Stranger in the woods

My list of undone and unfinished tasks continues to grow as I recently added a new title¬†to my list of unread books ūüďö ~ The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.

It wouldn’t be difficult to identify the common threads that run through my reading list: nature, exploration, wilderness, walking, solitude.

Stranger in the city

I was born in a small country surrounded by city skyscrapers and man-made landscape. Our family activities and weekends were spent mostly in malls and cinemas. The only nature I knew was the botanic garden, the tree-lined avenues¬†and the weather. The highest hill stands at 163.63 metres (537 ft.) tall and I would hardly call that wilderness. My closest encounter with nature and outdoor activity was to get myself deliberately drenched in rain. It is a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city. There was hardly any rural life to speak of. The rural¬†was considered undesirable and outdated by modern standards, people would have scoff at the idea of living or working in the rural. In short, the city is the only way of life I knew and the default way of life I was encouraged to strive for.¬†And thus, I imagined myself grew up to be a¬†successful woman living in the city and working in a large corporate firm, confident, sociable and popular. This is far from reality and yes, I pictured myself sociable, even though I had difficulty making friends. This was why I chose a university in London to pursue my undergraduate degree without hesitation. If I was going to further my studies abroad, it had to be a city and preferably, the capital city. I did end up in¬†London eventually but I can hardly say I’ve experienced the city life for I was already quite a hermit back then and my reason? I was focused on my studies. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t get to explore much of London in my 3 years of study in the city. Nevertheless, I still harboured the thought that one day, I’m going to turn out successful and sociable. I¬†honestly thought that the social aspect¬†would come naturally after I graduated and embarked on my career. Not that I was unhappy to be alone, in fact, I’ve always been comfortable on my own but on the other hand, being alone doesn’t sit well with the society image of a high-flyer.¬†I didn’t know much about autism then. In hindsight, I’d say I was trying to¬†fit myself into society’s mold. When I moved to Hong Kong at the age of 24, I still believed that I was destined for the bustling city life and was determined to make the most of¬†the city for I regretted not making good use of my time in London to explore the city and the rest of the country.¬†Still, I¬†was adamant that I’d make plenty of new friends and lead an active social life. I started hiking.

Hiking provides a great opportunity for me to get up close and personal to nature and the wild side and the experience has changed me in subtle and profound ways. It invigorates my soul and senses like no man can. Funnily¬†enough, the more I hike, the more solitude I crave. Nature has the ability to reflect and bring out your true self whether you are aware or not. My diagnosis and understanding of autism later on put things into further perspective. It’s time to admit that I’m never going to become the sociable person I imagined myself to be. For nearly three decades, I tried to blend into the city and lived under the false sense of belonging but all along, I am a mere stranger in the city.

“I¬†took a walk in the woods and came up taller than the trees.” Henry David Thoreau

Stranger in the woods

In my¬†reading and armchair travelling, I often wondered what are the chances of encountering a deadly snake or spider in Australia or dingoes or leeches and ticks? What are the chances of encountering a bear if I’m hiking in the US? To be honest, it scares me although most books would point out that the chances of being killed by a wild animal are slim and advice people to exercise their common sense and leave wild animals alone. If anyone asks if I’m afraid to hike alone in the dark, to certain extent, I’m. But it’s a question of probability (depending on the location and circumstances etc) and a question of relative (I’m scared but my desire to hike alone is¬†even stronger). I guess it’d be akin¬†to asking whether¬†surfers are afraid of sharks in the ocean?

I was out on a night hike and¬†expected the trail to be quiet as it was after 9:30pm and especially after a day of rain. As I walked up to the Pinewood Battery historic site¬†(link opens in new tab), I stopped as I heard movements immediately¬†followed by the sight of an animal moving swiftly across the trail and towards the direction I was going. Despite my headlamp, I couldn’t make up what it was that just moved across my vision. It was the size of a big dog, could have been a feral dog or a lost dog but I didn’t hear it bark. Also, I thought the animal looked stout and¬†‘thicker’ than a dog, could have been a wild boar. I immediately thought what are the chances of running into a wild boar on Hong Kong Island? Wild boars are common in Hong Kong but mostly found¬†in the New Territories region although they have been sighted on Hong Kong Island too. Whether it was a dog or a wild boar, I was certain that the animal was scared and wanted to avoid me as much as I was scared and wanted to avoid it too. At this point, I could either press on ahead without any idea where the animal went or retraced my steps back. Common sense and a cowardly mind told me that I should retrace my steps back. While it presented no immediate danger, I didn’t want to provoke it or made it felt threatened. In addition, my intent was merely to spend time alone, it didn’t matter whether or not I got up to the peak. Tracing my steps back down, I was amused that since I’ve started night hiking, no two nights were the same, each hike was¬†a new different experience. But then, I haven’t started night hiking for long. On my way down towards a pavilion, I was once again alerted to movements in the bush. It was a much smaller animal compared to the one I just saw, about the size of a duck or goose and feathery, moving¬†into the bush. If they were birds,¬†it must be quite a¬†big (medium sized) bird. It was a strange interesting night, mysterious, even creepy! The woods is very much alive in the dark and I wondered if the rain earlier had anything to do with my unusual encounter.

Even though I was by myself, I was aware that I’m sharing the trail with numerous living beings at the same time. When I think about how I felt when someone intrudes my solitude, I¬†felt a sense of guilt¬†for intruding their habitat. I was the intruder and the stranger, thankful to nature¬†for tolerating my presence.

“I love nature, I love the landscape, because it is so sincere. It never cheats me. It never jests. It is cheerfully, musically earnest.” Henry David Thoreau

In the¬†British tv series, New Lives in the Wild,¬†presenter Ben Fogle travels around the world to meet people who have given up the rat race to start a new life in some of the wildest and most remote places on earth. I watched the series with interest and admiration for these people. I also know that my¬†notion of wilderness will never match up to their living off the grid raw wilderness lifestyle. I simply lack the skills to do so. But I am content to leave the city behind for a more rural lifestyle, just as the¬†Walden woods wasn’t that remote from civilisation.

There is a saying that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. I sometimes feel like a fish that has learned how to climb a tree poorly but doesn’t know¬†how to swim.

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.ūüėĀ

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:

‚ÄúThoreau‚Äôs idea of walking was to be totally immersed in a place, really paying attention, getting to know it well,‚ÄĚ says historian Jayne Gordon. ‚ÄúHe wasn‚Äôt 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.‚Ä̬†


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

Supporting a sensory and solitude friendly environment

“I have an immense appetite for solitude, like an infant for sleep, and if I don‚Äôt get enough for this year, I shall cry all the next.”

‚ÄĒ¬†Henry David Thoreau, 9 September 1857

Alone, not lonely

What do you do to relax or relieve your stress after a day of hard work or when you are down? If you are an extroverted neurotypical, you will probably find that¬†engaging in social activities and hanging out with friends are the most effective cure; and if you spend most of your time cooped up indoors, chances are people¬†will¬†encourage you to get out more often as though the reason for all your stress and sorrow is caused by your spending too much time indoors. Unfortunately, socialising and occupying my time with social engagements and interests classes don’t work its magic on me, an introvert who also happens to be on the spectrum.

An acquaintance would use to ask if I ever felt lonely. I would look at her, amused by her question and replied no, period. Alone, not lonely; loner, not lonesome.¬†I don’t feel lonely when I am alone. I’m more likely to feel lonely in the company of others or in a party¬†than¬†when I’m alone but I didn’t elaborate¬†further because her views didn’t matter and explaining the joy of aloneness to a social extrovert would be like talking to a brick wall (except if I take this idiom¬†literally, I talk to a wall more often than I talk to a person).

The importance of solitude

While everyone needs some space and time for themselves, solitude is of especial importance for someone on the spectrum given the individual’s sensory sensitivity to external stimuli. Professor Tony Attwood observes, “People with Asperger’s syndrome often find¬†that solitude is a very¬†effective means of relaxing. They may need to retreat to a quiet, secluded sanctuary as an effective emotional repair mechanism.” This is because when alone, the hypersensitivity for some sensory experiences is reduced. Also, in solitude, there is no qualitative impairment in social interaction to speak of. While I can’t speak for everyone on the spectrum, I can certainly relate to this and has come to the belief¬†that my autism is only an issue insofar as when humans are involved. Without humans or if I can limit my contact with them¬†(to an acceptable level I am comfortable with), I don’t give a heck whether I am on the spectrum or not.

While I hate to be forced to socialise and would strongly discourage people from doing so, I like to stress that not everyone on the spectrum is an introvert, some people on the spectrum are motivated to socialise and can feel lonely without social interaction. Nick Dubin reflects on his own experiences and on how to help children on the spectrum pick up social skills.

Some children with Asperger’s are simply introverted by nature and don’t like being very social, while others are extremely social and try to fit in, without much stress. I was definitely the former. My social tolerance threshold was low in most situations and high with activities revolving around my special interests… It is imperative to find activities for children with Asperger’s that involve their special interests. These activities will build self-esteem and self-confidence more than any social skills group.

While it may be a good idea to encourage someone on the spectrum to socialise by using¬†their special interests as a motivating factor, I think it is important to make sure that the special interests activity is not and does not end up becoming a disguise for social interaction. The special interest is and must remain the focus for engaging in the activity. For instance, I used to join a hiking group and although I’ve made friends from the group, my focus and only¬†reason for joining the group remains to explore¬†the countryside on foot, whilst having¬†friends are only a by-product of engaging in the activity. While everyone in the group shares a common interest in hiking, I gradually realise that to many others, joining a hiking group is also as much a social activity and things started to become more complicated and competitive. Gradually¬†the pressure to socialise took over¬†the joy of hiking. For this reason, I am very wary of¬†interest¬†groups and the social dynamics.

Friendship and respecting solitude: The need to be alone

However, having¬†friends is¬†important and I do need friends, albeit friendship with me would be a little different from the typical friendship where I imagine friends meet each other regularly and keep each other up to date with their lives. I like my friends but I don’t feel the urge to meet. I wish for forgiving friends who understand that my lack of initiative doesn’t mean I don’t value them and friends who accept and respect my need for solitude. The ideal friendship is one where we can just enjoy each other’s company without speaking or feel the pressure to speak (which makes cats the perfect companion). Essentially, I need friends and am grateful of their respect for¬†my immense appetite for solitude. As Carol Hagland explains,

Many of us feel a need to spend some time alone on occasions. For some people this need will be greater than others. For people with Asperger Syndrome it may be particularly important. Because social situations are so challenging and demanding for them, they often feel that they need time alone to recover and just be themselves… This time to regroup and recover is very important, and you should not begrudge the person with AS such time as and when they need it.”¬†

Advocating for an autism friendly, sensory and solitude supportive environment

Being an introvert on the spectrum living amongst a society in which happiness is build on the more the merrier; and success that is predicated on social status, connection, relations and network; and job descriptions and activities that require or encourage team participation ~ during moments of despair, I sometimes feel that the greatest discrimination lies with the assumption that socialising is the default norm, expecting everyone to socialise and denying individual’s needs for solitude. In the context of individuals on the spectrum, this translates to the lack of measures and facilities¬†to accommodate individual’s sensory needs, from our everyday environment, the residential, the community, the school and workplace to the countries we live in. As Magda Mostafa, a professor in architecture notes there is a lack of architectural design codes and standards for users with autism compared to other disabilities such as hearing and visual impairment and mobility challenges. Readers interested in Professor Mostafa’s research on inclusive built environments for autism may go to ¬†http://www.autism.archi/¬†(link opens in new tab) to find out more.

I have heard of places such as museums, zoos or cinemas with special opening hours for families and children on the spectrum. What constitutes a sensory friendly environment may differ from one autistic individual to another. However, we cannot dismiss the importance of the role that our environment play in our lives, even if we don’t have much choice over where we live or born. This is exactly the problem I’m grappling with right now. As Philip Wylie suggests, “The ideal place to live for some autistic adults is one that is free of all forms of pollution. People with ASD are vulnerable to sensory overload, so it is important that we live in a serene place that supports a relaxed lifestyle.

There needs to be a better understanding of how the environment affects our well-being especially individuals who struggle with sensory processing. Our lives can be less stressful if people are more considerate of our needs; and ordinary people like you and me can help others just by being more considerate and show respect to the needs of the neurodiverse population, that is, mutual respect and kindness towards our fellow beings. For me, space and solitude are my priorities that are both missing in my current living environment, which leaves me to seek my sanctuary elsewhere.

References:
Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007)
Nick Dubin, Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions (2007)
Carol Hagland, Getting to Grips with Asperger Syndrome: Understanding Adults on the Autism Spectrum (2010)
Philip Wylie, Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (2014)

Going to where I belong

Since 2009, I’ve been flying to¬†Australia for holiday each year (although I’ve actually been to Australia much earlier when I was younger). Out of these trips, I’ve visited Sydney 7 times, making New South Wales the state I been to¬†most. My habit is to spend a few days in the city and the remaining days in a suburb or outskirts of¬†the region as opposed to a day trip. Hence despite my repeated visits, each visit has a different highlight. Just as I prefer free and easy, I dislike travelling with a big group in a tour bus. I like to immerse myself in the surroundings and experience as much of the local culture as possible. A day trip is hardly sufficient to explore a place. Ideally, it is best if I can spend a few months or even a few years at a place. That is the true essence of travelling in my mind. Wherever possible, I like to explore on foot, whether in or outside the city, on the streets, in the parks, along the coastal beaches, in the forest, up a hill, dirt or concrete paths. It is a blessing to just walk and keep on walking. My love for walking has gotten me¬†into a bit of misadventures too as I hitched a ride in the middle of a highway (though misadventures are also part of the experience¬†of travelling). Alas, I have to give in to the vast landscape of Australia and admit sometimes I can’t go far with just my feet and that I could probably travel farther and further if I drive.

There is a practical reason why I tend to re-visit the same country and the reason is not because I have a particular liking for¬†Sydney or NSW compared to other cities or states. Rather, the reason has to do with my need for ‘control’ or having to make¬†a detailed itinerary that usually entails spending long hours and days to research on my destination. Often, I won’t get to visit every places I’d like to go during¬†the trip and that will end up in the “to go” list for my next trip. Essentially, I keep going back to¬†certain countries for the sake of convenience, since I would already have gathered some information about the place and have some idea about where I’d like to go, it saves me time instead of having to start my research from scratch.

People travel on leisure for different reasons: architecture,¬†history,¬†heritage, arts, culture, nature, wildlife, adventure, sports, food, shopping etc. I’m a little bit of each with a focus on experiencing and exploring by walking (and looking around for cats). I believe I travel with the hope of finding a¬†place I belong, a place that I could call home ~ to find the most walkable environment, my most liveable place.

Let me rest in peace

What are the words you like to hear? Here is a few of my personal likes and dislike.

“YOU ARE NOT ALONE”ūüėü

I know the good intentions behind but these words give me the creeps. I need and enjoy my alone time,¬†most of the time. I find it¬†disturbing¬†to hear that “I am not alone.” I much prefer something like “I can imagine how you feel” or “I can relate.”

“YOU DESERVE TO BE ALONE”ūüėä

Someone said this to me once to announce the end of our¬†friendship. It was his attitude towards my autistic needs that hurt. Not these words, which were actually the best thing he could have said and which I took¬†as a compliment. If we were still friends, I’d have replied, “Thank you, why not?”

“REST IN PEACE”ūüėÉ

Why do I have to wait till I’m dead to rest in peace? Please don’t¬†wait till I’m dead to tell me that. I want peace right now.¬†