Changing the Name Only Fuels the Stigma | Sober and Unashamed

Matt Salis
7 min readJan 27, 2021

Words matter because the way we use them matters. When we assign to words painful, intentionally hurtful associations, we take perfectly good words, and drown them in stigma. When we use words as weapons, people will do everything they can to distance themselves. Denial prevents healing. When we reject the words because they have been weaponized and stigmatized, we move further from recovery. Our denials and rejections become a self-fulfilling prophecy of pain. We get stuck.

I’m a recovered alcoholic, but you probably already know that. Naturally, you might be thinking this article will be about the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” based on my introductory paragraph about weaponized words dripping with stigma. You are not wrong, but we’ll get to those words in a minute. This isn’t an alcoholism problem. It is a much bigger societal problem. So let’s start by considering some non-alcoholic words.

My wife, Sheri, and I, run a nonprofit in Denver named, Stigma. We do a lot of work on addiction recovery and prevention. But our organization is also heavily involved in homelessness and hunger relief in Denver as well. We work with a lot of loving people who increasingly reject the words “homelessness” and “hunger” in favor of words like “unhoused” and “food insecure.”

We get it. Homelessness is completely stigmatized by a society that doesn’t understand the factors that contribute to many of the challenges humans face, and sometimes uses the word as a demoralizing descriptor to kick people when they are down. Parts of our society — big and powerful parts — look down and look away because homelessness is complex and multifaceted, and they lack the creativity and will to find practical solutions. They take the “not on my lawn” approach, and create a them versus us mentality. Well hell, when I put it that way, who would ever admit to facing the challenges of homelessness. Our society is too busy blaming the victims to understand the factors in individual cases. Owning the homelessness label is no longer a request for help. It’s willingly lowering yourself into societal purgatory.

What about the words, “hunger” and “hungry?” In a recent discussion with active participants in the effort to feed the hungry, we were cautioned to stop using those words…

Matt Salis

I live in Denver, Colorado, with my wife and four kids. I write and speak about addiction and recovery. Please follow my blog at