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A neurological injury left me depressed and disabled: how birding helped me

Tammah Watts was left couchbound and depressed. Here she tells us how she found happiness again by simply watching birds 

Birding turned Tammah's life around
Donna Francis
Donna FrancisContributing Editor US
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After suffering a debilitating neurological injury during a routine surgical procedure, marriage and family therapist Tammah Watts, 61 became part of what is now a new growing generation of 'birders.'

Chronic pain, severe depression and a ton of medication left her couchbound and unable to return to the work that she had loved. "I was becoming more disabled and depressed, unable to just do fine motor skills and general moving around. It was a dark, dark period and I kept asking myself: is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life?" 

Tammah was left couch bound suffering with chronic pain and depression© Dominique Labrecque

And then a little bird came flying into Tammah's life…

"That yellow bird shone sunshine all over my soul," she explains to HELLO! from her home in San Diego. "It truly did. I promise you, there was just this instantaneous kind of eye connection as soon as I saw it in the garden from my kitchen window. And then, I began to look for it every time I'd go to the kitchen, and I would see it all the time. I didn't know what it was, because I wasn't into birds at all back then."

A yellow warbler caught Tammah's attention © Agami Photo Agency
A yellow warbler caught Tammah's attention

Tammah now knows that it was a yellow warbler, "actually a male yellow warbler," she quickly points out with expertise, as she is now one of the 45 million Americans that actively watch and follow birds every day. 

Birdwatching is a growing pastime, especially amongst the younger generation. According to this research, 9 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 share a "blend of an interest in birds and environmental activism." 

9 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 count birding as a pastime
© Hakase_420
9 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 count birding as a pastime

READ: How morning sunlight cured my chronic anxiety

And it's no wonder, as watching birds, or even the simple act of listening to them, has been scientifically proven to have lots of mental health benefits. According to one study, spotting or hearing a bird can improve your mental wellbeing for up to 8 hours. 

"At the time, I didn't know that's what was happening, but seeing that yellow bird every day began to create this sense of hope and connection to the outside world, to that space that everything had been closed down to – all dark and gloomy," Tammah explains.  "And so that was what changed my outlook and I became more hopeful." 

And when Tammah began to notice all of the other birds in her backyard, she noticed that she began to experience less pain. "Because I was spending my time focusing on the birds, the distraction worked like a kind of mindfulness and I began experiencing a mental shift." 

Birding has given Tammah a sense of hope and belonging © Dominique Labrecque
Birding has given Tammah a sense of hope and belonging

"I started getting more curious, so I bought a book, and then started looking around to see about joining a community that I could go to and kind of be myself, while also learn more about birds." 

Tammah had a preconceived notion of what a birder was meant to be and look like. But as soon as she realized that the community wasn't filled with white, rich men holding up dusty old binoculars in a rickety old shack in the middle of nowhere, she felt a real sense of belonging. "I wasn't normally the one who liked to do things in groups," she explains, "but I felt a real sense of belonging which gave me a reason to get out of bed every morning, and it became a great distraction." 

MORE: Surfing champ Carissa Moore: how I rediscovered my love of the water after mental health battle 

Even though Tammah's condition will never fully go away, she says that thanks to birding, her mental and physical health is light years away from how she was when she was first diagnosed. "I will never be 100 percent, but I have improved so much. I mean, I had difficulty before being able to brush my teeth, or even hold a pen or pencil, to write."

Writing is clearly not an issue for Tammah any longer: she recently published her own memoir-turned-manual Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching

It's a great read for anyone wanting to get into birdwatching, which she clearly encourages. "Birds are awesome beings - they help with our health, mental health, and our joy," she explains. "Plus they are everywhere, so it's a pastime we can all have access to."

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