Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
We’re driving along the road to Ikea on a sunny Saturday morning, and I tell my partner T. “You know, I’ve accumulated quite a few labels for myself by now.”
He nods in agreement. He’s never judged me for any of the tests I took, but he does have his reservations about the impact labels can have, and he’s right to be worried.
Labels such as ADHD, ASD, OCD, ODD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, etc… can have a harmful impact if you’re not careful. They can make it feel as if there’s something wrong with you, as if you have a problem (or that other people have a problem with you) which you can’t do anything about. They can make you feel like you don’t belong or don’t have a place amongst neurotypical people, because of your differences. They can lead to prescription drugs dealing with symptoms and messing with your personality or mood in ways that don’t make you feel better at all. They can also lead to people stigmatising you for ‘what you are’ instead of taking the time to get to know you as a person.
All of the above is true, and maybe mostly so in the case of diagnosing children. When talking about my diagnosis and my son’s diagnosis with my kids, I tend not to use the labels. Rather, I point out that for some people, their brain works a bit different than for other people, and that this has benefits and drawbacks, like all brains do. Maybe your makes it much easier to remember things, and at the same time harder to let go of emotions. Or it’s easier to fantasize but harder to concentrate. There’s always a quality and a pitfall.
When I look around neurodivergent communities on the internet, I see that for adults getting a diagnosis can do different things. It’s often a point of recognition and relief, the answer of years in which you wonder ‘what the hell is wrong with me? Am I crazy?’. It can be the key to a toolbox and the passport to a group of people who think like you and can celebrate your wins with you and help carry your losses.
For me, having these different labels (ADHD, avoidantly attached, gifted, hsp, high anxiety, high compulsive tendencies) helps me accept myself as I am. When I realised that my inability to concentrate on one goal at a time (in everything I do) is part of the way my ADD brain works, I was able to let go of the idea that I just don’t have any grit or that I give up too easily. All the judgements I’ve carried around by myself now got a home in my mind that neutralised them.
At the same time, I was also able to connect this deficit in single focus to the benefit of having a wide lens view of life. I tend to see big pictures and connect things that are seemingly disconnected. For that, it helps that I can keep a lot of different trains of thought going in my mind at the same time. The fact that it also means I start cleaning up the kitchen, find a shampoo bottle, remember I have to wash my hair, think I should probably jog before I wash my hair again, remember my running shoes are worn-out and end up behind a computer shopping instead of cleaning my kitchen, is an expression of the same brain, even if that makes it hard to get organised.
As much as these labels help me accept myself as I am, and recognize that my needs are valid (I just need more time alone, need more time to process emotions, require extra mental stimulus while doing chores, etc.), they also appeal to my responsibility to deal with who I am and where I am.
Sure, my brain would rather go all over the place all the time and follow every mad tangent I come across (should I pick up stamp collecting again?), but I also want things in my life that require focus and dedication. I want to be able to build something of substance, and for that I will have to invest in blocks of focused time. Part of me might protest, but another part really wants what’s on the other side of an organized life: peace and calm, and results.
The same goes for my fear of commitment: part of me wants to be free and not have to worry about how my actions impact others, but another part (the sensible adult that’s hidden inside) wants to have a caring and trusting relationship to express my love and to fall back on as a safe home base. I can empathise with the fear of commitment, but I’m still responsible for how I deal with that part of myself.
There’s always the danger of allowing a label to limit you: ‘if I have fear of commitment I’ll never be able to have a healthy relationship’. And at times, I can feel pretty hopeless when I run into the same issues over and over again (though that doesn’t really depend on whether I have a label for them or not). Knowing what’s behind your behaviour can help point you in the direction of how to deal with it, though, because I’m 100% sure that someone, somewhere has been through what you’re going through (not exactly or in the same combination, but in general). Even if they’re not able to help you, at least you’ll know you’re not alone.
Just because your brain works a certain way, or because you have difficulty with something, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Everybody runs into problems in their lives, literally everybody! Figuring out which ones trouble you most and why can actually help you heal your self-image, ease your self-criticism and help your brain make the most of each amazing day.
Labels affect people differently, and the connotations we have about them differ, too. I choose to take the positive from it, it works best for me, and I’m glad that I do.