When did you sleep outdoors?

I suspect that most people have fond memories of sleeping under the stars or camping vacations with their family and friends. For me, sleeping outdoors brings back two memories — one highly traumatic, the other being homeless, which was oddly far less traumatic but just as sad in other ways.

For some people, childhood was a time of happiness, laughter and freedom — if not freedom from bedtimes and curfews, at least freedom from employment and misery. For most, though, childhood is the source of traumatic memories that will plague their lives and destroy their mental stability, even if they don’t realize it. It’s that time of life when some develop “mommy issues” or become “anal-retentive”, as much as Freud may have been a sex-crazed maniac with a misogyny complex that should have earned him many slaps across the face (and likely did), his understanding of childhood as the source of limitless potential disorders of the mind was groundbreaking and wholly correct. The specifics he mostly screwed up more royally than those with crowns and scepters but it was a first step on a long road — and most professionals now do an even worse job and pretend the whole thing is about self-acceptance and letting yourself be lazy, which is so far from the answer it’s already had more of a destructive effect on human society than any number of climate crises and that, indeed, is saying something.

For me, childhood was a mixed bag of experiences. My home life was generally a beautiful thing. I had loving parents who valued learning and knowledge, shared their love of music and literature and art and writing with me at every junction and made me understand that the world could be a beautiful place if only I was prepared to create that beauty and revel in art and science. For someone who didn’t understand society, interaction, human thought, mixed feeling and who was hyperempathic to the point that someone mentioning that they didn’t feel well would cause me to be in so much pain I could often not even move, this was a very important lesson. School was completely the other thing. Sartre taught us that hell is other people. It is. But it’s a bit more specific than that. Hell is being forced to spend huge amounts of time with other people who are, to put it very gently, too stupid to live. And I don’t mean the other students. I mean the vast majority of the people who were teaching the classes. I don’t say this because they didn’t know anything about the material they were supposed to be teaching. They didn’t but that’s not the biggest problem. The issue was that they were completely unprepared to accept that a student might actually possess either knowledge or intelligence. They had expectations of young stupidity and if you didn’t fit that pattern, you were a problem to be solved rather than a person to be cherished. I hated every single moment of school — until I was in high school, which was a very different and highly-customized environment for me — and dreaded it.

So time away from school was usually an eagerly-awaited period. Especially since it was mostly around the holidays in December, a time when my family would stay at home, not have to encounter the outside world for long periods of time, and I could actually spend time playing board games with my parents, doing puzzles, reading books, writing programs on the computer and anything else that came up — those were generally how days were spent, though, I must admit. That and lego. But, as with most block-related things, not the subject at hand. Or it was in the summertime, a time when I could finally escape the hateful climate in Canada for its brief periods of warmth, read under the trees and walk in the forests and sit on beaches. I could finally be alone and that was vastly important.

There was one time that this didn’t quite work out, though — and that’s when the target was to sleep outdoors. My parents decided that to have a childhood experience, my sister and I required camping. I had so little interest in it that it could have been measured in negative numbers but my sister was a far more typical young person and wanted “experiences”. She wasn’t bored because she had nothing to do. She was bored because she wanted to do different things. I just wanted days to be the same. The life of an undiagnosed autistic child is one that most parents struggle with and only truly see the damage from later. My parents did what they did out of love, not knowing what it would cause — and the ripple effects of that shortened week have lasted to today and likely will beyond that.

We are talking about a climate in which tents were a disaster waiting to happen — high winds and sporadic rain were more the norm than sunshine, especially at night. You could certainly have a wonderful experience in a tent in Canada but you had to be prepared to do it at a moment’s notice and disappear in the middle of the night if things shifted from a climate perspective. So my parents did what most parents did at the time — they thought about getting a camper. That was, of course, a ridiculous expense and a luxury most couldn’t afford so they did the next best thing — they went out looking for an old used camping trailer and found one that was being sold off by someone who had discovered just how much of a nightmare not being in your own bed was and wanted out. Or maybe they were just upgrading to a new thing. I have no idea, really, but they were selling this on the cheap and it was about the size of a changing room with a two-ring gas stove. In theory, four people could sleep on its folding bunks and it was small enough to be towed by a car. My dad’s little South Korean hatchback didn’t have the required power to tow a blade of grass so my uncle came along with a classic Chevy that could have dragged out entire house (lawn included) the length of the province.

From the moment I got in the car, I felt overwhelmed. I don’t know if it was the atmosphere, the fear, the excitement that I didn’t feel but that my sister couldn’t shut up about, the idea of being disconnected from clean and tested water, having to go to outdoor bathrooms or simply the smell of the food that was being consumed in the back of the car by my sister while I sat wedged between my father and his brother in the front seat in a car whose suspension felt very much like taking a trip across choppy water in an inflatable raft. I have absolutely no memory of the rest of the journey and only remember that when we got there, I had a high fever, spent the night in agony of the emetic variety and we returned, not a week later as we had planned, but the next afternoon. I think I may have been taken directly to a doctor who lived in our neighborhood and given medication but the whole thing is an incident that has taught me to be terrified of change, disgusting sensations and time spent in enclosed spaces with groups of people.

For most, the experience of a camping trip with their families may be a good or bad time to remember but it likely is nothing more than a distant and passive dream. For me, that day was one, a highly significant one, in a series of childhood traumas related to fear and sickness that would transform my adult life. That, indeed, is sleeping under the stars for me. Hell isn’t just other people. It’s not being able to escape yourself.