An Autistic Hiker’s Perspective on Self-Love

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.

Picture of signpost / trail marker with the words "Appalachian Trial".

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.

A bright, starry night sky above snow-capped forested mountains

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 at dusk with a scenic vista of far-off mountain peaks

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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