Today I’m going to write about something I’ve already written about multiple times: the labels we give personality traits, specifically through the lens of me having been diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive Type in adulthood. But this time I want to focus on all the different labels given, over time, to describe the same thing, so I’m taking it in a new direction, I promise.
But first, an important review: What’s the difference between Neurodivergence and Mental Illness? If you answered “Neurodivergence is when a person’s mental-emotional traits make it difficult to abide by their society’s standards, but they’d be fine if society’s expectations were different; whereas Mental Illness involves mental-emotional processes that will make life difficult no matter what society (or any environmental factor) is like,” you’ve got the general idea, as succinctly as I can put it, and if you add, “but it is extremely common for neurodivergent people to develop secondary mental illnesses as co-morbid conditions through their struggles fitting into their society’s standards,” bonus points, you’ve been paying attention.
So, ADHD is a neurodivergence, though lots of us have developed depression and/or anxiety disorders and/or rarer mental illnesses along the way. Our brains are always running off in directions that surprise the people around us (and often ourselves). And by “surprise,” I usually mean “annoy.” Right, everybody forgets things or loses track of time or makes a silly careless error or feels overwhelmed by sensory input on occasion: the difference is that we ADHDers are doing those things constantly, and no amount of scolding will make us stop.
Honestly, with the sheer number of faux pas and near-misses I stumble into daily, I actually can’t pinpoint many specific examples, unless they’re particularly amusing, like the time I found my wallet in the refrigerator. It all tends to blend together and (mostly) roll off my back. I can only give you the following typical example because it just happened, so it’s fresh, and what I started thinking about afterward is what kept it there in my brain. It also, curiously, involves my wallet, but that’s just a detail.
Those of us closing up the library for the day did so, and poured into the parking lot. Our parking lot has a gate that we’re supposed to lock up at the end of the night, so one person takes the lock and shuts it behind the rest of us— this, of course, requires us all to drive out first. It’s the same routine every night. But tonight when I got to my car, my mind did this: “Wasn’t there something I wanted to do after work? Oh, that’s right, I have to pick up milk. Oh, maybe I should call home to see if there’s anything else we need.” [Dig for phone in bag. Find it. Start to dial] “Wait.” [Hang up.] “I don’t think I saw my wallet in my bag. Do I even have my wallet?” [Dig through bag. Do not find wallet. Dig again. Look around the seat. Realize I haven’t used it since my last grocery trip and now have a clear recollection of leaving it in one of my reusable shopping bags, under the counter at home.] “Oh, okay. So I guess no milk tonight, then.” I finally set my bag down and started the car, and it’s only as I reached the gate, where the coworker with the lock was standing, waiting for me, that I realized everyone else has long gone, and I had no idea how long I spent digging in my bag, how long my coworker had been standing at the gate waiting for me to drive out so she could lock it and be on her own way, and I thought, “Whoops, I was unintentionally annoying again. I wonder how many times people get annoyed or even offended with me just because I totally forget where I am and have no sense of time? Do they know I’m not selfish, not intentionally rude, I’m just absent-minded?”
And that’s when I got the phrase “absent-minded professor” in my head, and started to marvel at it. Does anyone really think about where that stereotype comes from? People who have doctorates in things likely really love their fields of study. Somebody who puts in that much work toward a focus—I’ll bet a lot of those people can be described as hyperfocusing. Except people who hyperfocus also tend to have trouble with other executive functions. So all these absent-minded professors most likely actually had undiagnosed ADHD or “high-functioning” autism or some other neurodivergence that made them an expert in their fields but a bit of a space-cadet in everyday life.
Some people have a problem with the term “high-functioning” because it erases the very real struggles, exactly how hard they have to work to, well, function. They say it’s a term neurotypical people use to center themselves in the conversation: it’s all about how “normal” the neurodivergent person appears to others, not how they are in and of themselves. But that’s kind of my point. This is about how neurotypical people see us (or don’t). Neurodivergent people have been bumbling along in a society that can’t quite fit them for centuries before there were diagnoses to give them.
Wait, that’s not true. There have been plenty of diagnoses given to people who nowadays would be diagnosed with ADHD. I’ve used a few of them myself here already:
- Space Case
- Bimbo— or Dumb Blonde (for femmes at least)
- Artistic temperament
- Mad genius
- Bad influence
(Did the real Maria Von Trapp have ADHD? Inconclusive. I can’t speak for her. Does the fictionalized/theoretical subject of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” have ADHD? Abso-flibberti-lutely).*
(Wait, well, darn, there goes my fantasy of life-in-a-convent-so-as-to-get-away-from-household-responsibilities, I guess).
Maybe that’s why some people think ADHD doesn’t exist. These characteristics have always been around, and they’ve always had labels. It’s just that the labels describe the outside manifestations of neurodivergence, and not the fact that our brains themselves just plain work differently than average. Just like the term “high-functioning,” the words belittle the struggles: “You don’t have ADHD, you just need to come down to earth and pay attention more!” Such advice is missing a few steps! Like, how?
The last “D” in “ADHD” stands for “Disorder.” Some people feel this belies the positives—kind of the opposite problem “high-functioning” has—and replace that “D” with an “S” for “Syndrome”: a combination of symptoms which could be positive or negative depending on the context.** More in line with the idea of neurodivergence-as-not-bad-just-different. We want people (and ourselves) to understand that we can’t “just pay attention more,” that this is a real disability on our part; yet we also want people (and ourselves) to understand that we have so much uniqueness to offer if they’d (and we’d) only give us the chance! So what are the best words to use?
I’m pretty sure my brain got stuck on this subject in the first place because I’d recently read a post about ableist language. I’d been particularly intrigued by the introduction (“Before You Continue”), pointing out that this was not necessarily a list of bad words, just words with ableist connotations; it wasn’t meant to police your language, but to make you more deeply examine it. That clarified things for me. There’s a difference between calling something you don’t like “lame” and saying, for example, “That’s a lame excuse.” The first takes a word that had been used to describe someone with mobility issues and tries to make it a synonym for “boring” or “unlikeable.” But the second actually describes the excuse as “lacking the ability to stand”—”That’s a BAD excuse” is a bad replacement, as “bad” could mean any number of negative things—immorality, senselessness, overripeness: “lame” is a much more specific word indicating, via metaphor, that the excuse doesn’t hold up under its own weight. It’s the best word for that job… but the word does have baggage, and it’s good to at least be aware of that baggage so you’re not thoughtlessly insulting people.
Anyway, I had that list and that introduction, in the back of my head as I came up with this list of things people with ADHD have been called because of their ADHD. You note that some of those words have negative connotations, but some have positive ones. Some are merely descriptive, like “imaginative,” which usually just objectively means “prone to imagining a wide variety of things”—although that, too, could be positive or negative depending on the opinion of whoever’s using it.
Some seem like opposites: “dunce” and “visionary,” for example, were both words used to describe Albert Einstein over the course of his life—a man most experts strongly suspect, in retrospect, did have ADHD.
A man whose own name eventually became synonymous with “genius!”
He was a “dunce” in school because he couldn’t fit in with the methods and environment his teachers expected him to, so, from the outside, he certainly seemed to be somebody who couldn’t learn properly, somebody stupid. The label came from misunderstanding what was actually happening inside his brain. There are other words on this list that fall into the same pit: “bimbo” and “bad influence” may or may not be true about a specific person with ADHD, “thoughtless” and “lazy” definitely aren’t, but because a person with ADHD appears these ways to someone who can’t see what the ADHD brain is actually doing, these hurtful labels get slung.
But then, others of these words can still be used as insults, but they’re, um, true insults. We are absent-minded and scatterbrained. That’s what ADHD is. The only misunderstanding comes in when people think we can simply stop being scatterbrained by sheer force of will, or when people see us as nothing but scatterbrained, or assume that scatterbrained and stupid are the same thing. But we are scatterbrained. It’s just a description of what makes getting by in our world so challenging for us.
Some of these words, these descriptions, are two sides of the same coin. A head-in-the-clouds daydreamer may not be attending to the here-and-now, but an inventive visionary is busy… inventing great visions. And the words describe the exact same person doing the exact same thing. Is the outside observer mad at us for not paying attention to reality or intrigued by and encouraging of us for whatever amazing realities we’re creating in our heads? That’s the only thing that changes the words used.
And some of these words I’d be pleased to be called, either because they focus on the positive qualities of having an atypical brain (being an out-of-the-box thinker, or an Einstein, if I may) or on qualities that could be positive depending on your outlook, like “eccentric.”
“I have a new plan for life,” my best friend told me in college. “Cultivating eccentricity. There’s no way I’m ever going to not be weird, so I’m going to be the best weird I can be. Someone people will look at and say, ‘Ah, there’s that eccentric old coot!'”
Cultivating eccentricity! Reclaiming and celebrating our atypicalness! We’re characters. And I think that’s why the phrase “absent-minded professor” so intrigued me: it describes a character, one with both faults and skills. “Someone with ADHD” sounds so clinical, but “an absentminded professor” sounds like a person you can picture in your head. Maria the-Disgraced-Abbey-Novice later-Von-Trapp is “gentle… wild… a riddle… a child… a headache… an angel” and “a girl” all at once, and she’s all the more lovable for it (to… some people, at least). As exasperating as we might be in real life, this combination of featherbrained creativity makes for memorable fictional characters, the kind you can’t help rooting for.
And I like that I share a syndrome with such characters. Here’s to the eccentrics, the crackpots, the kooks, and the weirdos! We shall never be boring!
*I shall not be intimidated out of writing this article just because Oscar Hammerstein II already wrote this list for me in rhyme 20 years before the term “Attention Deficit Disorder” even appeared in the DSM!
**The current DSM, Official Namer of Diagnoses, does still call it ADHD, though, no matter what anybody else says.