Why I Haven’t Written

It’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve posted here. The aim of this blog was to share with you how birding helps me with my mental health — but I have not had the courage to do that since the pandemic started. It was a lot to face, a lot to share.

Saltmarsh Sparrow, Portsmouth, RI
August 2020

The day we were sent home from work, in March of 2020, I had a panic attack – my first one in over a decade. I remember sitting on my living room floor, in abject terror, trying to deep-breathe it away. But the panic lasted for days, then turned into a near-constant anxiety that lasted for a solid year.

About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with a panic disorder. WebMD defines this as “when you’ve had at least two panic attacks” and as a result, you “constantly worry and change your routine to keep from having another one.” Back then, with a lot of professional help, hard work and time (it took about 2 years,) I essentially recovered. But the pandemic triggered it again — which happened to a lot of people with pre-existing mental health issues.

I don’t know what I was more anxious about in the first year of the pandemic — the fear of getting myself or a loved one sick, or the fear of developing a major panic-disorder again.

It was a horrible cycle to be stuck in, and a difficult one to explain. I know how misunderstood this is, and that there are some people who believe you can just “think” your way out of anxiety. But you can’t rationalize your way out of a panic attack any more than you could out of a heart attack. And besides, once your physiological response is that heightened, and your brain chemistry gets that out of whack, rational thoughts lose their power, and the fear-based ones take the wheel. This is why people say “anxiety lies” or “depression lies.”

But because I dealt with anxiety and panic before, I knew there were things I could do to regulate my anxiety during the pandemic, like breath-work, exercise, meditation, staying connected, etc. I did those things, and I know they helped, but there were times when it felt like they barely made a dent in my anxiety. Despite that, I knew to be patient because these things worked for me before, and I knew if I didn’t do them, I would only get worse.

Baltimore Oriole, Miantonomi Park,
May 2020

This time around I succeeded in preventing myself from developing a full-blown panic disorder, but it was difficult. There were so many dark, joyless days.

I can see now that, during the pandemic, I was grappling with my own mortality, as well as with my fear of the grief that might come with losing someone. It seems so simple in hindsight: It was literal survival mode. I was trying not to contract a virus that was killing people at an alarming rate. And was filled with so much heartache and worry for everyone.

Despite my mental health struggles, I’ve been lucky. I did not get sick. I did not lose anyone. I had all the privilege and comforts that everyone deserves but too many went without. I’m deeply grateful for that. And grateful that I was able to continue birding even when things were at their worst, though I did so with less frequency and intensity, and much closer to home than usual.

Birding helped. It always does. But I slowed my usual pace, and I avoided chasing any rarities. When you are trying to avoid a panic attack, even good excitement — like the kind that comes with chasing a rare bird — can be triggering. It didn’t matter to me that 2020 was a banner year for rare birds in Rhode Island. I was too busy finding my balance.

June 2020

In birding closer to home, I grew more intimate with my favorite local spots, and found new ones as well. It felt good to go slower, and to pay close attention to the small, subtle changes that occurred each day. Birding was the only time I could forget the pandemic, the only time I found any peace.

When I look back, I see these frames of what happened. The panic attack on my living room floor. The Zoom calls. The caravans of honking cars through my neighborhood that made me weep every time even if I had no idea what they were for. The BLM protests and the heartbreak of all that. That first summer of trying to be social outside, of making food for friends with a mask and gloves on, still unsure of so much. The presidential election. Getting the first dose of the vaccine, then the second. It all seems so unreal. Did that all really happen?

It seems likely that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. I sure hope so. But I am still feeling the repercussions of all that stress and sorrow. I am still mending my heart and mind and body, still trying to forge meaning from the difficulties of the past two years. That I’ve finally found the courage to face it and share it — I know that that’s a good sign, and I am so glad to be connecting with you, this way, again.

A few random shots from the past 2 years:

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