Diagnosis

How a Dinner Date Changed My Life Forever

A man I barely knew diagnosed my ADHD over a dinner date — and my life completely changed.

Blythe Stagliano: Winding road to diagnosis
Blythe Stagliano: Winding road to diagnosis

When Blythe Stagliano was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), at age 26, the Philadelphia-based human resources manager finally had an explanation for the unease she’d lived with since grade school. But life did not fall into place once the diagnosis was in hand. Instead, learning that she had ADHD turned out to be the beginning of a difficult three-year journey of self-discovery.

Blythe Stagliano: About four years ago, I was out on a second date with a nice guy. Halfway through the evening, he told me that he thought I had ADHD because I’d paid only inconsistent attention to him at dinner.

I’d had difficulty organizing, concentrating, and completing tasks for years, but I thought that, if I just worked hard enough, I would overcome these problems. I worked in an open cubicle, and I found it so hard to concentrate that every day was a struggle to be productive. And just that week I’d had a car accident after I got distracted and plowed into the stopped car in front of me. But when a man I hardly knew could see the inattentiveness I’d been hiding for years, it was the last straw. Soon thereafter I consulted a doctor, who diagnosed me with ADHD.

I began therapy sessions but, as much as I truly wanted to change my behavior, I didn’t seem able to do it on my own. I decided to try medication, but a year and a half later, I still hadn’t found the right one for me. One medication made me spacey. Another gave me mood swings. I tried three or four antidepressants but none were right. During this time I also tried homeopathic medications and biofeedback, but neither treatment had much impact.

I’ve recently begun taking a slow-release stimulant, and I’m noticing improvements: It’s easier to initiate tasks and I don’t put projects off the way I used to. At work I can move from one project to another much more easily. Feeling productive makes me happier and makes work much less frustrating.

Barbara Fowler, Blythe’s therapist and coach: Blythe first saw me so she could get help with organization. But in our first meeting, it became clear that she was tremendously sad. It was a tough time in her life. She’d lost her job, had had major surgery on her knee that left her temporarily unable to get around, and had been diagnosed with ADHD. Although she’d known for years that she was “different,” she now felt sure that she had a mental illness and would never be okay. She felt defective.

For a year or so, Blythe and I met once a week. Blythe’s first task was to recognize how sad she was and take steps to address it. Anyone who loses a job also loses an important social network. And for people with ADHD, the loss can be devastating. People with ADHD function best when they have commitments. If an entire day is free, they can easily accomplish…nothing. With no place to go and no accountability to anyone, Blythe didn’t know where to start.

First, Blythe needed to feel better about herself. Instead of focusing obsessively on what she perceived as the failures in her life, she needed to identify what brought her pleasure. Blythe reestablished neglected friendships and started exercising regularly. As her knee began to heal, she attended a weekly yoga class. With these two accomplishments behind her, she already began to feel better about herself.

Blythe: Barbara taught me how important it is to be around people who like me the way I am. My friends accept me, even though I’m late more than I’d like to be, and I sometimes talk too much.

In the meantime, I’m making progress on my chronic lateness. I’ve learned that I usually underestimate how long it will take me to get ready. If I notice, for example, that my jewelry box needs to be reorganized, I’ll get absorbed in doing that. Barbara has taught me to make a mental checklist each night, detailing what I have to accomplish before I walk out the door in the morning, and to stick to that list.

I’ve also found a job that is more ADHD-friendly than my last one. The manager at my last job noticed if I was even a minute late. Messy desks were openly scowled at. Now I can close my office door when I need to, so as to avoid distractions.

Barbara: Blythe’s new job is in human resources, and she’s expected to do a number of things at one time. Instead of getting frazzled by the demands, she loves the variety because it helps her stay interested.

We’ve also made progress on Blythe’s work habits. Even though she works best later in the day, she realizes that arriving early shows her commitment to her job. She’s set up rewards for herself, such as buying a Starbucks coffee when she gets to work on time. Instead of answering each e-mail the minute in comes in, she checks her e-mail only three or four times a day. As a result, she saves time.

I want Blythe to recognize her great talent for getting people to work together. She’s spent too many years listening to her own negative comments like “I’m an idiot” and “I can’t get to work on time.” Now she’s recognizing that ADHD has positive traits and learning to praise herself for what she accomplishes.

Blythe: It’s hard to cope in a world where everyone else’s brain works in a different way than yours. The three years following my ADHD diagnosis have been the hardest of my life by far. But it’s been worth the work, because I’m finally learning to accept myself for who I am.

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