I feel a rush of excitement when I read a book and walk away understanding myself just a little bit more. Quiet by Susan Cain, for example, was one of those books. At a party at a friend’s place, as I excitedly explained the basic premise the book to a friend, he seemed unimpressed. His reason was, “I don’t like these labels – introvert, extrovert. They only keep people in their comfort zones.” I understand what my friend was talking about. A label can make you feel secure but it can also be used as a shield to hide from the world. In my experience, this is no reason to run away from labels because if used the right way, they can empower you like nothing else.
My journey of self-actualization began with a label. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 29, it was both a shock and a relief. A life of living outside my comfort zone had left me exhausted, on-edge and incapable of self compassion. The label was a warm blanket on a bitterly cold day. It was a kind and compassionate explanation for my constant struggle to stay focused, contain the chaos and manage my time. Through therapy, I began to understand my own biology and recognize my strengths and weaknesses clearly. The months following my diagnosis were full of AHA moments and for a while it seemed like I was invincible. What I didn’t realize at the time was that life with a label can be an emotional rollercoaster – One minute you’re on top of the world and the next, you’re plummeting to despair.
What didn’t change about me after the diagnosis was the fact that I would remain the way I was. That “try harder” as a personal mantra would be even less effective than it was before because this time I knew it wouldn’t really work. I would continue to wake up with morning brain fog, amble through the day unfocused with my thoughts racing from one target to another and I would struggle to calm my mind down when it was time to unwind and go to sleep. There were days I wished I didn’t learn this truth about myself. At least I could have used the potent power of adrenaline and shaming to get things done like I did when I went to graduate school to get my Masters degree. I began to feel stifled by the label and cast it off for a while. I acknowledged I had ADHD but I just didn’t know what I could do with it. It made me feel sad and defeated.
It wasn’t until I met my tribe that I began to see how labels can empower.
I met my friend Eric Tivers at an event in Chicago where Brene Brown was speaking about her latest book, Rising Strong. Eric is a licensed clinical social worker and the host of a podcast called ADHD reWired. I reached out to him right after the event and in the most uncharacteristic fashion, signed up to join his ADHD reWired Coaching & Accountability Group. I am notorious in my family for what my aunt calls, “Nisha’s five year plans” – I tend to think for a good five years before buying anything that costs more than $50. This time, after encouragement from my husband and sister I followed my gut and joined this group. Meeting others who shared my condition, who opened to me with vulnerability and received my story with empathy was an eye opening experience. I also joined the ADHD reWired Community on Facebook and it introduced me to people around the world with ADHD who, much like me, were grappling with what it means to live a fuller life with this label. This time around, the label empowered me. It helped me feel less alone. It gave me reason to approach my challenges with creative solutions, ask for help and advocate for myself.
Not all labels are disempowering.
When used incorrectly, you’ll find yourself hiding under the label. You will use it as an excuse to escape reality. You will allow others to keep you small and confined in your comfort zone and build fear in you about anything outside of it. Every misstep will make you retreat into your shell. You’ll refuse help and connection of any kind and struggle with the pain yourself. When you look at yourself you will see only your challenges.
When used correctly, they will anchor you to the reality of your life in a way that you stop asking, “what if I wasn’t this way?” and ask instead, “what can I do with this?” It will stop you from beating yourself up when you feel uncomfortable in certain situations. You’ll look for places to foster connection so that you feel less alone. It will strengthen your confidence and make you see what’s wonderful about you. Sure, you may find yourself inside your comfort zone on many days but on the odd day that you push yourself, the experience will be sweet and memorable.
I now wear my label proudly. I am an adult living with ADHD. Others may look at me and see only my struggles but I know now that I am much more than that.