The Sticky Business of Stigma

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According to, “Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a kind of tattoo mark that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places.”


These days, stigma involves negative attitudes or discrimination against someone based on distinguishing characteristics such as a mental illness, health condition, or disability.


I want to talk about the one particular type of stigma I faced because of my mental health condition. I have had struggles with word sensitivity and thought distortion, which have led to a very troublesome issue I had over the years – I’ve read too much into things and thought people liked me romantically when they didn’t.


I’d like to think I’m much better at it now, with age, wisdom and therapy, but I still have had difficulty separating fact from perception when there are those, as Robin Thicke sang in the song Blurred Lines. I guess in the game of flirting, there are levels: going from flirting explicitly, to merely expressing pent up sentiments, to normal appreciation of someone’s beauty but no interest to act on it, to really there’s nothing at all – “I was just being friendly”. (I mean I’m no Casanova, those are the levels I know. Don’t judge me, please. Haha!)


Why am I sharing this? I wanted to talk about the sticky business of stigma. For me, sticky has several metaphorical meanings. There’s being a sticky person in a borderline stalker way. There’s sticky weather, which is mucky and humid, and leaves one feeling yucky and uncomfortable. And there’s, of course, sticky food like chewing gum, toasted marshmallows and caramel – wonder if it was worth the trouble to go wash one’s hands.


When I talk about the “sticky business of stigma”, I’m referring to painful episodes of rudeness, ruined friendships and run-for-the-hills reactions that I have encountered when I had misjudged interactions when I was unwell.


Although those really hurt me, I have come to take them in my stride as part of my mental health journey. Live and learn. Look again for clearer signals next time. Real love will happen one day, and even if it doesn’t, I am not alone in life.


What gives me comfort and relief are people who stick with me despite my issues. Those who make me feel loved, valued and supported even though I had embarrassingly misconstrued what they said and did.


There’s one friend who adopted me as an adik (Malay for little sister/brother) and continues to look out and counsel me whenever I need her. There’s the guy who welcomed me to chill at his place anytime when I was nursing a heartache. There was even a friend who let me stay at her home when I needed to. I guess friends like these are really rare and so I cherish them even more.


Misjudging people’s interest in us can be really humiliating and I believe many of us have gone through something like this at least once in our lives. When it happens more often than normal, it has a leprous effect. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been avoided and walked away from in my life.


But I choose to remember and celebrate those who’ve chosen to be the Princess Diana to my HIV and hugged me all the same. They make stigma’s mark of disgrace all the more bearable.


Authored by: Jemma


We thank our blog contributors and applaud their strength in finding the words to share their lived experience, not only as part of the personal recovery journey but to inspire and bring hope to others who might be facing mental health challenges.


Photo credits: Unsplash


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