An Autistic Hiker’s Perspective on Self-Love5 min read

My lungs felt like wet sand­bags every time I breathed in, making it all the more dif­fi­cult to remember my posi­tion on the court, on top of the shrill screeches of run­ning shoes and the inter­mit­tent squeal of my gym teacher’s whistle. Mr. Jarvis shouted out, “throw the ball to John this time, Mike!” And with barely enough warning, I fum­bled it around in my hands like a hot potato and tossed it hap­haz­ardly up to the hoop.

     Another missed shot, what else is new?

An air of frus­tra­tion filled the gym, car­rying with it the heavy gaze of a dozen embar­rassed eyes right in my direc­tion. I often mis­read facial expres­sions, but I always seemed to read that one loud and clear. I told myself I wouldn’t be caught dead shooting a bas­ket­ball if it weren’t required to pass gym.

I so badly wanted to immerse myself back into archi­tec­ture book and sketches. If I had one strength, it was imag­ining spaces and struc­tures, and I imag­ined myself designing an apart­ment building that could house hun­dreds of fam­i­lies. I imag­ined myself being respected and counted on.

Before the shame of let­ting down my team could bubble out of me, I was slapped back into reality on the arm fol­lowed by Mike yelling, “Get back to the line, you loser!”

True state­ment, I sup­pose.

appalachian trail.jpg

Ten years later, I sat in a quaint hexag­onal shelter along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire sketching my thoughts of an ideal shelter in its log book. Fellow thru-hikers whom I had made deep con­nec­tions with bat­tling tor­ren­tial rain and snow and pushing the body to its limits sat oppo­site of me cooking their din­ners.

Nicknamed for his habit of col­lecting remark­able amounts of dirt on his clothes, Pig Pen scur­ried over to my side and was amused at the addi­tion of slatted floors to allow dirt to fall through the floor of the shelter. Being told, albeit jok­ingly, that I should submit this idea to the local trail crew, my bashful face illu­mi­nated by the set­ting sun echoed the fact that I had found where I belonged.

My raw joy, frus­tra­tion, and amaze­ment over the behe­moth moun­tains that sur­rounded us were under­stood and even wel­comed by my close-knit friends. For the first time, I not only could read the dreams, fears, and moti­va­tions on their faces, I could feel them. I felt like a part of some­thing bigger than myself. I don’t know if it was just the Serotonin, but I began to love myself.

A time of dis­cov­ering and being in awe of a new place and pushing your body and willpower to its limits each day is bound to shape a person, but expe­ri­encing it with others can make the tiny synapses in our brains light up like the stars in the night sky.

starry

Autistic or not, it tells our body that this is the way life is meant to be lived. Journeys of the soul make our bodies pro­duce feel good chem­i­cals that can’t be called upon as easily when we go from a sterile cubicle to a traffic-laden highway to a single apart­ment per­me­ated with the lonely glow of screens.

As humans, we’re hard­wired to do tan­gible work, be a part of our sur­round­ings, and under­stand one another.

Group of Hikers

Back to Society

Commonly referred to as post-trail depres­sion, most thru-hikers struggle to retain their sense of belonging in a world that preaches suc­cess before rela­tion­ships. Having Asperger’s, I once again became keenly aware that the world is a stage, where lines are recited at just the right time, as not to commit the sin of making someone feel uncom­fort­able.

After my hike though, I didn’t want a life ruled by com­fort, I wanted a life that I could make my own, sur­rounded by people who were there by choice. I wanted to feel and react every day once more with the vibrancy that our daz­zling world deserves.

On the Appalachian Trail, a pecu­liar social struc­ture becomes evi­dent, one that lacks status as well as charisma. Everyone’s desires, emo­tions, and moti­va­tions are equally legit­i­mate, as long as they’re directed justly. I was not the guy with Apserger’s who had trouble with team sports or asking girls out; instead I was Ebenezer, a hiker who sees God as his rock throughout the tough days– and who also con­stantly has to get them out of his shoes.

There was no other part to play on that 2,000-mile-long open stage. But In the real world, I felt pres­sured to be the guy wearing flan­nels he felt uncom­fort­able in, drinking whiskey and coke he found dis­gusting. I had to prove my place in this world, like a col­lector fran­ti­cally bid­ding for everyone’s time and atten­tion at a prover­bial auc­tion with only one dollar to my name.

I even­tu­ally did make mean­ingful friend­ships apart from the trail, and the biggest break­through came when I found people who accepted the way I reacted to life. We under­stood that we were in the nitty gritty everyday life together, and that made us see each other’s joys as relat­able and frus­tra­tions as valid.

I became thankful for the freedom to choose my friends, and the fact that I’ll always belong as long as I have the courage to take off my mask. I found people who were willing to com­mu­ni­cate explic­itly with me, demanding trust but admiring me twice-fold for giving it to them.

If I saw the world as the beau­tiful place it is, I found trust flowed out of me like a cool spring. I real­ized that a couple of nights alone is better than a night with people who don’t respect my soul.

By bringing my truest self along wher­ever I went and showing it to anyone who could ben­efit from it, I learned that I always have the chance to make the world a better place. If you share that view and have the patience to get to know your valu­able, flawed, and mys­te­rious self, then you have a great reason to love your­self.

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