Michael Jordan hates labels. He rips them off of strangers in movie theaters and airplanes. And Michael Jordan is also right, clothing labels can be irritating and painful, but they can stop you from shrinking a favorite sweater or ruining your best pair of jeans.
Labeling people can also be irritating and painful. However, proper labels or diagnosis can prevent you from putting your child on the wrong medications or sending them to the wrong therapies.
I know many parents who fear the stigma of labeling their children’s mental illness. Afraid, I suppose, of admitting there is something wrong with their child. Or that perhaps a mental illness label will somehow make them look like bad parents. In my children’s father’s case, he fears that labeling our son will make him lazy and that he won’t try to “snap out of” his condition.
Today, after eleven years of labeling and mislabeling my son, he received a new label, a diagnosis actually, of Schizoid Personality Disorder. It is a horrible label. Not only because it sounds so lurid, but also because there isn’t a cure, a medicine or a therapy that will help him. Like a patient with a chronic illness, it can be managed but not cured.
But this label fits him well, I knew it the second I found it on google last week. People with Schizoid Personality Disorder (honestly, can’t there be a better name?) present themselves as indifferent, unattached and unmotivated to succeed. They are not in touch with their emotional state, they have a hard time connecting with or empathizing with other people. Conversations are almost always more of a monologue than a dialogue. My son doesn’t think to do anything nice for anyone, not even on my birthday. He doesn’t care about girls, college or work; he appears lazy. If you didn’t know he was ill, he can just seem like a jerk.
So imagine how someone with these challenges would fare in psychotherapy? Not well, not well at all. Countless well-meaning therapists, counselors, teachers and medical doctors have thrown up their hands and said, “I can’t get through to him.” Or as one particularly humorous physician said, “Charlie is above my pay grade.”
Yesterday, when I asked his psychiatrist if perhaps he had Schizoid Personality Disorder she looked a bit sheepish and said, “I hate to label young people, but yes, this is what he has.” Her fear of stigma around a label unfortunately has done Charlie more harm than good. For the year we have been seeing her, he has been to three therapists; including a 3-week stint at an intensive outpatient program 100 miles away from home, that cost thousands of dollars, cost him mental anguish and eventually cost me my job. Halfway through the program his therapist called to tell me that Charlie wasn’t responding to any of their approaches, Now I know why. Not because he is a jerk, but because he is ill.
Doctors don’t prescribe medicines that don’t work and might even be harmful. Doctor’s don’t avoid giving a diagnosis because of the stigma attached to it. So why do we avoid proper diagnosing and labeling of mental health conditions?
Now that I know about Charlie, I can accept who he is and stop trying to fix him. I can find a therapist who will mentor him toward goals and not try to get him to “open up.”
Yes, my son has a label I would prefer he didn’t, but Mr. Jordan, if you see him on an airplane, kindly keep your three-peating hands off of him. Thank you very much.