The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: labeling

I have ADHD, and sometimes I can’t spell my own name

I’ve never had real a nickname, but my dad sometimes called me “Jacly” when I was a kid. The joke started when I forgot the last letter of my name at the top of a school paper.

Fourth-grade Jaclyn knew how to spell her own name — obviously — but my attention span wasn’t always long enough to write all six letters.

It still isn’t. I still catch myself writing “Jacly” on official documents. I also forget words in sentences, or I write words with the letters out of order. Occasionally, I find post-it notes with sentence fragments or unlabeled telephone numbers. I got distracted before I finished writing, and now I can’t figure out what they mean.

In the moment, I don’t realize these attention lapses are happening. There’s no way I can tell myself, “hey, focus!” and prevent them. I call myself detail-oriented. I’m proud of my ability to fill out forms correctly and completely. Still, I make weird mistakes all the time — especially when I’m writing by hand.

I don’t remember whether I liked my dad calling me “Jacly.” I can see myself appreciating that someone gave me a nickname. Just as likely, I might’ve gotten my hackles up. All the anguish I remember from my childhood stemmed from my ADHD, though I had no idea at the time. ADHD’s quirks and foibles — like misspelling one’s own name, or throwing a third-grade classmate on the floor after he cuts in line — can come to define us. And that hurts. Maybe it’s who we are, but it’s not who we feel we are.

That dissonance haunted me all through my young life. I wrote in my journal about a desire to leave home and start over. I hated going to school knowing everyone had an opinion about who I was. I didn’t feel like I fit others’ definitions of me.

I still struggle with this, but I try to keep a sense of humor. I try to look for opportunities. Every time I write “Jacly,” I smile and hear my dad’s voice as I go back to add the ‘n.’ I try to view mistakes as opportunities to show my real self: someone who’s neither selfish, nor irresponsible, nor slapdash. I do that by admitting my mistakes, apologizing when necessary, and acknowledging how my actions affect others. I’m upfront about my memory and attention issues. I hope this openness helps people realize it’s not about them, or my feelings toward them. I talk about my post-it notes and my organizational systems because I want others to see I’m trying. I try to laugh at the silly stuff, and keep working on the important stuff.

Because I’ll always misspell my name on occasion. Every once in a while, my post-its — or another system — will fail me. It’ll probably be my fault. But I can practice resilience. I can forgive myself and maintain a decent attitude. I can resist the impulse toward defensiveness, blame-shifting, or turning all that anger inward. I can own Jacly, but reject negative, self-destructive labels. Then, I can brush myself off and keep trying, assuming it’s not too late to add the ‘n.’

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Family life with ADHD: Stash those labels.

Labels — we all use them sometimes, even though most of us know we shouldn’t. Parenting has taught me to use labels intentionally and sparingly. My favorite books caution against labels, both in the positive (“you’re such a good girl”) and the negative (“you’re a troublemaker”).

Labels tell us how we fit in.

The labels we give our children become the language they use to define themselves. Parenting expert Vicki Hoefle writes in Duct Tape Parenting, “your child is answering one question over and over again: ‘In my family I am the child who…'”

ADHD labelsFor those of us with ADHD, the end of that sentence was (or is) often negative. I can trace most of my childhood labels back to my undiagnosed ADHD: oversensitive. Inconsiderate. Selfish. Vain. Ingrate. Argumentative. Rude. Lazy.

Even positive labels, like “smart,” came with baggage. For a girl with ADHD, “smart” often means “you’re too smart for this.” This being missed homework, a bad grade, or a lower-level class. “Smart” also implies potential. It sets expectations for your life and career path.

As a kid, I sometimes took on these labels — “it’s true, only a selfish person would’ve done that” — and sometimes fought against them. I wanted to view myself as a caring, sensitive, quiet person. I never wanted to make people angry. And yet, I felt like the outside world saw me as selfish, aloof, and melodramatic. I didn’t like that person. I barely even recognized her. I longed to show everyone the “real me.”

ADHD inspires labels that belie our true intentions.

As a young, newly married adult, I still suffered with untreated ADHD. I felt desperate — and yet unable — to disprove the labels still haunting my life. In a long-ago conversation argument about household responsibilities, my husband uttered the phrase, “lazy is as lazy does.” I wrote it down, along with many other labels, in an attempt to sort through my feelings. Deep inside, I knew who I was, but I couldn’t show it.

I eventually sought help for my ADHD. (Side note: My husband, who was pre-diagnosis himself, would never say something like that today.)

And, just like that, we can evolve. It’s never too late to shed damaging labels and redefine ourselves. Change begins with a commitment to build each other up rather than tear each other down.

ADHD labels pull quote

Resisting labels while appreciating the little stuff.

These days, we shy away from labels in our home. In their parenting classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish point out the dangers of even the best-sounding labels: “you can take away ‘good boy’ by calling him ‘bad boy’ the next day.” As a child — and later an adult — with ADHD, I learned to eye each personal victory with suspicion, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That’s why I refuse to trade my negative labels for positive ones. I get no pleasure from hearing “you’re a hard worker,” “you’re so organized,” or “I can’t imagine you losing your temper.” On the bad days, positive labels only serve to hone my sense of loss and failure.

Instead, our family works day to day, praising and appreciating each other for the specific — the nitty-gritty. Somewhere around age two, our son went through a hitting phase. When he got angry and didn’t hit, I’d tell him, “you were so angry, I know you wanted to hit me, but you didn’t. You went upstairs to calm down instead.” When my husband — often at work very late — is home in the evening, I tell him, “I’m glad you’re here.”

This is especially critical for areas where we struggle. Specific praise and appreciation lets people know we see them. We see them doing their best, and we notice their small victories. When this is what defines us, rather than “unreliable,” “late,” or “hot-headed,” we access our power to do better.

What labels do you find yourself using in your family? What labels did your parents use with you? How do labels affect the way you view yourself and those around you?

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