A decade ago, aged 22 and off my face on class A drugs and alcohol almost every day, I would never have seen myself where I am today – and definitely wouldn’t have dreamed that birdwatching would help me to get there.
It wasn’t even the relentless drinking and drug-taking that shattered my wellbeing. I am sure that instability had been brewing since I was a child, although this is now only being explored properly in my 30s. I have always struggled with obsessive and oppressive thoughts, acute paranoia, desperate mood swings and overblown responses to just about anything and everything. For many years, I was certain that I would take my own life. It was a control thing, something I could always have power over. When intoxicated, I came close many times. On one occasion, I was only stopped by someone who talked me down and begged me to seek help. That moment was the start of my arduous and ongoing recovery journey.
How did birdwatching become a part of that journey? In all honesty, it was an accidental discovery – or, in some ways, a rediscovery. I spent a lot of time as a child in and around Brundall in Norfolk with my maternal grandfather, who instilled in me a love of nature and being outdoors. One of the things Grandad had shared with me was his understanding of avian life and observing it. I distinctly remember him showing me great crested grebes, coots and moorhens; birds that stir and linger in my memory to this day.
In 2013, I suffered a breakdown. A breakdown of my resolve and my emotions, it stripped me down to just a husk of a human. The facade I had concocted was crumbling away and the brash, attention-seeking, permanently wasted me had hit crisis point. Rather than go down the usual self-destructive route, I accepted that I needed help and so began my path to something resembling wellness. I was signed off work and during this placid time, I had to get out of the house, so walking became my outlet.
One morning, my partner and I were wandering across a stubble field in north-east Norfolk when I became captivated by the buoyant display flight of two common buzzards. Undulating over the tree line, I was struck by their majesty and their freedom. I knew what they were – Grandad had told me many years ago – and those echoing memories stirred again. The uplift in my mood was obvious and I wanted to feel it again. Binoculars were bought, along with a few bird books, and the fire was rekindled.
It ran alongside other more conventional treatments – medication, counselling and mindfulness all helped – but the introduction of birdwatching as a form of self-care was the one consistent change that helped me to find stability. The consistency and stability of nature and its myriad patterns gave me some focus. The natural environments I became interested in offered me the time and space to reflect, not to mention the benefits of being outside. I reached out to people with similar interests, made friends and learned from them. The opportunities to gain and embed knowledge seemed endless: weather patterns, feather markings, suitable habitats and bird migration became topics of interest. Topics to escape into.
It is the escapism that any immersive hobby can give us that I found so beneficial to my wellbeing. No matter how difficult things are, I can always stop at my local patch and allow it to overtake my senses and cleanse my mind. The heath in spring is pure multisensory enchantment; the tropical scent of coconut gorse wafts in the warming air, yellow and lurid, the flowers seem to glow in the vernal sunshine. Skylarks serenade from above, each scattering their springtime melody, skittering and bubbling, over the arid landscape. Removing all the complications and expectations of our hectic lives to reveal this innate connection with the land has been a revelation.
I wrote in my book Bird Therapy that “birds are consistent in a way that people rarely are” and I stand by this. Too often, we are let down by those we believe care about us, but I know that if I look out of my kitchen window, my garden bird community will still be there. I also know that during spring, our returning breeding birds will travel across desert and ocean to sit on the hawthorn bush in front of me and stake out their territories with their warbled song. And that’s just magic.
•In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.