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Mental Health

I’m Sorry, but What Did You Just Say?

Two statements that probably shouldn’t be made

Kelsey Pekarek

Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (1), p. 14

photo of author Kelsey

There are a lot of things that mentally well people often don’t understand about mental illness. One is what a mental health diagnosis really looks and feels like—that is, what it’s like to be someone living with a mental illness. I don’t usually talk much about what it’s like, but sometimes, sharing is useful. Perhaps I can help someone understand why I have the quirks I do. Perhaps, by getting my thoughts out where I can see them, I can understand them better myself.

Now, guess what?

I’m putting a thought out where I can see it.

Aren’t you lucky?

One of the diagnoses I have is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are two types of ADHD, hyperactive type and inattentive type. To complicate life, the disorder can also present as a combination of both types. I have inattentive ADHD, which supposedly means that I have trouble paying attention, remembering things and...

...what was I talking about?

Just kidding.

Okay, mostly kidding.

An ADHD diagnosis can be controversial. The Big Question is whether or not ADHD even exists. Once we get past that, some suggest that it’s over-diagnosed, and others say that the disorder is missed in too many kids. Then there’s the debate about medication: should I medicate, or shouldn’t I?1 Now, I’m not qualified to say much about the medical aspects of the disorder or its treatment. However, having both experienced ADHD myself and seen it in others, I do feel that I can authoritatively say this:

It’s incredibly annoying when people say, “I’m super ADHD today.”

ADHD isn’t a “today” or “right now” disorder; it’s a neurological difference that doesn’t go away. At any given moment, my symptoms might be better or worse than usual, but I always have ADHD. When people say that they’re ADHD “right now,” they are helping to perpetuate misunderstanding about the illness and about the real-life experiences of those who are directly impacted by the disorder.

I don’t think that a statement like “I’m so ADHD” stems from anyone’s desire to minimize the experiences of those who live with the disorder. It’s more that people don’t have a real understanding of what ADHD is, or of what living with ADHD is like. Now, because I’m terrible at transition paragraphs, here’s a list of what I wish people could understand:

  1. It’s not that we’re not paying attention. More precisely, it’s not that we’re purposely ignoring you. In fact, attention deficit is a bit of a misnomer. We don’t lack attention. We actually have so much attention to give that we can’t help giving it to everything all at once. We really struggle to focus on one thing at a time. For example, anything eye-catching usually trumps anything important, so if there’s a TV on behind your head, you might be out of luck. It’s nothing personal.

  2. We don’t always display a lack of focus. Hyperfocus is a state of intense concentration. If there’s something that we’re interested in—maybe Lego, a certain topic of study or a sport—we have the ability to focus on it for hours. Lack of focus and hyperfocus may seem like contradictory behaviours, but there it is.

  3. Hyperfocus can mean time-blindness. Some of us can get so caught up in a task or activity that we lose track of how much time is passing. We may end up being late to appointments, not meeting deadlines and panicking as we try to get caught up on our responsibilities. For example, I can stay up all night researching something interesting and not have any awareness of time until the sun rises.

  4. Having ADHD isn’t always negative. Those of us with ADHD may have traits that can make it challenging to function in the “normal” world, but our different wiring gives us a lot of advantages. We often come up with innovative and unorthodox solutions to problems, we’re wildly passionate about our interests, we often have wicked senses of humour and, frankly, we can be a lot of fun.

  5. Be gentle with us. More often than not, we feel like we’re letting people down. Have patience with us. We really are trying.

 

That’s ADHD, but there are similar problems with a statement like “I spent an hour cleaning my house so it looked perfect for people to come over. I’m so OCD!”

I’m sorry, but what did you just say?

I’m one trait shy of an OCD diagnosis, so maybe I’m not “qualified” to talk about this. However, seeing OCD in the lives of people around me, on top of my personal experience, has left me sensitive. At the very least, “I’m so OCD” is a phrase that irks me. You cleaned for an hour before company came, and your house looks terrific. That’s awesome! An hour of cleaning is a big accomplishment for a lot of people, and I bet your space looks and feels great.

However.

Comparing OCD with attention to detail or with keeping a clean house has an impact on how people view a very real, often very challenging disorder. It seems like “OCD” has become the socially accepted catch-all term for the minor annoyance of liking things a certain way, for example, or a way to excuse a quirky love of cleaning.

My OCD symptoms are not as significant as the symptoms of those who live with a more severe form of the disorder. I’m grateful that’s the case; the traits I have are quite enough, thanks, and the idea of living with full-blown OCD is enough to make my stomach flip-flop. To give you an idea of what makes my stomach flip-flop, here’s a list of things I’d love people to understand about OCD:

  1. OCD is not always about cleaning. For me, OCD is a need for patterns and routines. Having everything in order is a crucial part of reducing my anxiety, and touching every knob on the washing machine relieves me of the worry that it will die a violent death mid-cycle.

  2. OCD is not a way to laugh off being particular. OCD is an anxiety-fuelled, all-engulfing, life-controlling set of compulsions. While it’s common to perceive people with OCD as needing to control certain aspects of their daily life, the truth is that the disorder is controlling them.

  3. Please don’t tell us we’re not being logical. We know, in our hearts, that our compulsions aren’t grounded in logic and that they don’t actually affect the outcome. When people tell us that we’re not being logical, they are not delivering a mind-blowing piece of news. Rather than being helpful, statements like that make us less inclined to talk about what’s going on.

  4. We can’t just stop. OCD isn’t something we choose to take on. Likewise, it’s not something we can choose to let go. When we are told to “just stop,” it only reminds us that we can’t. That can trigger feelings of guilt, embarrassment and failure. I want to stop. I don’t want to be weird or annoying or ridiculous, but I can’t stop—so I and people with bigger OCD challenges hide our symptoms. We count our steps silently, we avoid elevators so that no one sees us touch every button before we get to the one we can push and we do our laundry when no one is watching.

To sum it all up, a diagnosis is given because it is needed. It is not meant to excuse our behaviour but, rather, to frame it in a way that invites further investigation and understanding. When you use language that minimizes my experiences, it closes the door to further communication. On the other hand, using language that shows me that you have confidence in my ability and want to work alongside me, or that expresses a desire to understand—language that empowers me—opens up opportunities for all of us to gain insight.

My diagnoses aren’t something I take lightly. Please don’t take them lightly, either.

 
About the author

Kelsey lives in Delta with her husband and four kids, and their dog, Jet. When she’s not driving her kids to activities, she can usually be found hiding in the kitchen with the doors closed

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