What’s in a label?

Some say labels are just for cans and boxes but why do people search for years for a label for their illness or disability? Why does it feel so important?

When a diagnosis is finally reached, there seems to be a sense of relief, maybe even satisfaction! Almost “I told you so!” Sadly, before this point, people worry others think they’re faking or exaggerating their symptoms. Without a diagnosis you’re just a list of problems. Before a diagnosis, phrases like “it’s all in your head” are used and the patient feels like no one believes them. Doctor after doctor has said “hum, I’m not sure; you say you feel like this, but the tests say you don’t.”

Finally, the label means validation.

Fibromyalgia is one of those illnesses that takes years to diagnose and people feel they’re not being believed, they’re pushed from pillar to post as their symptoms get worse.

The way I was given the diagnosis of fibromyalgia couldn’t have been further from what I was hoping. It’s meant to be a diagnosis of exclusion. Ideally, you would hear “We’ve done all the tests to rule out these illnesses x,y,z… and they’ve all come back clear, this is good news. (Pause.) This means, we’ve come to the conclusion, it’s fibromyalgia. It’s good, we now know what it is because we can begin to manage it. The way your symptoms are presenting (because they present differently for each individual) we’re suggesting these treatment options…”

In my experience, there are illnesses they haven’t excluded, numerous tests they haven’t done and the news was delivered, while prodding the joints in my hand (for no reason I could understand) “Well (sigh) it could be fibromyalgia”. That was it, they offered no support or treatment. “We might have a leaflet in the waiting room you could pick up on your way out…” they’d run out of leaflets…

Oh well, ignore how I got the label, what mattered was, I had it.

Fortunately, once I had the label, I was then able to find treatment options myself; I found a clinic in London (who only see people with a diagnosis) to get some advice; I had some group session with a physio and an OT and feel I can pro-actively manage the illness myself.

Reactive vs pro-active management

Understanding without a label

“But as long as we understand the difficulties, we just need to make sure individuals get the support they need.” Said a well-meaning nurse to me recently.

Understanding difficulties someone has and the support they need takes time and effort most people are unwilling to give. Understanding what an individual really needs takes knowledge, skills, expertise and often wisdom that most people just don’t have and time people are unwilling to set aside.

This nurse was supposedly reassuring me that they would offer me the support I needed for the difficulties I was facing in the office no matter whether I had a label or not… this supper never materialised… need I say more?

Why a label matters

With a diagnosis you get treatment options – before the point of diagnosis you’re crawling down a corridor of shut doors. At the point of diagnosis, a door finally opens. You’re finally allowed to enter the world of your given disorder and explore the “options”. All you’ve every wanted are “options”, that magical word! There may not be many, but before now, there haven’t been any!

Un-diagnosis can be lonely, with a diagnosis you can often find a community of people facing similar struggles, the support can be there if you want it. In this digital age we have forums of people literally at our fingertips. Just type your diagnosis in Google and there’ll be a Facebook group if nothing else! Sometimes giving support can be just as therapeutic as receiving it.

The mental health community is full of people who say “I don’t have a diagnosis but can I join…?” Of course, you don’t need a label to join but most people find it helpful to know for sure which label fits.

Sometimes the label changes

Sometimes clinicians get diagnosis wrong. Sometimes illnesses change. Sometimes diagnostic tests change or medicine gets smarter. For one patient this could be a traumatic and confusing process, for another it might be liberating.

Without a diagnosis, you may feel like a list of unknowns, more questions than answers. Why do I feel like this? Why do the tests show this? Who am I? What am I? Why is this? Things that don’t make sense and things that don’t add up. With a diagnosis there may still be lots of questions but some of them may start to have answers.

Your illness, disorder or disability doesn’t have to define you, that’s a choice, but a diagnostic label helps things make sense, is validating, answers questions, offers options and more often than not gives you a sense of belonging rather than exclusion that’s been the pain that’s been felt for far too long.

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