There seem to be two camps, or at least two vocal camps, on categorizations related to identity. There is the ‘category defines me and my view of the world and is everything’ camp. And there is the ‘categories don’t matter, we are all human’ camp. This theme is apparent in many realms, including chronic illnesses and disabilities that affect the brain. Since this is an area I know at least a little bit about, I am going to use that as an example.
The other day I tweeted about not hiding behind complexity and the value of making things simple so you can show up and execute on them. I said it’s a key to progress. Someone responded insinuating that my tweet should be labeled for neurotypical people only and that it could offend and lead to increased shame for neuroatypical people, like those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or ADHD. This may be true or it may not, and it probably depends on the person. Either way, it got me thinking about my own experience being so-called “neuroatypical,” when I was in the thick of experiencing OCD. Whatever was going on in my brain during those worst few months, was not typical.
OCD was a very useful category. It helped me get a diagnosis and the right treatment plan. Without that label things would have been a lot worse, no doubt. But after a long time, OCD as a label or category became extremely limiting. I am so much more than OCD. At first, the more I thought about OCD and the more I viewed the world through the lens of OCD, the more helpful it was in understanding and working on my situation. But eventually, the more I thought about OCD and the more I viewed the word through the lens of OCD, the more it got in the way and narrowed my world.
I’ve talked to many researchers, therapists, and people who experience depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, ASD, and so on. My observation is this: categories and labels aren’t good or bad. They are good and bad. More specifically, they tend to be good until they become bad. Or they are useful in some contexts but not in others.
If you were just to say that categories and labels are reductionist and useless because everyone is unique then it’d be really hard to make sense of the world. We need categories. And yet the truth is that categories and labels are reductionist. There’s a reason that arguably the most famous line in poetry is this, from Walt Whitman: I am large, I contain multitudes.
I’m going to end by bringing this back to myself because it’s the story I am most familiar with. But to be sure, this kind of thinking expands to a whole lot more. I am very grateful that OCD, as a category and label, existed when I was first diagnosed. It was important to my understanding and recovery. For a while, my identity and OCD were pretty dang tight. But over time, I realized that the story I was telling myself about my identity and OCD being pretty dang tight was part of what was keeping them pretty dang tight.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that simply saying “I’m neuroatypical” will get rid of your ADHD or ASD; or that saying I don’t have OCD or anxiety or depression or whatever will suddenly make the symptoms go away. That is patently not the case. What I am suggesting, however, is that these categories aren’t all there is. They are conceptual tools for understanding. Sometimes it makes sense to rely heavily on a certain tool. Other times it doesn’t.
Categories and labels are important. They can help expand understanding and possibilities. They can also limit understanding and possibilities. Both of these things can be true at the same time.