I had my first panic attack in 2006. For the next eight years, I struggled with generalized anxiety disorderand would sometimes have multiple panic attacks in the course of a single day. When I wasn't having a panic attack I was anxious about when the next one would hit. With the help of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication, I achieved some respite from the anxiety. I was able to lead a semi-functional life.
But the crutches were plenty. I would take a shower with the bathroom door unlocked (in case I collapsed while in there). I would never leave my house without my phone, even when I went downstairs just to check the mailbox. I’d always carry a bottle of water wherever I went, afraid that I would die of dehydration. My earphones became an extension of my body; I needed the music to drown out the city’s sounds that were so terrifying for me. If I did leave my house it had to be within reach of a hospital. I had to have connectivity of some kind at all times. I avoided elevators, escalators and crowded public transportation, and had given up on the idea that I would ever live a normal life again.
In 2014 I made a painful 45-hour train journey to Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh to visit my sister. She lived in a scenic residential campus away from the chaos of the city. Our mornings would be spent sipping hot chai, watching birds and squirrels seize the lush lawn. In the evenings, I went cycling around the campus catching glimpses of peacocks.
One week into my vacation my curiosity got the better of me. I began spending time on the internet trying to identify the different birds that visited the lawn. I started learning their names and then made a wish list of birds found in the area that I could try spotting. I spent the rest of my vacation crossing off as many as I could spot. Of the 42 birds on the list I spotted 22, but the real triumph was what followed.
I became more active - waking up early to catch the morning roost. I stopped carrying my headphones when I went out so I could hear the bird calls and spot them. Suddenly I felt like I was staring into an intricate mandala, and the more time I spent looking for birds in it the calmer I felt.
I have never been one to meditate. Every time I tried it my thoughts raced and made me more anxious. Being left alone with my thoughts was terrifying. But standing there in the campus, looking at birds, I finally experienced the mindfulness that people spoke of: Being still, focused, and truly at peace.
After I returned home, I started birding more frequently. I spent my mornings and evenings on my terrace and began to travel more for the sole purpose of birding. The birds took me places and as I followed them across hills, plains, and beaches I began to let go of my anxieties.
I began hiking despite the fear of exhaustion; camping even though I feared darkness; climbing hills in the face of my fear of heights. I enjoyed being away from the city and disconnected from the rest of the world. My prescribed medicine dosage got smaller and I was finally leading the life I used to before that first panic attack. Before I knew it I was showering with the door closed; I was taking the bus instead of an auto, and I became more physically active. I was open to trying new things and took risks that I had once gravely feared. In 2016 I did my first solo trip for four whole days and didn’t reach for my medication even once.
Now, whenever I travel it’s never without my pair of binoculars and a bird guide; along with a small notebook to jot down names of birds I spot. Every page in it serves as a testament to how far I have moved out of my comfort zone.
In the city, urban birds keep me enthralled - whether it's spotting a lone Brahminy kite from the window of the Bangalore metro, or watching the sudden commotion of jungle mynahs at four pm. The birds helped me ground myself to the present.
This started off as a casual curiosity and I could never have imagined reaping benefits – strength, patience, discipline, and courage — from simply observing birds.