Words & Stigma

September 26, 2022
Paying attention to Words & Stigma

Kate Duffy here with a little bit of wisdom about words and stigma. 

A while back, I had a group of families in a training session. I asked them to type in the Zoom chat one word that they thought of when they thought of a drug addict or alcoholic. We then put these words together in a word cloud. 

Oh man, it was an ugly cloud

However, this really connects to the very, very beginning of when I knew I had to work in this particular way with families. 

It was an ugly cloud, but let’s just say that some of those words aren’t untrue. 

Let me explain. 

I’m wanting to fight stigma, but I also want to be realistic and say that we (the addict) can be jerks. We are manipulative and great liars. 

I first started supporting families to teach them about addiction from behind the curtains as an alcoholic because part of me knew that I was hurting my family, but whenever I was confronted, I would get defensive and react. 

That part of me that knew I was hurting my family… that part also wanted to cry. Especially when I heard repeatedly from family members –  I would think they were such jerks to me. They would think I’m mean and I would call them a liar.

None of those are not untrue. They’re true. 

But because I was newly recovering myself, they came at me (who was so used to being the one that did that to people I love, not the other way around) so I got defensive. They hit me differently than if two family members were talking to each other about their pain and about that person doing that thing that hurts them. 

Hearing it, having it coming at me, it felt like it was stabbing me. 

“You did this!” and “You are that!” 

And I kept thinking, “Yep, you’re right. Those things are all true.” Essentially: so what?

You feeling that way isn’t wrong, but you going at your loved one with that isn’t helping anyone. It’s not helping you to stay in that pain. And it’s not helping them. Because people don’t get motivated by that type of engagement, you will rarely get a response of: 

“Oh my god, you’re right. I’m such a jerk. What am I thinking? Let me stop.” 

What I want to point out about these words is, some of them aren’t untrue. And I want you to know, you shouldn’t be mad. It’s okay to be mad.

There’s sometimes this notion that we have to be all compassionate for the person with a mental health illness that is medicating it with alcohol (which is what addiction is, in my opinion.) But I’m not teaching people to tolerate or put up with or condone anything. 

Here’s the thing, you want to separate your anger from what’s really going on with them. 

I want you to think about that word cloud of all those nasty words to describe drug addicts and alcoholics. 

Now imagine if there was one tiny little word that said beautiful soul, sense of humor, or super smart. 

All those qualities that your loved one had way before they became addicted? All still there. They’re actually the core essence of your loved one. 

Your loved ones are just not showing up with their core essence. They’re showing up with their pain and their addiction and their fear, and their misery. And if you meet them with your pain and fear and misery,  that’s repelling recovery. 

That is not going to equal recovery. 

So I really want to stress that words matter. Take your words, your pain, your anger, and your hurt, take all of that to a recovery meeting. Then when you meet your loved one or greet your loved one, see the part of them that is whole, that is smart, that does have a sense of humor, that is beautiful, that is an artist– whatever it was they were and still have inside them. 

Imagine you had two really big containers in your house. Every time you had a negative thought, you dropped a marble in one container. Every time you had a positive thought you dropped a marble in the other container. 

I would argue for families being around addiction, the same thing happens: the negative one fills up a lot faster than the positive one. But there are still marbles in the positive one because there’s many parts to us. 

What I like to do is teach families how to address the part that isn’t their addiction, address the part that is part of their wholeness. 

That’s what you want to feed, we want to start taking the marbles out of the negative and putting them in the positive. We want to start balancing it out. When you learn that your pain is trying to motivate and change them, you can say, Wow, I want to motivate and change them. You just need to pivot how you’re trying to motivate and change them.

People aren’t motivated by anger or frustration or demands. It’s proven that we’re motivated by being inspired to move forward in a new direction. So what I like to teach families is to be inspired to move in a new direction. 

Let me help you turn the ship. And it starts with you. 
Why you? Because you can and they can’t right now. 

Think back to a time before your loved one began this journey of spiraling downward. Journal a little bit about what that person was like.  Journal to make it present in your mind and in your heart. 

If you live with an alcoholic who’s active, I’m not suggesting you have a long conversation with them if they’re active, because they’re not going to receive the love that you’re handing them. But if you could see the part in them that we want to grow and turn away from the part of them that we don’t want to foster or continue to enhance, you’ll see a difference. You’ll see a change. 

We’ve got to change the marbles.
We’ve got to change those words. 

I’d love to hear from you about this! Comment below and let us know what you are seeing. What are you experiencing as a result of this strategy? It really works, but you’ve got to give it a try. You have got to work on it. I’d love to hear how it’s going. Thanks for trying to make a difference in your family.

You can make a big difference.

Leave a Comment


  1. janice

    I agree with this… I recently told my 37 year old daughter (alcoholic and bi polar disorder), these words: “you are more than this disease,…. you were you before addiction , and I know you are still in there, being held hostage, by addiction. I am here, cheering you on, maybe you hear it faint at times, but you hear it, and I’ll be here when you break free.” My daughter is funny, hard working, empathetic, a patient and caring mom to her kids, the most loyal friend I’ve ever seen, a great daughter, and sister, and I have learned to separate my daughter from her disease. I have to believe that connection, not isolation and shame will being her back to our family.

    • Kate Duffy

      Hi Janice, YESSSS you got it! Way to fuel the part of her you want to grow 🙂

  2. Julie Higgins

    My son suffers hugely from the stigma of alcoholism and I think his own ugly word cloud. He said to me recently that he can’t believe that he lied to his grandfather and how it’s too late now because he just passed. I let Sam know that first of all, Grandpa knew that he wasn’t always truthful and secondly he still always spoke so proudly of how capable, knowledgeable, and smart Sam was a boat captain. I think the struggle for Sam is that he finds it hard to believe those words because he is so ashamed. I told my son it was him in addiction who is untruthful and that his truth is there inside of him waiting for him to grab hold of it. As an educator, I know that not shaming someone is so important. Positive word clouds have to exist; they are affirmations of what life can and will be. My son is kind, caring, capable, amusing, brave, gregarious, friendly and adventurous- just saying.

    • Kate Duffy

      Julie, Yes! The feelings of shame, guilt and negative self thoughts are one of the biggest barrier we have to face. This is the main reason why at Tipping Point Recovery we teach what YOU, the family, CAN do. We see that it often takes being surrounded by understanding to be able to fight through this negative cloud. Most programs and services (ER, treatment, medical, etc) wait for the person with this illness to want it and to begin. While some degree of ‘wanting it’ is helpful, it’s not necessary. The idea of wanting a better life increases as we move through recovery. When you have these clouds of pain inside and outside of you, it’s nearly impossible to fight through alone. You’re creating the positive cloud him one day at a time by working on your own understanding of addiction and by processing your feelings about it separate from him. Educators know this creates a safe place. So beautiful to support him (and you) in this way.

      • Julie

        Thanks, Kate and thank for the important reminder to process our feelings separate from him. That is key.

  3. Diane L. Slader

    Thank you, Kate, for this impactful explanation of addiction, how it works. how those of us whose lives are impacted by it, and how we can survive it; and even help our loved ones caught in its vortex of dysfunction. My daughter recently came back home on her own after a long journey of active addiction, devastating losses, and a series of tragic happenings to her and others with whom she interacted. She received the gift of desperation; and I received the gift of my real daughter, not the version that manifested for the last three years. Now, I am trying to be the new version of myself with her in healthy ways that helps us both move forward without the baggage of the negativity of our past. I have not wasted the time I had alone while she’s been wandering in terms of taking my own inventory, learning new coping skills; and seeking enlightenment from people who have been where I am and have been. I recognize my need to treat her as the adult she needs to be if she is to rebuild her life in healthy ways so she can move on without me; and without continuing on in the same patterns that keep her a victim of self-abuse and at the hands of others. I invited her to join the double circle meeting tomorrow night. I hope it will be a step toward going to meetings on her own and seeking the company and council of others like herself who have not only survived but thrived in recovery of their own making, not imposed on them by others. We are both getting too old to continue on in the same old patterns.

    • Kate Duffy

      Diane, 2 recovering people learning to navigate recovery along side of and with each other is such a beautiful thing. I’m so happy to hear this.

  4. Christine

    Thank you, perfect timing as my daughter just went into a 30 day program and tonight I found myself saying some ugly things to her as she is wanting to go back to the same neighborhood she was in… very difficult to bite my tongue sometimesy when I want to shake her!!! But I so hear and appreciate what you are saying… thank you… a miracle from God to read this tonight🙏🏻

    • Kate Duffy

      Christine, great timing! I want to point out it is perfectly normal and expected that you would have a miriad of feelings here. It’s what you do with these feelings that matter. You want to get those feelings out and processed but in your own meetings, in your journal, with your therapy and/or recovery community and not with or to your daughter. The idea here is that you both need a recovery path. As you strengthen in your recovery, you can have recovery conversations with her and each manage your own stuff apart from each other. Don’t bite your tongue lol but get that stuff out someplace safe!


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