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)

Searching for something that cannot be found

I’ve dropped off Twitter again, as the same old demons have surfaced to writhe and claw in my mind, trying to get me to crack. Woeful inadequacy. Delusions of grandeur. Validation. They’re demons of my own making, shaped by the societal and cultural normalisation of what is very much a part of our lives, here-to-stay; Social media anxiety. I’m so hyper-aware of it brewing, that I’m able to step away and reevaluate things before it fully manifests itself, which is great. However, as Melissa Harrison so rightfully tweeted to me, it’s ridiculous to pin your self-esteem on your social media presence.

It all started with a ‘bad’ review of Bird Therapy (not shared here and it doesn’t matter who from). I say ‘bad’ as it wasn’t negative overall, but one particular passage in it was worded in a vindictive and spiteful way, which I felt was unnecessary. Twitter was the only place I could vent about it, but as my partner said to me, I was only doing that for attention. She was right. I posted about it because I was seeking validation that what I’d written wasn’t negative, but the real piece of work needed was to get my own mind into a resilient place, where I could absorb all feedback, good or bad.

As the journey to get Bird Therapy to publication, and, the journey of recovery that led to its formation, were both so arduous. I think that sometimes I forget and neglect just how much of me I’ve put into it all. That’s why it hurts so much when someone slates it. Of course it’s just their opinion, subjectively, and people are kind and tell you to ignore other people’s opinions, but the mind of someone like me, with myriad issues and tangents, doesn’t process it like that.

So it’s time to stand up and say bollocks to bad reviews and negative opinions. As I said on Twitter the other day:

“This is me. Working class with a chequered past and no university education. I worked my arse off to raise a five-figure sum and get Bird Therapy published, as no one would take it seriously. I don’t care if you think it’s badly written or edited, it’s my masterpiece.”

To celebrate this, peppered through this post are the kind of things that people say to me privately about the book. This is the real impact of Bird Therapy and my writing – the actual helping of people. That’s what really matters.

There’s something about Blackbirds

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There’s something about Blackbirds isn’t there, but I can’t quite fathom what it is that makes them so enigmatic. It could be their colouring – a mysterious and glossy, jet-black oil slick – with sharply contrasting orange beaks and eye-rings? Maybe it’s their assured hopping across our garden lawns, head-cocked, probing for tasty morsels? Or is it their mellifluous song, redolent of spring and ushering in change with fluted, familiar notes?

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Maybe it’s their chiming and chinking evensong, that ever-present sonic backdrop of half-lit March evenings. That ‘pink’ and ‘clink’ is a constant. A sound that we know and love but often allow to float past our ears and mind, with little thought. Blackbirds, are they too familiar? Are we too used to seeing them? They’re so characterful and uniquely individual – mainstays in our garden bird communities. Bold, black and beautiful.

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I’m drawn to a short passage in my book.

“I’d like to share a recent experience. It was yet another time of transition at work, fuelling my stresses and anxieties to a frenetic level. My job was altering and my teaching subject was to become mathematics. It was exciting to become a ‘proper’ teacher but my subjects usually being  life skills and humanities, I felt weighted by the topic. This had led me to become extremely obsessive about my lesson planning and I was working at home far too much. On my way home one day, I decided, rather spontaneously, to counteract my negative thought processes with a stroll around the patch, as the evening rolled in. 

It had been a fairly standard walk, with most of the resident species on show around the usual circuit. Near the car park, at the end of the walk, seemed the perfect place to stop. An outpost, looking down from the footpath on to a procession of poplar trees, bony and brush-like in the February chill. The sky was becoming increasingly dark, dissolving the last light of the day into an inky purple wash. A hubbub began to rise nearby. Blackbirds mainly,
chattering away as they settled for the night – a smooth and cathartic sound that was incredibly relaxing. 

It was getting darker every second and instinctively, I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing and allowed myself to be wrapped up by the duvet of sound. My worries and concerns floated away and I started to feel at one with the world. After several minutes I opened my eyes and, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, continued the walk back to my car, smiling.”

Responding to requests

I’ve been getting a fair amount of requests through the blog and I thought it would be a good time to explain what I’m able to do and what my limitations are. Sometimes people assume that this is my actual job, but it’s very much a labour of love and that makes my availability scant at best, as I’ve mentioned on earlier blogs.

I love writing. I’ve just finished an article and a book review for Resurgence magazine and I’ve almost completed an extended feature for birdwatching magazine too. I’m always happy to consider commissions for articles and once the book is out, I’d love to extend some of the chapters into some wider writing too. I can be contacted here with any enquiries.

Some of the things I’ve written can be viewed on this page of the blog site.

I am able to give talks on either the general message of Bird Therapy or about the book itself. I’m an experienced teacher and enjoy sharing my story and ideas with others. I’m keen on expanding my talks into schools next year but for now, more information can be found here

Any requests regarding publicity around the book, are forwarded to Unbound so you can always contact them directly and ask for Amy Winchester otherwise, contact through the blog still. There are also a lot of requests and messages about pre-ordering the book, so here’s a few places it’s available to order from:

I’ve got some great talks lined up this year and I’m looking forward to sharing them soon.

Bird Therapy teaching pack – please help

A while ago, I wrote a blog called Feeling resourceful? which was about my aim to produce a teaching resource to work alongside the book. I’ve been working with young people who’ve had negative school experiences (permanent exclusion, unmet needs, bullying etc) for many years, and with that kind of target group in mind, I had grand visions of producing an all-singing, all-dancing interactive resource.

But that was definitely no more than just a vision. I researched the possibility of getting it accredited, but the cost was astronomical for me to cover and would mean I’d certainly have to charge for any resource. I want it to be free and inclusive, so that idea was ruined. It’s a shame, as all the preparatory work and research implied that a short course would be the most rewarding option for all.

Anyway. Life is always determined to put obstacles in your path and spanners in the works – and the notion of making a teaching resource was pushed behind by the demands of work and fatherhood. The last few evenings though, after catching up on my mountain of outstanding work, I started to weave together some ideas into, not quite a teaching resource, but a guidance pack that uses the book as it’s reference point.

The book’s illustrator Jo Brown is being wonderfully helpful, in making her book illustrations transparent so that I can use them with the chapter quotes as pausing points in a slideshow. Her art completes the book and simply has to be a part of anything connected to it.

I’m also lucky that I’ve taught a considerable amount of lessons and units on mental health and wellbeing and in my true obsessional style, I’ve made a lot of resources to accompany these. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to include some of these with the guidance pack and make a few more for some of the other tasks. It’s looking like it will feature a solid mix of wellbeing and nature-related tasks, much like the structure of the book. Some examples here:

Back when I posted about this before, I asked people to help, by making some little videos to be a part of the slideshow – and I’d still love for that to happen please. I’m using one of the chapters to talk about special places and this would be the theme of any video. Basically, this is what I’m looking for:

  • Mobile phone selfie videos are perfect! Much more personal.
  • Introduce yourself, what you do for work maybe and if you suffer with your mental health.
  • Film in your special place and introduce where that is and why it’s special to you.

I only ask that your special place is an outdoor one and that’s literally it. 30 seconds I reckon? They can just be emailed over to me at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk as the file size should be pretty small.

Here’s my special place.

  • Winterwatch video

    If you couldn’t or didn’t watch it, or perhaps didn’t know we’d done it, I recorded a feature on Bird Therapy with Chris Packham which was aired in January on Winterwatch.

    The feature focuses on mine and Chris’s experience of suicidal thoughts, how I discovered birdwatching, how it can help promote wellbeing and engaging with it. I’m really proud of the overall feature and the messages it conveys. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

    I uploaded the video to YouTube a while back and you can watch it here