Turning self-pity into self-compassion

When my ADHD threw me a curveball, taking five minutes to breathe helped me reframe the situation.

Ryan Theodosia
Jun 8, 2019 · 7 min read

Being neurodivergent can complicate even the most mundane situations. I struggle with change — even the shift from the academic year to summer threatens to undo months of habit-making. This year, I have to take summer classes starting just one week after my spring finals. I’ve done my best to hold myself together over the past few days, but today my ADHD had other plans.

I sensed a problem as soon as the nurse called me back for my endocrinology appointment — a twice-yearly visit to get another testosterone prescription. My keys weren’t in my pocket or attached to my waist pack. I decided to check at the front desk after the appointment to see if I left them there and focused my limited attention on the task at hand.

The appointment itself went smoothly. My doctor seemed surprised when I said my pharmacy didn’t have any problems filling my prescription. In her experience, it’s fairly common for pharmacists to question legally ”female” patients who are prescribed testosterone. She pressed me to share any problems I was having with my transition, and I couldn’t think of any she could control.

Physically, my transition is going according to plan. As a nonbinary person, I aim for a fairly gender-neutral, ambiguous presentation, and my low dose of testosterone helps a great deal. Legally, I’m in a bit of a limbo. My Maryland birth certificate retains my birth name and assigned sex at birth, but my California driver’s license lists my real name and gender. To update my passport or get a “Real ID,” I’ll need to navigate Maryland’s name and gender change laws. These appointments always involve politics in some way.

In 2015, Maryland changed its laws to allow gender changes on birth certificates without proof of gender-affirming surgery. If I were a trans man, this would solve my problems, as I would only need proof that I’m on testosterone. Instead, I have to wait for them to add a third gender marker if I want my birth certificate to match my driver’s license. My endocrinologist also recommended getting top surgery in the next couple of years, before any Trump-era changes to insurance coverage requirements go into effect.

After my doctor left, I waited 20 minutes for the nurse to bring my discharge papers. I eventually went out to the hallway and asked for the paperwork myself. The staff had been occupied preparing for an incarcerated patient’s appointment. The bulletproof vests her CoreCivic escorts wore seemed excessive and unnecessary, given the environment. Company policy, I suppose.

In the time I spent waiting, my phone battery dipped below 15 percent. I mapped out my next steps:

  1. Ask if my keys were left at the front desk
  2. If yes, leave. If no…
  3. Check the waiting room?

This plan fell apart almost immediately. The keys weren’t at the front desk or in the waiting room. I checked my Tile app — it hadn’t seen the keys for an hour. A creeping sense of panic affected my judgement as I scrambled to devise a new plan:

  1. Text mom that my keys and car might have been stolen
  2. Check the parking lot to see if the car is there. If not, confirm that the car was stolen. If yes…
  3. Check the car to see if the keys are there. If not, go back into the offices and ask again. If yes…
  4. Check to see if the doors are locked. If not, get in and thank the universe that no one took the opportunity I accidentally created. If yes…
  5. Frantically text mom that the keys are locked in the car and my phone is dying

I managed to tell mom what she needed to know, but I didn’t have my AAA membership card with me. My phone died before she could tell me what the plan was. This left me sitting on a bench outside the offices for at least 20 minutes, maybe longer depending on the plan. I internally kicked myself for not keeping a portable charger in my waist pack, and for playing games on my phone while I waited for the nurse.

About five minutes into my wait, I put my reusable earplugs in. The slight decrease in sensory input calmed my nerves just enough to bring some focus to my thoughts. I remembered I had my Fitbit, and that I could use it for guided breathing. Of all the features on today’s Fitbit trackers, this is one of my favorites — it took me only two swipes and two taps to start a five minute session. At first, I just needed a way to waste five minutes, and I thought I’d have to start another session right afterwards.

My heart rate increased by five beats per minute during the session, but that’s pretty common given my autonomic nervous system difficulties. The main benefit was psychological. At the end of those five minutes, I realized that I had a choice in how I perceived and responded to the situation at hand. I remembered that I meditate every day for a reason, and that introspection is one thing I can do without any electronics. I didn’t end up needing the second five minutes.

Before I took a breather (literally), a strange mixture of self-pity, self-hatred, and guilt dominated my thoughts. I didn’t want to disrupt my mom’s life because I made a stupid mistake. My day had already been slightly dysfunctional, and this major hiccup made it significantly worse. I started to generalize the situation, and eventually I wondered how I’ll survive when I move to Washington state in September. My San Diego-based family won’t be able to help me then.

These thoughts didn’t disappear when I took five minutes to take deep breaths — I was simply able to pause them for a short time. But at the end of the session, I had a choice to make. I could go back down the path of helplessness and fear, but another possibility presented itself: I could frame the situation as a learning experience, and a reminder to be grateful for my family’s support and assistance.

When I remembered that I had a choice in my thought patterns, that I could choose self-compassion instead of anxiety and anger, the world around me seemed to change. I felt compelled to take the earplug out of my right ear — this caught my attention because, when I’m listening to podcasts and take one earbud out, it’s usually the left earbud. Most people, myself included, perceive speech better with their right ear. My brain seemed to be urging me to listen to the people around me, so I did.

My sense of time shifted as well — the minutes no longer dragged on endlessly. I watched and listened to life happening around me. Instead of fearing that I’ll never be self-sufficient, I remembered how different living on campus is from living at home. Driving won’t be central to my life once I’ve moved into my campus apartment. There won’t be as many chances to lock my keys in my car, and in all likelihood I’ll be within walking distance of my apartment if (when) I do.

Above all, I remembered that there are solutions. I stopped feeling like I’d be waiting on that bench for the rest of my life. If I really needed to, I could have walked to the nearby CVS and bought a pre-charged portable charger and a USB-C cable. Having my phone charged would have let me call a Lyft and get home on my own. From there, I could’ve brought my AAA membership card back with me on either public transit or another rideshare.

Knowing that I can choose how to think about situations like this reassures me of my progress.

Eventually, my 18 year-old brother pulled up in front of the offices. I got into his car and started charging my phone. He parked close to my car in the parking lot and waited while I sat on hold with AAA for almost half an hour. Eventually, I texted mom again and asked if we could just head home. She agreed to drive me back to the parking lot later tonight, when AAA isn’t dealing with Friday evening rush hour calls, and to pick up my prescription for me. I planned to do it after the appointment, but I didn’t want to take up any more of my brother’s time.

Afternoons like this certainly aren’t ideal, but they’re part of being neurodivergent. Navigating minor crises like these reminds me to be grateful for my family. Knowing that I can choose how to think about situations like this reassures me of my progress. Effectively stopping my panic in its tracks during challenging situations has been a constant goal in my near-decade of therapy. Today, I proved to myself that I can do it, even when I’m just looking to make five minutes pass quicker.

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Ryan Theodosia

Written by

Ryan received xyr AA in ASL (2019) & is studying Science Journalism for xyr BA (Evergreen State, 2021). Xe is an Autistic, queer, non-binary crip.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Ryan Theodosia

Written by

Ryan received xyr AA in ASL (2019) & is studying Science Journalism for xyr BA (Evergreen State, 2021). Xe is an Autistic, queer, non-binary crip.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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