The drug and alcohol recovery community often uses confusing terminology that’s hard to grasp when you first come across it. There’s often still a stigma in society around alcoholism and addiction, so it can be difficult to ask about common jargon used in recovery topics. Some phrases such as “falling off the wagon” have, at first glance, little to do with drinking alcohol. Here we’ll discuss some of the most well-known terms used in recovery circles and explain their meaning. 

When Are You “On the Wagon” and What Does “Fall Off the Wagon” Mean?

One of the most frequently used alcohol-related phrases describes people as either being “on the wagon” or falling “off the wagon.” While the terms are common, there’s no shortage of confusion around their meaning. The two sayings were once humorously debated in a Seinfeld episode

Simply put, being on the wagon means a person is currently abstaining from drinking or taking drugs. When a person falls off the wagon, it means they’ve resumed their alcohol consumption, usually after a period of abstinence. Relapsing is very common among people suffering from alcohol use disorder, which would explain the term’s popularity. 

Knowing the explanation behind the phrase doesn’t necessarily explain where it initially came from, or what “off the wagon” has to do with alcohol in the first place. The original saying from the 19th century is “to be on the water wagon,” and it referred to the horse-drawn water towers used by people back in the day. Men who swore off drinking would say they’d prefer to jump on the “water wagon” for a drink, instead of using liquor. 

What Do Some Popular 12-Step Phrases Stand For?

Peer support groups promoting the 12 steps include Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Members of these programs use witty phrases and terminology designed to give hope and help members continue on their path to sobriety. Some terms, however, can be a bit confusing if you hear them uttered in a meeting. Here are some of the most common 12-step terms you’re likely to hear from people in recovery and their significance.

  • Keep coming back. This powerful line suggests you should never give up on your recovery, no matter what. Some people are too ashamed to go to a meeting after a relapse, while others may stop going to meetings after they’ve achieved a certain number of years of sobriety. In both cases, continuing to work on self-improvement is the best way to achieve long-term success. 
  • One day at a time. The idea of never drinking again can be daunting for many people. That’s why many 12-step followers are discouraged from overthinking their future. The focus should be on the present and on abstaining from using substances on a day-to-day basis. 
  • Higher power; power greater than ourselves. Addiction can affect people from all walks of life and religions. This term is used as a way of including everyone in the program, regardless of their beliefs. 
  • Progress, not perfection. This phrase celebrates a person’s commitment to the program and their drive to becoming a better version of themselves each day, instead of aspiring for a perfection that’s impossible to achieve. 
  • Take what you like and leave the rest. Many people love this saying because it encourages them to tailor the program to fit their personal recovery journey. Not everyone will find every single aspect of a 12-step program appealing, so learning how to adapt it to yourself can be a crucial aspect of achieving long-term sobriety. 
  • Denial. It’s a word used to describe someone who drinks too much but refuses to acknowledge they have a problem. 
  • Hitting rock bottom. This refers to the most disastrous effect drinking has had on a person’s life, such as getting arrested. People in recovery talk about their rock bottom as the moment when they decided to finally seek help for their substance abuse disorder. 
  • White knuckling. Staying sober without a program in place. Those who white knuckle often end up relapsing. 
  • Dry drunk. This term is similar to “white knuckling” and is used to describe a person who currently isn’t drinking but is romanticizing alcohol or downplaying the reasons they initially decided to seek help. 

What’s a Teetotaler?

A teetotaler is someone who doesn’t drink alcohol. This word can baffle U.S.-based readers as it’s not as common on this side of the pond. However, British people often use it to describe those who are either in recovery or simply don’t drink for personal reasons. 

As a side note, the word was originally coined in the 1800s by a man named Richard Turner. He intended to promote “total abstinence” from all alcoholic beverages. However, he stuttered the first word, and “teetotal” became a commonly used term.

The Meaning of “There But for the Grace of God Go I” in the Recovery Community

In colloquial terms, people use this proverb to express empathy for someone who’s struggling and acknowledge they could just as easily find themselves in the same difficult situation. Concerning alcoholism, the recovery community uses it as a reminder that anyone, regardless of how long they’ve been sober, can end up falling off the wagon. 

Relapse is often a part of recovery, and alcoholics know how easy it is to fall back into bad habits. When seeing a fellow addict revert to drinking or taking drugs, many understand how easily they could have also gone back down the same path. 

Quitting Cold Turkey

“Cold turkey” means someone has stopped their drug and alcohol use abruptly. This method of quitting an addiction often comes with withdrawal effects ranging from unpleasant to fatal. A 2016 study showed that quitting cigarettes in this way can result in failure for many people. 

Stopping some addictions in this manner, such as nicotine use, doesn’t come with any major health risks. However, the withdrawal from substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids can be dangerous, and you should seek medical assistance. Alcohol withdrawal, in particular, can cause delirium tremens, hallucinations and seizures. In more extreme cases, it can even lead to death. 

What Does “Drying Out” Stand For?

The term “drying out” describes the process of detoxifying from alcohol after someone has stopped drinking. Alcohol can take days and sometimes weeks to completely leave a person’s body. During this withdrawal period, many alcoholics experience uncomfortable side effects such as shaky hands, anxiety and insomnia. 

The severity of these symptoms varies depending on how much you drank. For people who are dependent on alcohol, doctors sometimes prescribe medication to ease the withdrawal effects. 

If your alcohol and drug use are problematic, don’t delay getting help. Our team here at Sunlight Recovery is ready to support you with all the tools you need for your journey to recovery. Call us today at (888) 402-3647.