The Problem with Labels

Judging by socials, the latest trend seems to be people grasping diagnoses/hashtags to explain their ‘differentness’. I can empathise, as I’ve often considered myself different to most, but I have concerns – especially for people whose issues are, by their own admission, marginal at best.

Firstly, people are often under the mistaken belief that their diagnoses somehow augment them, perhaps by providing needed context – an explanation of why they are the way they are. But the labels, in fact, diminish them. They invariably become the label and people refer to them (and themselves) as such. (‘You know, my bipolar friend?’, ‘Do you mean the guy with ADHD?’ ‘Oh that’s just my OCD talking.’)

Secondly, everyone can find a diagnosis of sorts but, barring urgent conditions that require immediate attention, why bother? What does the fact of the diagnosis add to your ability, achievements, limitations, aspirations? Thirdly, this label-love sparks an industry of ‘experts,’ many of whom will confirm that you have hashtag whatever … for a price.

One of my sons has always looked at the world differently. We observed spectrum-related traits when he was a toddler but he was very sociable and articulate – a real people pleaser and naturally funny – and didn’t quite fit the usual profile. He had great insights and conceptual ability; in short, a real switched-on kid. But not a great student. In fact, his teachers repeatedly said: ‘He’s so clever. Shame about his grades.’ They wouldn’t offer oral exams (he would have aced them), arguing that this would confer an ‘unfair advantage’. (A determination that still stumps me nearly a decade later.) A cluey teacher pulled me aside one day and whispered: ‘The school’s not going to do anything to help unless you give them a piece of paper.’ Turns out I needed to get an ‘official’ diagnosis that he had ADHD, auditory processing issues and whatever else was flavour of the month. Ironically (and most unfortunately), the school did virtually nothing to accommodate other than giving him a quiet space and an extra 10-15 minutes to complete written assessments.

Worse, the ‘diagnosis’ cemented my son’s differentness in his mind. Not surprisingly, he refused to embrace it. He also refused the medication route floated by health professionals to help him focus and study – unlike the majority of his friends who soon became convinced that they needed their tablets to crack open a book. [Sidebar: This is the new uni epidemic … along with vaping.] The mind is a powerful force and it’s easy to convince yourself that you can or can’t do something. Like my daily head-talk about how I should walk five kilometres but simply can’t, though that messy contradiction, along with a host of others, is best saved for another blog post. My son’s view, one that I wholeheartedly embrace: What difference does it make what I have and how you describe me? We all have issues. So what?’

I should mention that I am not by any means discounting the importance of medical and health investigations for complex issues that cause great dysfunction (whether mental or physical) in people’s lives. I’m talking here about cases where the person’s need for a diagnosis (to explain, satisfy, relieve, rationalise some aspect of their life that isn’t working) is the imperative, not the issue itself. In my view, this urgency points to a profound issue of the existential sort: The need to belong. The need to be accepted. The need to be understood. And I get that. Hell, that’s probably why I write.

See, I have quite a few issues of my own and they’re flying left, right and centre as I get older. But I refuse to hide behind a hashtag. And I definitely refuse to use a hashtag for professional advantage or as an excuse for letting someone down (for not getting back to someone, not delivering on a job, not doing what I said I’d do). I pride myself on keeping my word despite all the possible hashtags that could apply. 

I guess what I’m trying to say, if you haven’t figured this out already, is hashtags don’t achieve anything. They’re reductive. They oversimplify and limit. If everyone plucked a hashtag (or two) to make them feel better – and why not, we all have issues, trust me –would this really help us understand ourselves and each other, let alone the world around us?