Good Labels

November 18, 2016

I like a good label…

No, not Valentino. Not Prada. Not Casa Amigos.

Did someone say Tequila?

The labels I’m talking about are the ones I use to describe Sebastian’s special needs. OCD. ADHD. Anxiety. Throughout my journey with my son, up to and including the AMAZING responses to my first Motherlucker piece, I hear one refrain more than any other. “F*ck labels! Who cares about the label? He is great!’ Well, yes, he is great. But those labels? I care about them. I need them. And so does Sebastian and millions of kids like him.

This summer we traveled to Europe as a family. Now, airports can stress the very best of us. A twelve-year-old with an anxiety disorder? Airports are torture. Sebastian would tell you that he finds comfort in facts. In concrete thoughts. It’s why he loves math. Airports are the opposite of math. Airports may be where math goes to die. How long is the security line? Why are those people going ahead of us? Why aren’t we moving? Is the plane on time? Triggers everywhere.

I know you extraordinary Motherluckers reading this are already thinking of ways to make travel easier. Leaving home with plenty of time to spare. Packing special snacks and favorite toys. Charged screens. Paying for a service like Global Entry. Yeah. That’s a good one, right? I think so, too. It’s why my husband has it. My sons have it. Yup. You guessed it. For reasons defying logic, I do not have the magical card to speed me through lines…

So there we were this July, stuck in line at JFK, and Sebastian’s anxiety was ramping up by the second. The more agitated he became the more he talked. He repeated himself. He got loud. To the average bystander he likely sounded like he was having an epic tantrum. His anger was mostly directed at me. He called me stupid. He called me lazy. He demanded extra allowance to make up for the wait. I’m accustomed to these melt downs. I know he can’t help himself. Anxiety is hard for adults to manage, so my empathy for my twelve-year-old son is enormous. I did my best in the moment. I actively listened. I repeated back to him the words I heard so he knew I listened. I stayed calm. I did NOT tell him to stay calm. I avoided eye contact with the people around us and when they stared at Sebastian I quietly and kindly asked them not to as it makes it worse.

Finally we made it to the security agent. I exhaled thinking the worst was over. Yup. You guessed it. I was wrong. The gentlemen from TSA had heard Sebastian for a good seven or eight minutes. He looked at my son and asked, “Where are you going?’ Sebastian told him he was going to Italy. The agent proceeded to tell my son he was rude and ungrateful and that going to Italy is something very special and he should start behaving better. Sebastian remained upset but I saw shame wash over his face. Anxiety began to take hold of me. So did anger. Because I knew why my son was having a hard time. I knew he wasn’t being a brat.

Know what would’ve come in handy? A LABEL.

***WARNING*** This child has special needs. Please treat him kindly & accordingly***

Ok. That’s a dream. But what if that guard knew Sebastian was overwhelmed with anxiety- actual “diagnosed by a psychiatrist” anxiety? What if he understood that anxiety often looks like anger? That anxiety can cause rage? I am certain he would not have chastised him. ADHD, OCD, Anxiety are all medical diagnoses. The labels of mental health are hugely, wildly important. They inform. They educate. They guide. Mental Health issues, more often than not, can’t be seen. I’m frequently told “I don’t see it! Sebastian looks so “normal’!” First, the word normal can literally go to hell. Second, if the issue can’t be seen then it might not exist, right? WRONG. Wrong in every language and on every planet. WRONG. Mental Health labels sadly can be stigmatizing and limiting. Many in the special needs community don’t like to use them because they worry the labels pigeonhole children. Here’s the thing. The trouble isn’t the label. We use labels all the time to protect our kids. A peanut allergy isn’t shameful. Using the label “allergy” informs. It saves lives. No one believes if parents were simply stricter that pesky nut allergy would disappear.

The trouble isn’t with mental health labels. It’s with the judgements made when the labels are heard. My son is in no way defined by these words. He is a million wonderful, interesting complicated things and these labels are but three. But these labels are vital to understanding how he sees and interacts with the world. They are vital to how the world can best understand and interact with him. The label that is diagnosis can and should be a starting point. The labels are not the problem. Stigma is. Strangers thinking my son is a brat is a problem. Staring at a kid having a hard time is a problem. Using a label to help my son? Using labels to educate? Problem solvers.

Keep the label. Lose the judgment.

In the meantime? Here’s one more “label”. #WeAreDoingTheBestWeCan





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  • Reply Rachel November 19, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    Thank you Lara for telling such a truthful story. You eloquently describe a reality that many moms experience and I bet hearing that they are not alone feels comforting. Sebastian is lucky to have you. Fritz too!

  • Reply Susanna Carrillo November 25, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    Lara! Mama! What a piece.
    Thank you!

  • Reply Anne Lombardi January 24, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Thank you Lara for this story. It really made me think about children with special needs. Many labels are medical, some are not. Many mental health labels are the result of “soft science” without scientific evidence/ Spectrum disorders are measures on a spectrum – so anxiety is measured on a point scale of sorts. As a resul, sometimes the labels are as misleading. Although I understand the “warning – child with special needs” idea, I have been in airports where everyone looks anxious – like the trip back from Europe when it took 3 hours to get through security post 9-11. I’m really uncomfortable with the need for a warning label. Maybe an understanding of the idea of “I’m special” before a warning label that states otherwise – I don’t know – the growth process is strewn with calculated risks. I think emotional reactions are part of the package.

  • lara merkel Ross
    Reply lara merkel Ross January 24, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Anne- thanks so much for reading! The warning comment was my attempt at sarcasm. Poor mans wit and all that. While there may be soft science behind thediagnosis of my son’s anxiety the disorder is very real and can be crippling. I think its important to distinguish diagnosed anxiety disorder from life events that cause temporary worry, anxiety or discomfort. We ALL can be anxious. We all do not have an anxiety disorder. I like the label because in so many ways my son isnt typical. Understanding his differences helps to understand him.

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