Weaponizing the Words Perpetuates the Stigma

If we refuse to name it, how can we expect to defeat it? That sentiment is popular in the field of stigmatized conditions. It’s also powerful and 100% true.

Stigma is not just an unfortunate side effect – the collateral damage of trying to feel better about ourselves by looking down our noses at the socio-economic layers below us. Stigma is debilitating. It keeps people stuck in otherwise improvable situations because stigma makes not drawing attention to our troubles the highest priority – even higher than getting out of our jam.

The othering of our neighbors – it’s easier to compare and dismiss than it is to engage in compassion and involvement.

The reason we focus on crushing the stigma of addiction, hunger and homelessness isn’t because we’re into putting lipstick on pigs. We want to crush the stigma because the stigma is crushing people. Destigmatizing doesn’t solve the problems, but it is a prerequisite to lasting change and the end of systematic oppression.

I openly claim my alcoholic label. As a drinker, I crossed that invisible line into addiction, and eventually, I beat it and gained my permanent sobriety. But the stigma of alcoholism cost me ten years. For a decade, I knew I was in trouble, but refused to admit that to anyone else because I couldn’t possibly identify as one of those people. Alcoholics lived in the gutter and passed out and pissed themselves. I owned my own business, contributed to my community and held my family together (by my fingernails). I couldn’t be an alcoholic. And as long as that label remains thoroughly stigmatized, I would rather have suffered from continuing to drink than admit my truth.

And I lost a decade to the stigma.

What changed? My pain finally eclipsed the stigma and the power it held over me. And I got sober to save my life. But the stigma remained.

Please answer this question honestly: Is this what you picture when you think of alcoholism recovery? Do you envision a damp church basement with cold, metal folding chairs, an endless supply of bad coffee, stale doughnuts, and people chain-smoking cigarettes while they whine to each other about their lot in life? That is the popular misperception of recovery. And while I’ll argue that Alcoholics Anonymous refuses to update their approach thus perpetuating the stigma, that’s not what sobriety has to look like.

I own my alcoholism and my sobriety – loud and proud. I am healed now. I’m not doing this for me anymore. I could quietly spend the rest of my days not drinking, and no one would need to listen to my rambling. But I continue on this outspoken path for one reason: my dedication to crushing the stigma for the next generation.

When I call myself an alcoholic, I suck the power from the label. How are you going to hurt me? Are you going to tease me by calling me an alcoholic? I just called myself that. The word is rendered powerless over me when I own it.

Owning the labels – that’s how we crush the stigma.

We also work hard on crushing the stigmas associated with hunger and homelessness. You might have noticed that we don’t use the modern, politically correct terminology of food insecurity and experiencing being unhoused.

Changing the names is just a distraction. If we don’t name it, we can’t crush it.

I understand the detailed rationale to the name change. For one thing, the new terminology is more accurate and descriptive. But by changing the names, we are also naively hoping the stigma won’t transfer. People who struggle to identify as alcoholics are more comfortable considering themselves gray-area drinkers for one reason: no stigma. Being food insecure feels less threatening, and being unhoused has less of a sharp edge to the categorization. The stigma has yet to fully transfer. The people who use the new terminology aren’t the ones perpetuating the stigma. There is temporary safety in the new terms, and the comfort offered by the people who use them.

But it’s just a matter of time before the stigma finds us. We can’t hide behind the new words forever.

Homelessness is a complex problem. It is the melting pot of systematic inequality, childhood neglect and abuse, unfortunate decisions, addiction, bad luck, mental illness, oppression, arrogance, lack of education, a growing sense of entitlement, and about a million other factors. Some people just need a little breathing room and some education to become fully sustainable for the rest of their productive lives. Others are severely ill and will spend all of their days trying to survive without hope of comfortable independence. The situations are as unique as the people suffering from them, and it’s going to take a massive effort of government, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, religious entities, law enforcement, medical professionals, mental health experts and caring individuals to solve homelessness. We’re not close to the solution.

And right now, the number one barrier to solving the problem is stigma. Too many people refuse to get involved because homelessness isn’t their problem. It is the affliction of others. Until it encroaches on their lawns, they are happy to look away and ask why someone doesn’t do something about it.

Hunger faces almost identical issues, and calling it food insecurity is an incomplete solution.

Addiction, hunger and homelessness are complex issues. We aren’t going to solve them with a thesaurus. At Stigma, we want to bring awareness to the power of the words we use, and how we choose to use them. We can’t get to the solutions when the stigma is in the way. Let’s name it. Let’s admit that it’s our problem – all of us. Let’s tear away the shame and get to the issues, and bring comfort to our suffering neighbors.

What’s in a name? That depends on how we say it, and the baggage we assign to it. Words hurt if we weaponize them. Words delay the solution to the problems if we bury them in shame. Addiction, hunger and homelessness are serious problems that demand serious action.

And action number one is to crush the stigma.

Published by Matt Salis

Matt Salis is a high-functioning alcoholic in recovery who is working to end the stigma associated with addiction and related conditions such as homelessness and mental illness.