The Tiger’s Journey of Nonconformity and Neurodivergence

Have you read the children’s book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild? I think of it often when I reflect on modern life. The book portrays a society of animals all standing up as humans and dressed in formal attire. One day the tiger dares to walk on all fours, then goes further by taking off the clothes, and then even further by walking back to the jungle where he’s from. It’s absurd to read because we know the tiger as a wild animal who belongs free in the jungle, on all fours, and with no clothes on. And in my own life, I often feel that we as human beings are walking around unknowingly conditioned in all sorts of ways that might be counter to our better natures.

From one perspective, here’s my story: I left high school at 16, went to community college, graduated from UC Berkeley with straight As, attended graduate school at Harvard, and then became an international reporter for CNN, Fast Company, Healthline, and elsewhere. I had amazing opportunities to interview billionaire Jeff Skoll, economist Dambisa Moyo, actors Waris Ahluwalia and Daryl Hannah, designer Prabal Gurung, and numerous others around the world.

From other perspectives, there’s a different story: In my teens and early 20s, I knew by heart the first and last names, phone numbers, and dates and places of birth of all my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. People called me a walking Facebook; it was just natural for me to organize and categorize that particular information in my mind—like in an internal rolodex. One time, a college friend sort of put me to the test by pointing around the room and asking, “What’s her name? His name?”

I started to realize I was different—that not everyone had the drive to memorize names and that it didn’t come naturally to them. “I’m terrible with names” was, and is, a common refrain. I internalized the dominant cultural norm that we were just supposed to forget each other, not take personal information in, and be more distanced and detached. I started stopping myself from taking note of people’s names and remembering information about them. That catalyzed years of social distancing and, more importantly, of distancing from myself and my natural way of being—all to “blend in.”

Despite discomfort, I maintained eye contact during conversations until during my 20s, I started developing severe headaches when I had to maintain eye contact for too long. I started having to look away more often while talking to people, physically unable to bear it. Normally, this would happen while talking about nonsense, things I didn’t care about. My attention has always been naturally drawn to the inner life—a deep, mystical sort of resonance with the feelings and emotions of those around me.

I inherited that from my father; he and I have always had a preference for deep conversation. When I was young, he would tell me that his brain would literally start hurting if the conversation with acquaintances was too superficial. I’ve learned over the years just how similar we are though for a long time I thought we shouldn’t be that way and that we should just engage in the same small talk that everyone else seemed to be doing. But then, after I suffered through years of feeling emotionally pained while conforming to our society’s focus on small talk, it became physically painful to me as well. And I learned that both my father and I could hold intense eye gaze with anyone if the conversation was at a more grounded, deep level, reflecting inner thoughts, feelings, insights, and reflections. (I would later learn that the ability to hold long, intense focus is often referred to as hyperfocus, which I wrote about in my New York Magazine story).

My departure from needing to blend in started with giving birth naturally, with no drugs, and then breastfeeding for 4 years. This was the beginning of grounding me in my ancient, mystical, primordial humanness and caused me to start questioning all the dominant narratives and assumptions in which we live.

I then read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which further explained our socio-cultural conditioning.

By my 30s, I realized just how much I was battling against dominant neurotypical culture. It became clear that not only the daily mundane tasks of life would be a challenge but so would professional settings, because there were clear social rules of engaging that I found intolerable. After all, who says that small talk should be the norm? Who says that inner emotions can’t be more fully expressed, even at work?

Unfortunately, it took me a long time to find a workaround, so in the meantime came undiagnosed, debilitating depression and anxiety for years, which often accompanies those who unknowingly mask neuroatypicalities while trying to cope and survive. I can’t say what triggered the depression exactly, but it felt like a slow, creeping fog that thickened more intensely over the years. Finding the right therapist and a helpful medication finally made the skies clear, at which point, the mask came off and my skin felt like mine again.

Now, I’m 33, and they’re calling these neuroatypicalities ADHD or HSP (Highly Sensitive Personality) or even Asperger’s. Shows such as Invisibilia give us the language of Synesthesia and Empaths. And I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all somewhere along this continuum, this spectrum of personalities, with diverse traits. This is the beauty of what we call neurodiversity.

I have a feeling there are a lot more out there like me who don’t realize where they are on the spectrum of neurodivergence. I hear stories every day of people getting a “diagnosis” in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. But when we stop pathologizing being different from the norm, there’s not really a need to label those as having a disorder or mental illness. We’re simply diverse human beings, like the different kinds of animals and plants surrounding Mr. Tiger. And indeed, other cultures often view the emergence of neurodivergence in someone as a form of special gift or power. It is those individuals who become healers in their communities, who are able to empathize and identify with the inner lives of all.

Re-joining the jungle like Mr. Tiger means embracing the beauty of my inner nature and sharing that with others. And I’ve found that others who observe me start to feel and act the same, freed up by letting go of some of our cultural conditioning. The same happens in the book: Mr. Tiger at first becomes lonely and goes back to society, but then others start to follow him, and everyone ends up much freer and happier, on all fours and without clothes.

I’m glad to know my tribe and my gifts. And grateful to finally own them once again.

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