Does Saying 12 Step Instead of AA Really Protect Your Anonymity?

Does Saying 12 Step Instead of AA Really Protect Your Anonymity?


anonymousLet’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 I have my own views on how silly this tradition is in general and its outdated tendency to encourage secrets among those in recovery.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.



  1. I say “12 step” rather than naming my fellowship when I want to convey that I’m in recovery but don’t really want people to know the specifics. An example is of a workshop I did recently for yoga and addiction recovery. I spoke about 12 step as it was relevant to the situation but I didn’t want to go into lots of details about my situation with a group of strangers who aren’t in a programme.

  2. James Henrick on

    Online anonymity in present time is really imp, but we think internet is all fancy. No we are mistaken and things are getting really creepy here.
    I use a vpn and i suggest internet users to spread the word and educate people about online security
    Check usavpn for top vpn providers based on unbiased reviews.
    Create smart and strong passwords. …
    Use email wisely. …
    Be smart when using instant messaging (IM)

  3. Some of us don’t “dread” anonymity. Some of us kinda cherish it. Anonymity is not just about protecting the program from self-proclaimed ambassadors. It’s also about humility. “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” It says a lot, too, that the writer refers to all who disagree with her as “Big Book Thumpers” & trolls.

    The 11th tradition is about “anonymity at the level of press, radio and films”, which includes blog posts. Kelly writes “If AA is a part of your journey, your truth telling will require you to admit that fact.” Sure, in person, but there’s no requirement that this be stated this on the level of press, radio and film. Nor is there any requirement that details of one’s sex life be shared on that level, or toilet habits, or salary, even if such statements would be truthful.

    “How can I truthfully pass on the message if I can’t identify myself?” In person, or in personal conversation, one alcoholic to another. That’s how. Not everything is best done from the stage.

  4. Bill W was sooooo anonymous. I think there’s room to be flexible on step 11. After all the only requirement to be a member of AA is a desire to stop drinking, the remainder is recommendations, suggestions including the traditions.

  5. The real problem is not your anonymity. It’s you becoming the poster child of AA/NA. Secondly, if you relapse others may become unwilling to use AA/NA because it didn’t work for you. You’re right “12 step program” is a recovery program but it’s non-specific and that’s the point. When you specify AA, others might think that’s the only way, others being addicts/alcoholics seeking recovery and our specific program is not the only way, as there are many 12 step programs that could work.

    • Exactly Ryan s. It’s about protecting the program. It’s suggested and been largely followed because it works!

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About Author

Kelly Fitzgerald is a Certified Professional Coach, Certified Professional Recovery Coach and sober writer living in Florida. She was the 2016 Recipient of the Foundations Recovery Network - Heroes in Recovery Award and her work has been published on The Huffington Post, Medium, Ravishly, SheKnows, BuzzFeed, Sober Nation, The Fix, Addiction Unscripted and Her memoir will be published by Passageway Press in 2019.