How much time do I have left before it’s game over?

This is a game I’ve been playing for a while. The aim of the game is simple enough: in order to survive, I must avoid stressors that might trigger a sensory overload. If I fail to avoid the stressors, I put my life at risk of a sensory overload. Oh yes, it is potentially lethal. I haven’t thought of a name but F Off seems apt.

Rules of the game (current version is HK-17): To stay alive, I must avoid stressors that trigger a sensory overload. For each stressor I come into contact with, my lifespan is shortened by a day. Examples of stressors and things to watch out for include: loud and noisy environments; long line up; physical contact with people; people not looking where they’re going; people who stand or sit too close; getting poked by people’s umbrellas; people obstructing the way with their luggage; people blocking the way generally; people using selfie sticks or pointing their fingers without paying attention to where they’re pointing; kids yelling and running about; people who smell like they’ve just smoked a whole pack of cigarette or haven’t showered for a week; people breaking into laughter; commute at peak hours; construction works; vehicles honking; the loud passenger in a bus or train carriage; pedestrians talking enthusiastically behind me I can’t wave away their voices; stuck in a packed elevator especially a packed elevator in the campus full of noisy students babbling across my face etc. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. In any event, each time I’m out and with all the stress, anxiety and mental effort, I feel as though my lifespan has been shortened by a year. Going out for a hike is considered a risk event which brings no more than a momentarily psychological relief. I can earn lives by going on a holiday or getting a tattoo. I don’t rule out that most of the stressors that might trigger a sensory overload are also manifestations of my misanthropic tendencies or hypersensitivities to the human species. Yes, the rules are arbitrary, so is life.

If the human average life expectancy is 80 years, how many days or even years have been taken away from me and how much time do I have left?

Featured image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr creative commons


The curse of the Maneki Neko: Haunted spirits in the dark

This is part two of a two-part post on my autistic dilemma, describing two separate events (mundane details of my boring life) that took place on the same day, 28th of March 2017. 

My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed. It is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

I used to hike every weekends in a hiking group for 1-2 years. When I first joined, there were around 10-20 people in each hike. Gradually, the group expanded (working my magic again) and the number of hikers grew. When I left, it wasn’t uncommon to see more than 40 hikers in a hike, it was getting too big for my liking. I was known then for being a fast hiker and I thought so too but after leaving the group, I realised that was an illusion. I appeared fast because I didn’t stop to engage in small talk, I pushed myself to go fast so I didn’t have to be stuck in between hikers where I’d be forced to listen, if not participate, in their conversation. Moreover, with a big group like this, there was bound to be politics and as the group continues to grow, the (moral) pressure to socialise increased. It wasn’t about hiking anymore. We all wanted to have fun hiking but my idea of fun does not include socialising. Eventually, I removed myself from the group because our objectives no longer matched, I wasn’t enjoying myself and people were starting to wear me out.

After that, I hiked on and off. There was a period for about a year or so where I’d hike with a friend every Saturday until there came a point I felt the trail was getting more crowded by each week. The feeling was mutual, it wasn’t my hallucination. During one of those hikes, the human traffic was exceptionally heavy. I was going uphill and short of breath which meant I was stuck in the middle of the traffic and couldn’t go any faster myself. When I finally hit flat ground, I sprinted my way down, playing repeatedly in my mind the chorus to Helen Reddy’s Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) ~ “Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone…” After that traumatised experience (nope, no exaggerate, I was traumatised), I stopped regular hiking again. It takes too much effort to head outside (for any reason), it feels like entering a war zone, my mood fluctuates so much being constantly in a fight or flight mode, I’m wreaking havoc on my mind and body, I decide my priority is to avoid the trigger. Even if I can’t avoid people completely, the best I could do is to reduce as much stress as possible associated with leaving the house. I became a hermit. And to certain extent, I did feel better, my mood became more stable (although subject to the ‘cooperation’ and considerateness of neighbours) and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not going out. I enjoy the comfort of an indoor lifestyle as much as I enjoy walking in nature. I hold a record of not leaving the flat for 15 days and I’m secretly proud of it.😁

More recently, I have a new found hobby, or more accurately, I’ve found a way to engage in and enjoy hiking again, or so I thought. I discovered the joy of night hiking. On a ‘good’ night, I could climb up to the top of the peak and find myself alone, smiling and thinking this is true bliss. The night is quieter and louder at the same time. It is louder because without human distraction, I’m paying more attention to nature, the frogs croaking, the squeaking bamboos, the ever changing clouds, the colour of the sky etc, sounds and sights I’m still discovering which I have overlooked in the past because I was always either too busy trying to get away from people or in a haste to get back home before the rush hour. The night not only brings a new perspective but also brings me closer to nature.* And each time I write about nature, I’m putting my writing skills, vocabulary and knowledge to test and shame, my words (and pictures) can never do justice to her beauty.

The week I came back from Singapore, I was looking forward to be back on the night trails. I was disappointed when I saw someone else at the hill top but the beauty of the night was so alluring, I wasn’t ready to give up my new found hobby just yet simply because I saw one individual on the top. On the evening of March, 28th and after my grocery trip, I went back up the trails, starting at an even later time, hoping the later the lesser people. Weather was good, even though there were clouds, I could still see a few stars. I reached a spot where I saw joss paper lying around on the ground. Then I remembered that the Ching Ming Festival is just around the corner (a Chinese tradition paying respects to their ancestors). I let my imaginations run wild, thinking of the dark spirits that must be following me. I’d soon realise that I’ve jinxed myself.

Before climbing up the peak, I stopped to take some photos. Being a novice inexperienced photographer, I spent a considerable amount of time, trial and error, to take a decent photo. About 10 minutes later, I saw bright lights and heard noises approaching. It was happening again. They have found me and were coming after me. Soon after, they appeared and my fears were confirmed, not just one or two of them, they were in a group, there must be at least 10 or more. I wanted to scream. They just won’t leave me alone, won’t they! I thought I found the solution to avoiding the day crowd. I was wrong again.

I wasn’t going to climb the peak in that condition so I escaped and returned to the site with the joss paper where I could be on my own and hopefully, remained undisturbed. The thought of spending time with spirits might even sound more appealing. There and further down the trail heading towards home, I was finally on my own, as I watched in amaze the night sky, the moving clouds and the intermittent stars. It was a beautiful night. But at the same time, I’m starting to appreciate bad weather ~ those cold wintry windy evenings and rainy misty days which might deter some hikers. It reminded me of those days in school, I’d talk to the rain like I’d sit and admire the sky now. I was known amongst my classmates for walking in the rain. People leave me alone when I walked in the rain. Walking back home, I started humming, not because I was scared, my mood turned for the better, I was actually happy. I’m measuring happiness by the amount of time I got to spend on my own undisturbed by the sound, view and sight of people. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an overdose of dopamine but when I was back home, I was hyper and elated.

29th March 2017 – Is this alexithymia?
I woke up the next day confused because I wasn’t sure what kind of a day it was and how I felt about the day before. I can describe the events and how they made me feel separately (angry, annoyed, anxious, stressed, happy etc) but as a whole, I’m confused. I can’t forget the panic at the supermarket and I can’t forget the annoyance at the bottom of the peak but there was also the elation towards the end. It was a day of extreme mood swing, I’ve lose my equilibrium.

Autistic Dilemma
I feel torn between two lovers ~ the comforts of staying in and the healing power of nature. Time and again, my interest and solitude is interrupted by people who get in the way. My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude, undisturbed by people. No doubt I love my solitude but I didn’t become a recluse because I love my solitude so much I want to remove myself away completely from people. I become a recluse because the world outside is too loud and populated for me to enjoy.

When I say my heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed, it is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

*Postscript: After posting this, I read a news article about Henry Thoreau. It brought a smile to my face when I read the following, which is exactly what I was trying to describe:

Thoreau’s idea of walking was to be totally immersed in a place, really paying attention, getting to know it well,” says historian Jayne Gordon. “He wasn’t out to make speed records or to exercise as we know it. He often walked the same routes and felt you can always find new things to fill you with wonder if you allow yourself to slow down, be awake, present, and alive.” 

Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress), Helen Reddy (chorus begins at 0:40)

Related posts:
The curse of the Maneki Neko (March 30, 2017)
First a wishy-washy then a pantywaist (November 13, 2016)
Supporting a sensory and solitude friendly environment (October 31, 2016)
Walking in the rain (March, 7 2016)

Related news report:
Upturn in hiking has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

My trouble with people

I’ve been open about being a misanthrope but what is it about humankind that troubles me? There are many. This post refers to one of them: people who appear inconsistent and who don’t seem to practice what they preach. I use the words ‘appear’ and ‘seem’ because I don’t mean people who intentionally and purposefully cheat or people who are hypocrites, I mean ordinary people like you and me, regardless bad or good, evil or kind. And when I refer to the humankind, I refer to people in general and that also includes myself so when I appear to be critical of certain behaviour, I am also referring to myself.

I think to certain extent, one has to care enough about the humankind and interested in human nature to become a misanthrope for I don’t just dislike people without a reason. And how might that be related to being autistic? One doesn’t have to be autistic to be a misanthrope. In my case, my deficits in social communication and interaction, in addition to my fixation and interest in the philosophy of life, and the need to maintain an order in life probably exacerbate the problem. One thing is certain though, it is not due to my lack of empathy that leads me to become a misanthrope. If anything, it is due to me trying so hard to picture myself in someone else’s position. It is not a lack of empathy, it is wanting to empathise so much in situations where the context is not clearly spelled out, everyday situations where most people would probably not even think twice about exercising their empathy and simply take things their way or for granted.

People on the spectrum are generally known to prefer routine to spontaneity. The need for control and predictability help to reduce anxiety and maintain order in life, which would otherwise seem meaningless and confusing.

“The development of routines and rituals can be a sign of anxiety and we know that children with Asperger’s syndrome have a propensity to be anxious, but another reason for the development of routines can be weak central coherence, i.e. difficulty determining the patterns or coherence in everyday life…The following quotation illustrates why there is a determination to create order and certainty:

‘Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. There seem to be no clear boundaries, order or meaning to anything. A large part of my life is spent just trying to work out the pattern behind everything. Set routines, times, particular routines and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. (Jolliffe et al. 1992)’ ” 

Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome [bold my emphasis]

I’m baffled by human behaviour, a large part of my life is spent trying to work out the meaning and obsessing over the rationale and motives behind a person’s words, behaviour and conduct. Unfortunately, this might not be the best interest to pursue as people are the most complicated creature on earth and people skills are not my strengths. I get very perturbed with inconsistencies and confused when people send mixed messages about their behaviour and character. I can’t control these impulses to overthink and sometimes the best way to deal with it altogether is to remove myself away from the source of confusion even if that entails disconnecting myself and burning bridges.

One of the major source of confusion stems from people who don’t seem to practice what they preach and me trying to work out the meaning and context of the situation in an attempt to justify and find an explanation for the person’s conduct. To list a few examples, I once helped to organise a seminar in the university on freedom of information and the co-organizer, which was a corporate body wanted to make it a closed-door event (“What an irony to talk about freedom of information if you didn’t intend to open the event to the public? What were they thinking?”) or to talk about environment conservation in one minute and the next, throwing away non-confidential paper with an unused blank side (“Why did you just throw that into the bin? I could have used it as a recycled paper.”) And then there are the people who agreed with me that it is so annoying to be out in the crowd but who continuously spend most of their time outdoors with the crowd (“If that really annoys you so much, why do you still commit yourself to various social engagements?”) or back in school days, classmates who claimed they had not spend much time preparing for a test but always ended up getting high marks for it (“Are they simply intelligent or lucky or lying about not preparing for the test?”). In the context of spreading autism awareness, a post opens up for people with autism and one of the job requirements read individuals with confident speaking skills. While I’m not dismissing that individuals on the spectrum cannot be a confident speaker (I believe they can be and indeed there are), it is not a term which one with autism would tend to associate and identify with, I would have been more careful and sensitive to the wording I choose). In addition, how many conferences, seminars and events on autism actually catered to the sensory needs of autistic individuals? I attended a seminar last week which had individuals with special needs attending. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone else with autism or sensory sensitivity issues amongst the participants but I felt bad about the lack of air ventilation in the room and how constrained the space was with seats narrowly spaced out. I’m not blaming the administrators who organise these events, having been one myself, I know how stressful and thankless job this is. However, it would have been nice if some day, autism and neuro-diversity awareness reach a stage where inclusiveness is instinctively built into everyone’s mind and we start making our structured environment a better place for individuals with special needs.

When inconsistencies like these happen, I find it hard to reconcile. It is as though someone is telling me “I like you” on Monday, “I dislike you” on Tuesday and then “I like you again” the day after. What happen that changes? Is it something I’ve done? Are they just having a bad day? This is made trickier by the fact that all of these questions I have take place only in my mind, I don’t ‘confront’ people with their choices. Even though my troubles stem from the conduct of others, I am mindful that this is my personal flaw and private obsession and that I would only be a nuisance to others if I start to probe each individual regarding their motives and enquiring into their state of mind. Besides, there is no point in further communication since I’m not interested in establishing a connection or relationship with the person per se, I am only interested in discerning the pattern and rationale underlying individual motives in order to make sense of the situation. Without knowing what actually goes on in the other’s mind, I have to pick out the pieces myself, coming up with different scenarios, reminding myself of the iceberg theory, giving the other the benefit of doubt, putting myself in their shoes ~ all of which in the name of making sense of things.

I’m not accusing the people above of being fake. I’m merely illustrating what it is about human interaction that unsettles me with my obsession in trying to form a coherent pattern to explain situations. Put it the other way round, I’m aware that I, too, am prone to ‘change’ and appear inconsistent or unreasonable to others. I also have the tendency to burn bridges so people might mistake that as an overnight change in behaviour and not understand why I would suddenly ‘disappear’ from their circle of network. If I am as private as I claim to be, what am I doing writing these posts and baring it all? The difference of course is that I know why I’m doing it so I can explain my apparent inconsistencies in behaviour.

If people can understand my desire to make sense of life, then they might start to understand why it is that I choose to restrict human interaction. I wouldn’t be able to keep my own affairs in order if I spend time obsessing about all the inconsistencies displaying in everyday life. This is one reason I love going into the wild and walking in nature. Only then, can I relieve myself of my fixation with what is going on in other people’s mind and pay more attention to myself.

“People with Asperger’s syndrome perceive the world differently from everyone else. They find the rest of us strange and baffling. Why don’t we say what we mean? Why do we say so many things we don’t mean? Why do we so often make trivial remarks that mean nothing at all? … Why do we tolerate such a confusion of sensations of light, sound, smell, touch and taste without getting to screaming pitch? Why do we care about social hierarchies – why not treat everyone in the same way? Why do we have such complicated emotional relationships? …

… The way they [people with Asperger’s syndrome] perceive the world makes sense to them and has some aspects that are admirable, but it often brings them into conflict with conventional (that is, majority) ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. They cannot change and many do not want to. However, they do need help in finding ways of adapting to the world as it is in order to use their special skills constructively, to engage in their special interests without coming into conflict with others…”

Lorna Wing, Preface to Tony Attwood’s  Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals