In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the main character gets hold of a diagnostic checklist of psychological conditions. In her downward spiral, she concludes that she is suffering from all of them. The episode is partly black humor, but many people today would probably miss the joke. They’re too busy diagnosing themselves with as suffering from all sorts of conditions, both dubious and real.
I first became aware of this modern tendency in the days after the 9-11 attacks. In the aftermath, people who lived on the other side of the continent from the attacks, people who had no friends or relatives killed or wounded in the attacks, and, in some cases, had never been to the sites of the attacks, were suddenly claiming that they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. Nor did they have any pre-existing trauma that the attacks might have triggered. Having heard of the condition, they were dignifying their alarm by elevating it to a psychological state. Very few (in fact, none, I would guess) had been officially diagnosed, or saw any need to be.
Soon after, I became aware that some computer programmers liked to claim that they were suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. The claim provided an excuse for any anti-social behavior, and, because Asperger’s is often associated with high intelligence, helped them to feel better about their shyness. Yet I never met one who had consulted a clinical psychologist to be properly diagnosed.
Since then, the habit has spread like a fire from an oil-soaked rag. I have heard people struggling to get by on four hours’ sleep each night allege that they were suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and people wired on eight or nine cups of coffee announce that they were suffering from Adult Attention Disorder Deficit. One person, starting to exercise after over a decade of inactivity and feeling a soreness and trembling in their arms and legs, claimed that they had Fibermyalgia; another, notoriously self-centered, states that they suffer from Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. In one or two cases, I have heard people make one of these claims even after they had been diagnosed as not having the condition with which they identified so closely.
What makes these self-diagnoses particularly ludicrous is that some of these conditions are either not widely accepted as a physiological or psychological condition or else exist only under very specific conditions. However, such details are generally over-looked by the would-be sufferers.
Why people should make such unsubstantiated claims is not hard to understand. Saying that you have, for example, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is more interesting, even to yourself, than admitting that you don’t take care of yourself. It also requires much less effort than changing your habits.
In the same way, to say you have face-blindness sounds far better than saying you are incompletely socialized, and need to learn to look beyond yourself and notice other people.
More importantly, if you have a psychiatric condition or a genetic predisposition, then your behavior isn’t your fault. You don’t have to do anything about it. You can excuse your behavior (at least to yourself) and go right on doing it. If anyone calls you to account, then they are the crass ones, not you. You are the victim of circumstance, and are not obliged to help yourself.
I make these statements with some confidence, because people who truly have these conditions generally act very differently. They do not announce their conditions to everyone they encounter – to the contrary, they often go to great lengths to conceal them, often changing their lifestyles or employment, or adding a battery of work-arounds to their arsenal of habits so that nobody will ever know. Far from being proud of their problems, they see them as handicaps or deficits for which they have to compensate and struggle against.
That is to say, people who really have problems don’t try to ennoble or publicize them. They’re too busy trying to do something about them.
In fact, what concerns me most about the self-diagnosing is that they can reduce the credibility of genuine sufferers. If employers encounter too many people using post-traumatic stress as an excuse for anti-social behavior, they may run out of patience and not give the necessary sympathy for the genuinely shell-shocked.
Similarly, anyone who encounters Adult Attention Deficit Disorder being used as an excuse for lack of concentration might very well be out of patience when they meet the real thing. After all, even reputable psychologists need time for a proper diagnosis, so how is anybody without training going to be able to separate the dubious condition from the true.?
I’m almost tempted to wish that the self-diagnosing could be inflicted for real with the conditions they already claim to have. But that would be cruel – many of these conditions are not ones that I would wish on anyone.
So instead, I’ll wish that the self-diagnosing would either grow up or keep quiet. What they are talking about is far too serious to tolerate their games. Unlike Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, many of them do not even have the excuse of adolescence or actual problems to justify their self-indulgence.