An American Autistic Living in Thailand Writes on “Why Gardening May Have Saved My Life”

For most of my life, I struggled with AuDHD (autism and ADHD) so badly that it made me want to withdraw.  I did not understand my tics and fidgets, and I also did not understand why they were unacceptable. So I spent a lot of time alone as a child.

Since those early days of being way too miserable for my age, I have used hobbies as a way of stabilizing the world around me.  When the chaos of my home became too much, I could always retreat to my room and look at my stamps or my coins.  There was rarely anybody to comfort me, so my hobbies often filled that void.

To a degree, hobbies were also a source of self-affirmation.  There were no stamp or coin collectors in any of my classes at school.  I reveled in the fact that nobody else was into some of the things I liked.  It gave me a feeling of strength and significance through individuality, when, in truth, I had always felt weak and insignificant.

Influenced by the family next door, I asked for and was given an aquarium in middle school.  It was such a thrill to design and maintain a small ecosystem, and I took the maintenance of the tank very seriously.  I read diligently about the different species.  I experimented with aquatic plants.  It was the kind of hobby that was tailored to both my attention to detail and my love of independent research.

Of course, some hobbies you share.  Card games such as Spellfire and Magic: The Gathering helped an extremely insecure teenager gain confidence and social skills.  Pick-up basketball games got me in shape and helped me with coordination.  Catching movies often involved a great deal of arrangement, so I learned how to manage a social life once I had one.  I tended to favor the hobbies that involved other people once I finally gained some confidence.

When I got into my 20’s, I started to become a little more private with my hobbies again.  I adopted the lonely life of a music snob, and threw countless thousands of dollars into expanding my CD collection.  If it was foreign, obscure, or possibly even annoying, I probably had it.  And because I was now an enlisted soldier, I felt an alienating self-satisfaction when surrounded by people who all liked the same—but for me, different—things.  This hobby was more a coping mechanism, as my 20’s were altogether quite lonely, even after my military service.

In my 30s, hobbies began to decline.  I started writing as my one and only hobby.  It was once again a world to which I could retreat when graduate school, or a fight with my mom put me in a bad place.

As that pesky number crept towards 40, I found myself needing a new hobby.  I had moved abroad and begun a new life with a wife and a new baby, but I had grown very depressed.  My options for employment were limited, and numerous attempts at starting up a small business had failed.  I had large blocks of time where I was not looking for a job or helping out my wife, and I needed to fill them with something other than video games.

One day, I went outside out of sheer frustration.  It was another morning of a fruitless job search, and I just wanted to do something mindless and repetitive.  I was too grouchy for television, so I plopped myself on our walkway, and started pulling grass out of the cracks.

Two hours went by.  I sat in silence, scooting forward, pulling errant grass, and throwing it to the side over and over until I realized that I was nearly at the end.  I turned around, and amidst all the scraggly grass that came out of either side, the walkway stuck out beautifully.  I sat in shock for a moment, not at all realizing that I was making something look nicer as I fidgeted.

The next day, I found a pair of rusty shears and started chopping down my overgrown grass.  I once again took my frustration and poured it into my work, and in a surprisingly short amount of time I had a nice-looking lawn.  As the sun was setting on the second day, I beheld a canvas for future projects.

I had found my new hobby.

In truth, my penchant for landscaping goes back to my first full-time job after high school, when I was hired as a mower for a golf course in Savannah. All I did from morning until early evening was make one spot at a time look nicer.  The bosses loved that I had that kind of patience, and I loved that they left me alone to fidget.

In fact, it was my job at Oakridge that came to mind as I surveyed the yard.  Here it was, my own yard, and it somehow never crossed my mind to do anything with it.  There were planters, stones, a patio… much of the work had been done for me, and there was already a plethora of materials with which to get started.  There were even a few tools.  With my experience, there was plenty that could be done. With a bit of luck, it would liven me up as well.

Armed with vague ideas and wild enthusiasm, I purchased dirt, plants, seeds, rocks, and the parts for a pond.  I threw everything in the yard, and, bit by bit, tried to learn how things worked.  I experimented with soil mixtures, watering regimens, and even plant rotation.  I tried various fish and aquatic plants in different outdoor bowls.  I even dabbled in light construction.

Almost nothing worked out in the beginning.  An outbreak of dropsy sent most of my guppies to the Great Bowl in the Sky, and my kale sprouts kept getting burned by the sun no matter where I placed them.  Furthermore, I had zero survivors from three huge bundles of native flowers.  Those were very dark times when I was first getting started.

But just like when I was younger, I hit the books with gusto.  I figured out which plants were getting too much water.  I watched several hours’ worth of videos on filtration systems.  I also stole a few neat gardening pointers from Poor Richard’s Almanack.  Much like when I had my first aquarium, the research was almost as exciting as the projects were.

It was more frustrating than rewarding on some days, and I distinctly recall on more than one occasion going inside after a long day and voicing my gardening woes to my wife.

Then one day, it happened: my first stalk of kale survived. A few days later, dozens of newborn fry appeared in my pond.  One of my hanging plants had started reaching over the side of its planter.  A few stalks of basil had begun to sprout tiny flowers… 

It has been three years since that rough first season.  My yard is nowhere near finished, but it has truly become the act of expression that I intended it to be.  A sapling planted without a thought is now taller than I am and bursting with lively pink flowers.  A pair of shrubs purchased on a whim are now both a source of shade and a mosquito repellent.  There is so much green and so much life and there are no plans for stopping because gardening is no longer just a hobby, it’s a means of my own self-improvement.  It has been my gym, it has been my art project, and it has been my therapy.

Gardening has saved me for many reasons.  First, it has allowed me to take my health into my own hands.  Butterfly pea flower, lemongrass, and the native cannabis leaf have enabled me to brew up teas that not only help me sleep, but have significantly improved my range of motion.  As such, I can do more work outside.  I am regaining my strength after years of decline, and it feels great to move around again.

Gardening has also become a way to play with my daughter.  She loves chucking algae wafers to my plecos, and she has enjoyed watering plants since she was first able to walk.  She has all her own mini-sized tools, and I like to give her pretend projects whenever she looks like she may be wandering off into some trouble.  You can’t really spill water in the wrong place out here, so the promise of her own watering device almost always diverts her from greater mischief.

I also love gardening because I love repurposing things.  For example, the filters for my pond are made from a pair of baskets that were accidentally trampled.  I’ve always been clumsy like this, ever since I was young.  This is my way of winning, even when things go wrong.  I get the last word on what can and cannot be used.  Nothing is wasted, and I have pulled a fast one on the clumsiness imp.

Furthermore, the progress in my yard work has run concurrent with my personal progress.  As the yard has improved, so has my day-to-day mood and outlook.  This added responsibility has grown into a consistently positive… even joyful… time of my day.  What began as stress relief has become stress management and even prevention in these three years.

Finally, the garden gives me a feeling of control, where in so may other areas, I still feel helpless.  That’s because I haven’t just been battling aphids and invasive grasses.  I’ve been battling my own demons out there.  My tears are in that soil.  My fists have beaten that ground in frustration.  Each flower is a victory.  Each new patch of green is another part of me healing.

This garden possibly saved my life.

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