By Michelle Parsons
My name is Michelle and hopefully by the time you read this I will have qualified as a Forest Bathing Guide and be on my way to becoming a Forest Therapy Practitioner. Although I fit the ‘PDA’ profile and struggled with anxiety for most of my life, I am now a happy, thriving and confident autistic woman, which is largely down to my nature connection journey.
I had a late autism diagnosis six years ago, but it didn’t help me as much as I thought. Three years later I was so physically and mentally ill from stress and anxiety that my body began to shut down. I had been suffering with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue since 2011, but at the end of 2016 I went rapidly downhill so that I could barely move my arms and legs. I was told it was Conversion Disorder by a neurologist, a subconscious expression of internalised stress. This was autistic burnout.
Discovering what had made me so ill was a massive wake up call. ‘Getting happy’ became my mission and I began to explore all the possible ways to restore my health.
I started going for walks at the beginning of 2018 with my new partner, Andy. It helped me to remember that part of myself I had lost during adolescence. The child who loved wildlife. I used to read my animal books, draw hedgehogs and frogs and play out in the fields by the canal and river where I lived. When developers bought the fields and built houses on them, I was heartbroken. I wrote letters about how the endangered newts’ habitat would be destroyed, and I cried.
Andy and I started going to his dad’s little old caravan in Anglesey, North Wales as often as we could. We would walk for miles along the coastal paths, spotting seals and choughs and watching terns and gannets diving into the water for fish. We would come across woodlands completely carpeted in wild garlic, or a beach full of fossils. We’d meet thousands of caterpillars weaving furry webs, a group of oystercatchers having a piping party (highly recommended), a peregrine falcon. We’d go snorkelling and watch crabs fighting each other for territory on the sea bed. Collecting these ‘discoveries’ became addictive and enthralling. And it all happened away from crowds and societal expectations; perfect for a pair of neurodivergents.
Throughout this period I also read all the self-help books, but constantly ‘working on myself’ was exhausting and did nothing but keep me stuck in over-analysis mode. It was learning to stop thinking and just be in the moment whilst I was out in nature that gradually made me feel more at peace.
Eventually I was ready to start thinking about work again. But this time I wasn’t prepared to throw my autonomy and passions away. One day I came across Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku as it is called in Japan, where it has been an established wellness practice for decades. I read that it was all about slowing down and immersing yourself in nature, using your senses to really connect with the environment, to remind us that we are part of nature, not separate from it. I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful to do for a living. There was a residential course coming up in three weeks, so it felt like it was meant to be.
My first week training with the Forest Therapy Institute, I began to understand all the reasons why nature had helped me to get well. We spent a lot of time in the National Forest learning about the framework for a forest bathing walk and the science and research that informs it. I discovered that the phytoncides and microbes you breathe in in a forest have real effects on blood pressure, cortisol and adrenaline, the immune system and natural killer cells.
And as an autistic person, nature really speaks to that sensory seeking part of me that notices details, colours, smells, textures, patterns and sounds. Watching ripples on water is one of the most relaxing visual stims I can think of. I have a real appreciation for beauty and the innate intelligence of nature, which puts me in an almost constant state of awe and gratitude whilst I am in a green space. It is a very spiritual experience.
These days the physical pain, fatigue and overwhelm I used to live with has virtually gone. The forest has released me from constant fight or flight mode and I no longer feel nervous around people. I’ve started to crave and seek out social connections and I have not only set up my own business but also a community sustainability organisation which I am now leading – something I would never have believed I was capable of in the past. I feel in control of my own life for the first time, and it feels easy and exciting.
Truly appreciating that every human and non-human being has their own unique place in the Web of Life had helped me see my own role and purpose. I’ve stopped comparing myself to others and started wanting to be the best version of me that I possibly can. And to give something back, I want to help others experience their own nature connection journey, as I honestly believe there is nothing quite like it.
Despite her nature credentials, Michelle Parsons is incredibly skilled at killing houseplants. She lives in Cheshire with her two children and two cats, one of which thinks it is a parrot. She is about to launch her website www.neurodivergentinnature.com with details of upcoming forest bathing walks, retreats, talks and PDA/outdoor life coaching for neurodivergent women in 2020. She is also on Facebook and Instagram @neurodivergentinnature.