He asked me if I was lonely in Cambodia and if I missed home. An unexpected touch of concern from a man I met in passing, but ultimately it was an ill thought question. He thinks that I should come home, but he doesn't realise that I am at home wherever I am. That wasn't his only mistake though.
I am not lonely in Cambodia. I am rarely lonely anywhere. My loneliness is something others see but it isn't actually there. I have always led quite a self sufficient existence. My life is hermetically sealed and my emotions are lived out in the landscapes and scenarios of my mind. No one really knows me and no one gets invited in. I am not lonely but I am often alone.
I love people. Well, I like a spot of company is probably more accurate. I enjoy telling silly stories and presenting my public face to the world. I get up and out and go about the town and say my hellos. However, more often when I have free time, I choose to relax in other ways. I have my own place and I just go there and lock the door. Being self obsessed, I enjoy my own company. When I am alone with my thoughts, time passes easily. My mind is the most beautiful place I know and I could dream my whole life away in there.
My problem is that other people cause me stress. It's not deliberate. The people I meet are kind and lovely as well as intelligent and witty. It's me and that beautiful mind of mine. I never feel I might have said something wrong, crossed a line, or not been considerate enough when I am on my own. Because I can't read other people too well, I am constantly on the wrong foot. Or I think I might be. So, I hop awkwardly through the briefest of encounters and then run away to my quiet, empty home.
Here is as good as anywhere. I know a few people and my language problems keep most relationships stripped back and simple. I don't know when I'll go back to England, but if I do, I'll be looking for my own place where I can just go and lock the door. If any asks, no one's home.
My life has changed. I was once afraid of someone. They cast a shadow over me, and I could see no escape. I tried to run but no matter where I went, they were just behind me. I was haunted. My self esteem was battered and I sought validation from anyone and everyone. I was desperately seeking a seal of approval in the hope that it might chase the shadow away.
One day I stopped running. I sat down and waited. I faced my fears, and I braced myself for whatever might happen. The truth he gave me was not anywhere near as bad as I was expecting. This man I had tried to evade was strong but he wasn't unreasonable. His demands were fairly simple and I agreed to them.
Now I am my own man. I am in my skin and so happy to be there. I am riddled with faults, yet I am beautiful. I will never be perfect, but I try everyday to be a better person, and, sometimes, I succeed.
The man I had been running away from was myself. So many years I hid who I was, not just from the world, but from me. I was scared of what people would think of this. However, this is who I am. Every piece of grit and glitter, every obstacle I have overcome has made me unique. You can thrust labels on me and goodness knows I like a label. Spastic, Camp, or Aspergers are all worn like Chanel for I am as strong as an ox, as cool as cucumber, and as crazy as a coconut. I no longer worry about what anyone thinks because I have found the key to my happiness is just being me.
Everybody should have people that they share their life with. Someone who is there for the journey that we ponderously take through life. Some are lucky enough to find a partner and best friend rolled into one. Others have a close circle of friends or a band of brothers or sisters. I, well I have you.
Dear reader, you get my sleeve and I wear my heart on it. I pour out line after line and, stoically, you are there. Ours is a special bond. One that does not suffocate or stifle me. You never intrude or interrupt. You do not judge or censure me. Some would say our relationship lacks intimacy but I feel like you know me and I could tell you anything.
One sided as it may seem, you have entered into this willingly. I did not coerce you, though I'll admit I try to tempt you in. I embellish the bare bones of my life more than a little whilst tidying my sprawling details into tiny bite size pieces for your delectation.
I had a best friend once but I lost him. He got misplaced at a juncture and I travelled on alone. If I am honest, looking back at the Asperger Path, it is littered with misplaced people that haven't kept up with me. Unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships that grew messily complex. Each was easier to grieve than to bring back from the dead
So here I am, writing to you. The iPhone writer who carves his intimate but disposable thoughts into the soft, shifting sands of the Internet. A man like so many others, overboard in the teeming sea of electric solitude.
I love being on my own. I can happily spend the majority of the day in my own little world. Today I have barely spoken to anyone and it is now lunchtime. I have just been wrapped up in planning lessons and getting ready for my six hour teaching day tomorrow.
I like a routine so I get out of the house about 6 in the morning. My alarm isn't set but I am usually awake before dawn. I walk and watch the good people of Battambang. At the start of my walk the streets are quiet and life hasn't really commenced for most khmer households. I see the same faces exercising by the river. There's the kindly looking fellow who teaches his adoring, all female class Tai Chi and the men who play Kinja, a game where you kick a shuttlecock to each other.
I stop for a bite to eat at the same little place. Sok sabay I say to announce my presence. I like the fact that peace and happiness are my first words each day as I take my seat and wait for my dollar breakfast. I've usually walked two miles or more before I sit down, so I am more than ready for my pork, rice, pickles and broth.
After breakfast I wend my way home. By seven the town is feeling more awake and the streets are full of life. Children off to school and parents off to work. Others, like me, choose to have a Khmer pavement breakfast.
A cup of coffee just before home signals the fact that there is work to be done. I try to start early so I can have a break and eat my fruit salad lunch. On good days, like today, I get a paragraph or two hammered out before it's time to put my long trousers on and face my students. After the peace and happiness of the morning, my afternoons are more hectic. I love teaching, but I don't find it calming or tranquil.
Most nights after work, I will go out and be sociable. A chat with friends is great but the Asperger Path will have me home by about seven. That will leave plenty of time for some vegetables and rice and another slice of peace and happiness before bed.
Life is full of simple pleasures. I rediscovered one recently and I am loving the manifold delights it's bringing me.
I have always been a walker. From a very young age I would happily pound the paths of Wiltshire with my parents and explore the rolling hills and forests that surrounded the town I grew up in.
A few years ago, having moved from London to Suffolk, I decided to build walking into my healthy mind, healthy body mantra and I fell in love with Suffolk in general and the River Deben in particular. Bleak and beautiful, serene and scary, this tidal river with its constant ebb and flow was both the heart and border of Woodbridge.
Then a year ago I deserted my homeland and I ran away. Sydney was a revelation. Stunning National Parks fringe the city and the bus and train network opened up a plethora of opportunities. As I travelled Australia I realised that every town boasted great opportunities to get out and get my stride on.
Then in 2017 I landed in Cambodia and it all came to a halt. Searing heat and the traffic chaos of Phnom Penh meant there was precious little opportunity for a relaxing, life-affirming stroll. I knew I wouldn't last in the capital and in February I took a job in Battambang.
There are frangipani trees everywhere,here, and there's a magnificent muddy river that bisects the city. On both sides of the river there are shaded paths but the heat meant I never took advantage of the amenities.
Last week a look in the mirror horrified me and I decided to make a change. Now, when I wake at five, instead of bemoaning my fate and lolling like a beached whale till 8, I jump up and I am out the door. I drink a litre of fluids, brush my teeth and I'm gone. Early sunrises, other exercisers and a multitude of birds bring a smile to my face as walk up and down the banks of the River Sangker in the relative cool of the Khmer dawn.
I feel better. I look better. I get more done every day. Life has become a happier place to dwell. All of this I get from going for a walk. I try to do my 10,000 steps because on the Asperger Path we like a target but if I don't, I don't sweat it. I've already done my sweating for the day.
A year ago, with the ink still drying on my autism diagnosis, I waved goodbye to the ugly face of blatant, corporate discrimination. Someone had decided I didn't fit and my professional life became a living hell. I was good at my job and wanted to continue there. I was assured that obtaining this diagnosis would ease the situation and protect me. It did not. After fighting and losing the battle to keep my job, I gave up. I gave up the round hole life I had been living.
I am no stranger to starting again. I have had to do it before. I was once a teacher, possibly a good one. However, I battled homophobia every day in the classrooms and the corridors of London. After a few incidents outside of school too, I decided I couldn't take any more. I lost that fight but preserved my sanity. Years before that, I lost my job in a local authority up north. My boss decided I didn't fit in. She made it clear that she could find no fault with my work. It was me that was a problem. I was a square peg.
I may lose jobs but I am not a loser. Life can be unkind because I am a gay man with cerebral palsy and Asperger's Syndrome. However hidden beneath the labels and the isms, I am just another human being. I may not fit in but that is because I no longer choose to. I am a lover of life and a seeker of happiness. I am a pacifist but will go bare knuckle to fight my corner.
That life I love is now the Asperger Path. Since I set off a year ago I have seen and done things I never thought I'd do. I am travelling very slowly and stopping to look at life along the way. I am exploring whatever I choose. Writing is one way I explore the world. It has become very important to me and I make time to write every day. My thoughts and my poetry will never change the universe, but they are changing my perception of the world and my place in it. It's my way of squaring the circle.
Once I was blissfully unaware. I was an misfit, an oddball, an eccentric of a peculiarly English type but I thought nothing of it.
My few attempts to fit in were always just opportunities to stand out. I was a follower of fashion for example. However my “fashion-forward” sensibilities were heady when combined with my complete unawareness of the ripples I can create around me. Never thinking to look back, I sailed through the calm waters of life with the cut of my jib set jaunty.
Then they interfered. I was labelled. The very essence of who I was became the focus of others. Professionals were involved and meetings took place. People were concerned or perhaps even worried. I was placed on the Asperger Path and my life juddered to a halt.
Half the world away and here I am. The path is mine. I have owned myself and stuck two fingers up at those who told me what I could and couldn’t do. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and my height, colour, build and beard separate me from the crowd. No one has really heard of Asperger here, let alone his blooming syndrome. We are all blissfully unaware.
It seemed a little cooler today so I thought I’d wear a really nice shirt. I have always been a bit particular clothes wise. It’s a tad thicker than my normal shirts but the temperature is only 32 degrees (that’s 90 in Fahrenheit). What a silly mistake.
So I get to work and I can feel my back. Can you feel a glisten. I can. The beading crescendos until I can sense the tsunami between my shoulder blades. As I cool, I continue to be a one man sprinkler system with no fire to extinguish. The overall effect, I was hoping for a post modern, post colonial elegance, has been washed away and I look like a sweaty foreigner who isn’t coping with the heat.
My students are kind. They won’t notice. Actually they can’t not notice, but they won’t comment. Soon I will be safely in the air conditioned temple of my classroom. As I explain the rather formulaic approach we are taking to paragraph construction I will become both drier and less self conscious.
So who do I dress for if no one really cares. I dress for me. I shave and shower and trim my beard because I am not just a teacher or a foreigner. I am in the poet autist, and although I walk a solitary Asperger Path it’s important to remember who I am. I have always been a bit particular and a good shirt is worth a little discomfort.
Over the years I have experimented with meditation. I have tried numerous approaches but now I’ve found something that works for me.
People with Aspergers tend to have high levels of anxiety. Making sense of a world where signals and messages are missed is tricky. Many doctors wanted to treat for depression but I think I am quite a happy soul. Meditation has a host of benefits and if you look on the Internet it can solve almost anything, including anxiety. So I started practicing by myself. Mindful minutes and creative visualisations were lovely. Clearing my mind was more difficult, and tiring it was almost impossible.
When I read about transcendental meditation and turning the focus inward I was intrigued. I have always talked about loving being in my own head. A few experiments later and I found something . I have a happy place. I close my eyes and relax. I imagine my eyes rolling back into my brain as look within. I focus on the black screen of my mind and the nothingness. Then I can feel a ball in my stomach. It’s almost a ball of light but I can’t see it. As I focus on it I feel a great sense of contentment. In the early days I couldn’t focus on it for a long time. Even now the feeling of goodness I get from it is almost too pleasurable to bear. As I focus I feel a smile on my face as I immerse myself in my own joy. It’s the most mind blowing thing I have ever experienced I still struggle to focus on it for a long time but I know it’s there.
That is what is changing my life, I think. Within me I possess this ball of joy and if I want I can get to it in thirty seconds. I meditate most days. Not much more than five minutes but that seems enough. Maybe this is a well known technique or maybe it only works for me.
It’s been a year. How am I?
A year ago I lost my job in circumstances that were less than savoury. I discovered that discrimination is alive and kicking in twenty first century Britain. When it rears its ugly head its price is cold hard cash. Hush money was paid and I went. My head may have appeared to be held high but inside my tail was firmly between my legs.
So my first steps along the Asperger Path were walking away. Away from people who saw my weaknesses and seemed blind to what I could offer. Away from people who tried to get inside my head and happily trampled my self esteem and my dignity under dirty, corporate feet.
I went far and now my scars are no longer livid. A year has passed and my life has changed. I have taken my diagnosis, put it in with the rest of my baggage, and I have travelled. This rigid creature of habit who couldn’t cope without routines has slept on sofas, hitchhiked, stayed with strangers, made new friends and travelled half way around the world. I’ve seen the sun rise over mountains, deserts and oceans. With each sunrise came another day of my new life.
Here in Cambodia, I met an extraordinary man. With the gentle honesty that sometimes only a stranger can exercise, he pointed out my strengths and dismissed my protestations. He was passing through, geographically speaking, but he will be around for a long time. He gently told me that my fine mind is balanced by a fine heart. In doing so he reminded me of someone I used to think I was.
So here I am. That goodhearted man, blue eyed and smiling, is older but he is not lost. I’m not walking away anymore. The Asperger Path is mine. I don’t deny it; I own it. I will go where it takes me and I am confident it will take me where I want to go.
It’s been a year. How am I? I am fine.