Breaking the ludic loop – the reframing of a relationship

I’m finally starting to make positive breakthroughs in my perceptions and behaviours related to my social media use. Longtime followers will know that I’ve been struggling with this for years now and I’ve been working on reframing my relationship with it a lot more intensively in recent months. If you haven’t read any of my previous reflections then I’ll summarise here. I battle with a heady mix of ‘delusions of grandeur’ and ‘imposter syndrome’, which essentially means that I often think I’m more important than I am but then flip into the complete opposite mindset – that I’m worthless.

I know that these are both symptomatic of the other mental health issues I grapple with, and what is usually required is a detox from the online world so I can reengage with the real one. This is what I’m doing at the moment. It also leads to a deep resentment and jealousy of successful and popular people – which again, works in tandem with both of the above ‘heady mixes’ – bringing anxiety, self-loathing and worthlessness into the mix, which then becomes a desire to gain attention again. It’s a fascinating process and being able to self-reflect and deconstruct it is something I find both cathartic and petrifying.

The progress I’ve noted this week is that on two occasions, I’ve wanted to send a tweet to Chris from T4N who kindly looks after my twitter account. Instead of sending it to him, I’ve text him and discussed the urge to post for attention. The next step will be to address the behaviour that leads to the compulsion, which is obsessively checking certain peoples accounts and comparing myself to them. A lot of this comes down to ‘getting a grip’ and focusing on what matters – my daughter, family and my career but I lose sight of this and talking to Chris about what’s happening has been incredibly helpful.

Negative social media use, whilst still just a proposed psychological disorder, is in my opinion, very real. I’ve been reading about ‘ludic loops’ – a tactic employed by the gambling industry and also by social media site designers. They apply to addictive experiences and are described as this lulled state of tranquility where you just keep doing the thing over and over again. In gambling, it’s the repeated act win or no win, in social media it can be the act of scrolling, of posting, of obsessing over likes and shares or simply just checking our phone/app. In-fact, I’ve written before about it taking a few days for my finger to stop residually trying to press the Twitter app button when I remove it from my phone. Supposedly, these algorithmic designs give us just enough taste of a reward to continue with the behaviour. Over-and-over.

It’s scary. It’s a nightmare, but it’s really interesting too and I hope that as I continue reading, researching and thus, addressing these issues, I’ll reframe my relationship enough to be content. We will see.

A dose of bird therapy pt. 2

It’s a well-trodden route. One which has been part-forged by my own explorations but also from someone else sharing their wisdom and experiences. As with all routes that are wandered in the search for avian encounters, it’s a logical mosaic of suitable habitats and hiding places. From the car-park, you skirt along a hedgerow, which itself is the edge of a bowling green. As the road curves left, a track leads ahead and away, in the direction of the cliffs. The cliffs here, so famously crumbling, are sheer and exposed. It can be a desolate place in poor weather conditions – wind-battered and storm-lashed; it really feels like the end of the world.

A little way into the track and there’s the old forge. It’s garden is one of the first outposts of tree cover for any migrant birds requiring some shelter and sustenance. It’s always worth checking here, and in late Autumn their lawn can be coated in thrushes, fresh-in from migration, feeding up and restoring order to their ranks before moving inland to roam their winter territories. A bird flicked down onto the dusty path, but back into the hedge before it could be properly observed. A Robin, surely. A few steps closer and there it was, perched at the edge of the hedge, the first drift migrant of the day, a Pied Flycatcher.

Down towards the paddocks, the hedges grow taller and funnel you down towards those weathered cliffs. There are houses here, they’re old enough to have been smugglers haunts, perched on the edgelands and watching the coastal paths where Black Shuck prowls on stormy nights. There are no migrants around the houses or paddocks and the curve irons out, the view opening out onto beet-fields and three concrete structures hugging the cliff edge. These hunched edifices hark back to times of conflict: a pillbox, and two bunkers – watchpoints and gun emplacements that have stood through multiple wars at this desolate outpost on the eastern edge of the county.

There’s a lonely elder standing where the path terminates. An attractive and verdant resting spot for many an exhausted migrant over the years. Birds had been blowing in on the eastern seaboard in previous days – interesting and scarce ones, like Wood and Icterine warblers – perhaps one would be skulking in the branches, offering tantalising glimpses of various shades of yellow amongst the greenery. The elder proved fruitful in both berry and bird. A lemon-yellow Willow Warbler skulking and fly-catching around the middle of the domed bush. A Common Redstart, bushy and bright-tailed, sitting high and proud, occasionally dropping down to the ground to feed. Birds at the stopping point of their often-momentous migratory journeys.

Walking for no more than thirty minutes felt like hours, similar to the Kingfisher analogy in the book. This brought much reflection along with it and a floating, featherlight immersion in the moment. Other reflections rose – on how several strands of the book had come together during this walk to the Coastwatch and back. Our ‘bird sense’ and those movements that draw our eyes to the foliage. The consistency of nature’s calendars through the wonders of migration were evident to see in these easy days of autumn passage. So too were the feelings, as writing now, the same line resonates, that never truly just watch birds and often, we feel them too.

A dose of Bird Therapy pt. 1

Warped windows creaked open and a tripod scraped in metallic agony as it’s legs fell out of their tubular housings. The flasks metal base clanged against the wooden shelf that all bird hides have above their benches. We were alone in this wooden box and we were settling for a prolonged stay.

Slow breathing, in-out, a binocular scan of the lagoon. A Ruddy Shelduck, waddling ponderously along the waters edge directly ahead of us, was a first for me. Rustic red topped with a bleach-blonde head – it reminded me of a toffee apple – of autumn. Waders were present too, as I’d hoped they would be. Perhaps even dreamed. For their clockwork return to our wetlands and scrapes, brings comfort that the global calendar is still in some kind of logical state.

Three Common Sandpipers were distant and skittish in the water-grass to our left and a buff juvenile Ruff was feeding along the near side of the spit-bank the Ruddy Shelduck had been parading on. The Shelduck was nearer now, flanked by two Lapwing, hunched and horned. Waders really are a mesmerising family of birds and when their time comes, in spring and autumn passage, I regularly become captivated by their movements and mannerisms.

Just in-front and to the left, two Avocets railed in from the to join another two in a small Lapwing-surrounded pool. Suddenly, several Lapwing burst into the air in frantic, loping wingbeats, bearing upwards upon a bird-of-prey, and a big one too. It was a bloody Osprey. Talons down, it warned off the Lapwing and circled higher and higher above the lagoon. I realised that we were actually watching three Osprey, soaring and wheeling in unison above the lagoons. It was Bird Therapy in essence. It reminded me of the day I’d seen the Buzzards that started the book. It was glorious.

There’s a beautiful feeling, a resonance perhaps, when you meet someone you haven’t seen in person for a while and it clicks immediately back into place, like the final piece of a jigsaw. Chris from Team4Nature has long been my anchor and adviser when I wade through mires of self-doubt and resentment. It was a delight to meet him, to walk away from the pressure-cooker environment of the Birdfair and spend some time watching birds and talking about something other than our usual topics, instead, we found ourselves discussing life and birds. Bird Therapy.

Epic podcast chat with Jonny ‘Dovestep’ Rankin

A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours in the evening having a really good chat with Jonny Rankin of Dovestep fame (he also contributed to Bird Therapy too). We talk about a lot of non-birding stuff as well – but it was great to chat to him about mental health, birdwatching and social media.

You can listen here

Life without likes

Over the past six weeks I’ve had to dip in and out of using Twitter for reasons (many) that I’ve written about on here before. I noticed that my behaviour regarding Twitter was becoming very obsessive and cyclic and had begun to impact on my mental health in a big way. I also noticed that during the times I haven’t been using it, I’ve felt so relaxed and transparent that I’ve finally been able to make a massive and important decision, that might seem foolish to some but for me, at this time, is the right one. 

I’ve completely accepted that I’m never going to be able to regulate my actions and responses on social media. I will always compare myself to other people and feel worthless in doing so. I will always obsess over likes and retweets and treat it as the only validation that’s worthwhile. Whatever I do, is never going to be enough for me and this leads to cyclic negative thought processes that, put bluntly, are doing my head in. Those who’ve read the book will have further insight into this pattern. 

To be honest with you, I’m quite sick of feeling like this and if I HAD to continue using social media, then I’d consider accessing some talking therapy to try and rectify these issues. However, the simple fact is that I don’t HAVE to use it and so whilst weighing up the pros and cons and considering the impact on me and Bird Therapy – I’ve accepted that I’ve come to the end of a massive chapter in this journey and to disappear, leaving the book to do what I set out to do, help people, is enough. 

Too many strive for acceptance. Courting controversy for attentions sake, wallowing in their own achievements and pasting them for all to see – and I’ve been guilty of this so much. It’s taken me many years to realise – but everyone is out there for themselves. I learnt this when Bird Therapy was published and almost the entire nature writing ‘community’ didn’t even mention it. People whose work I’ve loved and shared on social media myself. Blanked. Someone even told me that I shouldn’t post reviews of my own book as it’s seen as bad etiquette. I mean, what the hell!? It’s my book – am I not allowed to be proud of a good review?

Anyway. I’ve done all the above, behaved in these toxic ways and repeated the cycle over and over – but not any more. It takes up too much of my brain energy. Brain energy better spent in areas of my life that actually care and reciprocate – family, friends, work and birds. At the end of the Winterwatch film I did in January, I said that if Bird Therapy helped just one person in their own battles with mental health, then it would be job done. Well enough people have shared with me, how much it’s helped them, so perhaps it’s time for me to let it properly unfurl it’s wings and fly out into the world. 

I can’t decide whether to leave the account open or not, as I feel I’m letting down the dedicated followers who made the book real, but what’s the point? I’ll only obsess about the follower count going down over time as others grow and grow, it’ll eat away at me and I don’t want or need that. So here we are. I don’t know when or if I’ll bring myself to deactivate it, but think I might need to as an act of closure, I think.

I’m still here though, you can email me anytime at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk and I’ll never stop writing my blog as it’s the journal accompanying my ongoing road to wellness. 

I have a few cool things happening at the moment. I’ve just written features for the Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine, I had some photos taken for the Guardian article yesterday, which was particularly cringeworthy! There’s a feature I wrote about writing the book, in the next issue of Birdwatching magazine, which I believe is already out to subscribers – I’ve not seen it yet though. I also went into three Norwich bookshops yesterday (Jarrolds, Book Hive and Waterstones) and signed all the copies of Bird Therapy on the shelf. Below are some of events I’ve got coming up:

  • 8th and 9th August I’m recording the audiobook for Bird Therapy. 
  • Friday 16th August at 3pm I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy with Chris Packham at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August – 1130 I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August 13:45-14:30 I’m speaking in the authors forum at Birdfair and then signing some books after. 
  • Thursday 29th August – evening in conversation with Nick Acheson at NWT Cley. 
  • Tuesday 22nd October – speaking at Norwich Science Festival.

No doubt there’ll be some other stuff too, but if you see it then great and if you don’t, for once I won’t be ramming it into your eye sockets via twitter. Twitter followers – you’ve carried me through all of this and I’ve enjoyed engaging with you all. I’ve tried so hard to respond and interact with you all and I’m so sorry I can’t carry on with it. Much love. Joe.

The art of noticing

One of the core ethos’s of Bird Therapy is to take notice and chapter three of the book is focused around this idea and that if we slow down and take notice of the everyday beauty around us, then many benefits may be unlocked. From feeling more connected to our world, to feeling more connected with ourselves; this blog post follows these two arcs and I’ve found myself hyper-focused on taking notice recently, as you will see.

In June and July, there’s a little bit of a lull in the usual hubbub of our local avifauna. Sandwiched between spring and autumn passage, the summer months are a time of tending and tenderness, as local breeders fledge their young and some move onto second broods. We have 3 S’s nesting in our eaves – Sparrows, Starlings and Swifts. In times of confusion and despondency, I know I can always look up and observe their nesting and feeding behaviours – the Swifts are especially fascinating. There’s so much to notice about them when you can see them up-close; their tiny feet, folded scythe wings and vigilant head movements as they deposit food to the nest.

In the summer months – when it’s hot and humid – I suffer. I find myself afflicted with what I can only describe as summer ‘blues.’ It can be beautifully sunny outside, but inside my mind it remains overcast. As the end of the summer term, time speeds up at lighting pace and I become heavily engrained in my work. Outdoor time is often confined to the back garden with my daughter; delighting in the Blackbird that’s brazen enough to visit the lawn next to us and laughing at the silliness of ‘Mr. Pigeon’.

My friend has been brilliant and has allowed me to share his passion for moth trapping wherever possible. Sometimes before work or at the weekends, I pop to his and we have a coffee as we look at the moths he’s caught overnight. It’s such a different experience to the whole-body immersion of birdwatching. It’s like opening a present and the surprise and variety inside can be magical. I notice how calm I feel in his company and whilst looking at the winged-wonders as they sit stoically inside of the wooden cube. It’s another world in that box – with the free-flying outside world becoming microcosmic and focused. It allows my own hyper-focus and the noticing of minute details and nuances to sharpen even more.

When I do get out, perhaps to the local common for an hour, it’s now more powerful than ever. I find myself noticing every element of the flora and fauna laid out around me. Day-flying Burnet moths zoom over the meadow-tops. Ringlet butterflies are everywhere – lurking and emerging from beneath the grasses. Large Skippers flash a juicy orange as they move from clover to thistle. Lower down, the Common Spotted orchids bloom in pastel pinks and candied colours and over the western side, a cluster of Marsh Fragrant orchids stand tall amongst the swathes of Tufted Vetch. A deeper purple, their heady saccharine scent pervades the senses and sweetens the mind. The aroma of summer.

As I notice more and more detail on these micro-forays into nature, again, I notice more about myself. Social media has become a huge issue for me once more. I’m so close to stopping it and disappearing, which I know will happen eventually, but so soon after the book being published – I don’t want to abandon the people that my words and story seem to be helping. You see, I’ve finally accepted my place in the world as a normal guy who has shared their story and through this, can help other people. I’ll never be ‘known’ and will always be an imposter, but I think I’m finally at peace with where I’m at in this ongoing struggle.

Back to the common.

Bird Therapy T-shirts are available for 3 more days. £15 plus postage. 50% of profit to Norwich Men’s Shed. Help spread the word about the benefits of birdwatching. T-Shirts are here!

Unhappy publication day – a bite of reality

A swallow swooped so low that it almost flew into my head. Now, any other day, any other time, I’d be buoyed by a moment like that. I was wobbling though, standing next to my car, contemplating what the hell I’d done and what it would mean from this day forth. I needed to walk. I could feel my chest tightening and my shoulders tensing and the first sob fell in weighted relief. Oblivious to the rain, I walked out onto the heath, where the yellow gorse had been taken over by lush green growth, I only know this from a photo though, as everything seemed so dark and solemn under a heavy sky.

I walked out to where the bushes rise in a line, marching across the heath. The rain increased in ferocity and for no apparent reason, so did my tears. It flooded out of me, this deluge of emotions, both complex and confused. I felt broken for a brief while, unable to work out what was going on inside my mind. Some of it felt like grief – the grief of letting the book fly into the world, the grief of how much of myself I’ve given to the book and the whole process of making it. Grief.

Perhaps it wasn’t grief though, as there were lots of other feelings mixed in. Self-loathing at myself for pouring so much into the book, for what? Loss – the loss of such a huge element of my life. The loss of reasoning as to why I wrote it, for good. A brooding disbelief that my words would never go any good and help others. Haunting me. Resentment, at those I had expected or maybe just assumed, would support the book on publication. That then began to bring up the looming presence of imposter syndrome yet again and the biting reality that I’ll always be peripheral to a club I clearly can’t be a member of.

The feelings were worsening and kept rolling between relief or release and to my lowest ebb. I was beginning to feel desperate and despondent. Alone. The darkest thoughts began to gather ‘but you’re a father now, you can’t think like this.’ More confusion and hatred. More tears. I had to speak to someone, luckily someone was there for me to message and then another person who I wholly trust, was around if I needed to physically speak to someone – which I did.

Everyone kept wishing me a happy publication day and hoped that I would enjoy it. As I regularly write on here, I’m not a writer, I can’t commit to the lifestyle that many writers seem to have. I can’t handle social media. I absorb criticism like an acid-filed sponge. I wobble and I’m really bloody honest about it, because I want people who are also struggling to realise they are not alone and that these supposedly sugarcoated and wondrous occasions, can be hellish for some of us.

So yeah – happy publication day to me.

(This was written the day after publication day, but I held off sharing. I really wanted to share my experience with you, so here it is)