement how you will, everyone else does. It reminds me of the US constitution, everyone has their own interpretation and will bend it until it fits their own way of thinking. Obviously this tradition was written before the Internet and the founders of AA could not have foreseen what a powerful tool the World Wide Web would become and the role it would play in the future of addiction recovery. I have my own views on how silly this tradition is in general and its outdated tendency to encourage secrets among those in recovery. But how did it lead us, writers in recovery, to replace one word with another?
I don’t know who started this trend of saying 12 step instead of AA, but what a clever person. Bending the rules, thinking long and hard about how we can admit we’re involved in a fellowship, but not technically say what it is. Leave it to us addicts and alcoholics, the rule breakers, right? Or at least that’s what people say. Really, I believe that we’re all just fooling ourselves. Don’t get me wrong—I do it too. I do it out of fear of the Big Book Thumpers and self-appointed Tradition Eleven protectors and their trolling. And as much as I loved rule breaking in the past, it doesn’t feel good to be the only person breaking Tradition Eleven. So yes, I’m just as guilty as the next recovery blogger of writing about my attendance at 12-step meetings, instead of just saying, “I go to AA!” The whole point of this trick is to follow the rules of the program and keep our anonymity, but are we really doing that?
No we’re not. You’re not staying anonymous by writing 12 step instead of AA. Come on! If you really wanted to stay anonymous, you would—completely. The jig is up. Everyone knows that 12 step equals Alcoholics Anonymous (or Narcotics Anonymous). You could almost always write Alcoholics Anonymous in the place of 12-step and nobody would even notice that they were different. That’s why this phenomenon is so ridiculous. A few little words aren’t going to change the subject you’re writing about, the fact that you’re not anonymous, or that you’re being open about your recovery. You might be saying, “But Kelly these writers are trying to be respectful of the traditions of AA.” I would argue that if they were actually trying to respect the Eleventh tradition, they wouldn’t mention the program at all, so that no one could secretly interpret its code name. Instead we’re trying to dupe the public and ourselves by acting like we’re being anonymous when we’re really not.
When we decide to come out of the addiction closet, there’s no going back. Personally I believe it’s unavoidable if you’re going to be public about your sobriety that you’ll need to mention how you got where you are. If AA is a part of your journey, your truth telling will require you to admit that fact. Don’t get me started on how secrets keep us sick and how anonymity encourages stigma, because those are topics for another day. But let’s be rigorously honest, shall we? If you choose to say you’re in a 12 step program in your writing, you’re already not anonymous. Let’s embrace it. Stop the madness!
When I began attending AA a year and a half into my recovery, I was already not anonymous from writing about my recovery online. I was in for a rude awakening after I published my Two Years Without Alcohol article that simply stated AA was a part of my recovery. I received numerous messages from trolls letting me know that I was damaging the program, breaking the rules and (of course) backhanded compliments telling me, “I’m sure you’re helping people, but can you not mention AA on a public level because it can inflate your ego and (cue scary music) death may ensue.” What? How can I truthfully pass on the message if I can’t identify myself? How can I live authentically if I’m switching words around to hide what I’m really talking about? It’s just all too fake for me.
Last time I checked, anonymity was merely a suggestion of a program of recovery. So writers, it’s okay if you want to write out the words Alcoholics Anonymous instead of 12-step program. Let’s be serious, there are much worse organizations to which we could belong. I say less rules and more action—less criticism and more saving lives.
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