In Defence of Labelling ADHD
I was at a company Christmas lunch a couple of years ago, and I was having a stimulating conversation with some of my colleagues. One of them had politely asked me about having ADHD and what that was like for me, and I was happy to answer.
One of my colleagues then said that a few years prior, it had been suggested to her that she may have ADHD. "That's interesting," I said, "Do you agree with that suggestion?" She replied, "Yes, I agree I might have ADHD. But I don't do labels."
At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond to this aside from, "Fair enough." After all, if a label is something that doesn't feel right for someone, there is little point in using it. But as time went on, I started mulling it over a bit more.
What did the label of ADHD mean to me? Why had I labelled myself? Was it helpful to me? Or was it unnecessary—even counterproductive?
Before an ADHD diagnosis, all sorts of hurtful labels can be applied to us by ourselves and others. How many of these sound familiar?
Scatterbrain | Space cadet | Daydreamer | Lazy | Weird | Flakey | Tardy | Careless | Clumsy | Childish | Disorganised | Chaotic | Impulsive | Overdramatic | Overemotional | Hot-headed | Chatterbox | Hyper | Airhead | Crazy | Incompetent | Messy
I bet some of those were hard to read. Personally, I have been called all of these on a regular basis for most of my life. Isn't that fundamentally wrong? None of these labels are helpful at all. None will result in self-improvement or better performance.
At best, these labels are hurtful. At worst, they become internalised as judgments on ourselves, dramatically lowering our self-worth and self-esteem. It's time we stopped accepting them.
Often, a label is something positive. Labels help convey information about something, and the label of ADHD is no different.
An overwhelming reaction from many people who are correctly diagnosed with ADHD is that of understanding. Learning that the struggles we have faced throughout our lives are not the result of some personal failing or lack of effort, but rather a consequence of a chemical imbalance within our brains, can often be a hugely positive turning point.
In this way, ADHD is a helpful label. We learn that we aren't lazy, stupid, careless or incompetent, but that we have spent a lifetime fighting against an obstacle we had little hope of understanding — our impaired executive functions.
Once we have this helpful label, we can start to understand our brains and how they work differently. We can begin to forgive ourselves for the things we had previously believed to be character flaws. We can learn tools and strategies that work with our brains to help us achieve goals we set for ourselves.
Explanations, Not Excuses
Since that conversation a couple of Christmases ago, I have encountered another common objection to the "label" of ADHD; that it's an excuse for bad behaviour.
ADHD is not an excuse, rather it's an explanation for why certain things are often challenging for us. It's also an opportunity to try different strategies that will help us better manage these challenging situations next time.
ADHD is mostly caused by genetics, and is a real, neurobiological condition recognised by major medical organisations throughout the world.
It's important to remember that ADHD is not just occasional forgetfulness, a result of not trying hard enough, caused by bad parenting, or not even real. It is, in fact, an executive function impairment that takes monumental effort on a daily basis to deal with. The fact you have managed to get this far in life shows how strong and capable you really are.