The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: labels

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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Don’t call me clean, organized, or hard-working.

Sometimes I wonder: what does it mean to be good at something?

When people praise me for being organized, motivated, or a hard worker, I don’t feel complimented. Being told I’m “good at” something doesn’t make me feel accomplished.

hold-the-praise

Perhaps because “good at _______,” “hard worker,” and “organized” all hint at innate aptitude, not actual hard work. I avoid discussing so-called natural “gifts” (including those often attributed to ADHD) because gifts don’t set us apart. The nature and quality of the work we do — personal and professional — is what defines us. ADHD makes it difficult to maintain consistency in this work. Success ought to be recognized for what it is, not cheapened with random labels like “organized” or “creative.”

Telling someone he’s good at something can be a comment on ourselves, too. It’s like admiring a person’s physical appearance: we fail to consider the complex reasons she might be thinner or stronger than we are.

This doesn’t come naturally…I have ADHD.

natural-gifts-labels-adhd-pull-quoteI won’t be so presumptuous as to call my house clean or uncluttered, but others have said this about me. Sometimes, I envy friends with messy homes.  I’m not naturally clean. I don’t love tidying up my whole downstairs every single night. I was born a collector, not a minimalist. Maintaining an alphabetized filing system and emptying my inboxes regularly isn’t easy.  It’s like when people tell me I’m good at yoga. Nope. I’m committed to a surprisingly modest daily practice that’s accessible to just about anyone.

And so it is with everything in my life. All my good habits are “for now.” None are particularly ambitious. I expect to fall off the wagon and get back on over and over, for as long as I’m alive. I set the bar low enough to clear, even it makes my goals embarrassingly small.

I’m not an overachiever…I do what I need to do.

Despite my hard work, I only do what I need to do to stay sane. I don’t keep boxing up and giving away my possessions because it’s fast and easy. I do it because I won’t clean my house if there’s clutter all over. I do it because an uncluttered, lower-stimulation environment gives me an uncluttered mind. I maintain an obsessive system for my calendars and to-do list. I write everything down on sticky notes. This is because my memory is so terrible, it’s embarrassing and a little scary.

Sure, you can tell me, “wow, I’m jealous, you’re so organized.” I’d like to point out, though, it’s like telling a person in a wheelchair, “wow, I’m so jealous, you have great upper body strength.”

Likewise, when you call me a hard worker, sometimes I’m reminded of the flip side: I have to work harder than the average person to get the same results — so I do. I maintain my lifestyle because I enjoy the significant personal benefits it provides. But is this worthy of praise?

We can un-earn praise.

And, because ADHD makes us unreliable at times, there’s another worry: if you think I’m a calm, attentive parent, what happens when you catch me on a bad day? When I’m tired, or my meds are wearing off, or I’m in an environment that’s too overstimulating and my brain shuts down? If you think I’m super organized, what happens when I forget something big and important?

A couple weeks ago, I referred to parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s criticism of vague praise: it’s something you can take away. “Organized,” “put together,” “calm,” and “good listener” feel tenuous to me. I suspect many people with ADHD feel the same. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop — for someone to uncover our ruse.

Instead of marveling at my natural aptitude for cleanliness and order — it’s imaginary, anyway — ask me about my process for keeping my email inbox empty. Ask me about my favorite organizing book or app. Not only will I feel noticed for who I truly am — a person with flawed neurochemistry who’s worked very hard to construct and environment that supports my and my family’s well-being — I’ll talk your ear off about how you can do the same.

Natural gifts are just that. A great many of them end up gathering dust. When we recognize each other, it should be for our willingness to learn, to forgive ourselves, and to keep trying even when progress is slow.

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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