June 17, 2022
Name: Louise Ruggeri
Location: Newport, Rhode Island
Occupation: Commercial Leasing Coordinator
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Newport and lived here most of my life. Single and childfree by choice. I work 9-5 and work 2 other side gigs. And I am a birder!
What interested you in participating in this project?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I have a blog called birdingthru.com and it’s about how birding helps me with my mental health though I stopped writing when the pandemic started because of bad writer’s block. When I saw your Instagram about sharing stories, I thought that was important and powerful and it drew me to your website.
Do you mind sharing your mental health diagnoses or conditions?
My first diagnoses that I officially got was Complex PTSD. I was in my mid 30s and was in couples therapy at the time and the therapist suggested I may have trauma in my past and I didn’t really think it was a thing. I was still in denial about bad childhood and how bad it had been. She recommended a therapist I could see on my own and that therapist confirmed the diagnosis. At that time, I was also diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive thoughts.
What factors contributed to you developing mental health conditions or illnesses?
Definitely my childhood, it was pretty traumatic, difficult and chaotic. I came from a large Catholic family, and I have 7 siblings. Ten of us lived in a house with one bathroom and I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was 13. My parents didn’t believe in birth control as part of the Catholic Church teachings.
I was a sensitive child (HSP-highly sensitive person), our house was small and there was a lot of bullying and making fun of each other and I ended up absorbing a lot of the secondary trauma in our household. My siblings were often tasked with parenting me which they were not equipped to do and were dealing with their own trauma that I was unaware of until adulthood. I felt very lonely and unseen in that setting. I was also sexually assaulted at the age of 15. I started therapy on my own soon after that happened which led to the exploration of my childhood trauma. I’ve been in and out of therapy since then and it took me until my mid 30’s to stop denying my trauma because I felt my parents had tried their best based on their background and limited resources and because there was some love and joy in the household.
I didn’t really develop the anxiety piece until later in life and I think that got triggered by the relationship I was in. I started doing EMDR therapy and it helped me process a lot of my trauma. The panic attacks were destabilizing, and I developed severe anxiety which led to a panic disorder. It took 2 years of hard work and occasional medication to be panic-attack free. A compassion-based therapist who helped me understand that my C-PTSD will require life-long work. I remember being both horrified and relieved when she explained this – I resented that the trauma would have such a lasting impact, but I also felt a huge relief because it meant I never had to try to be a ‘finished product’ or feel pressure to just ‘get over’ trauma. My work with her was a radical acceptance process, of myself and my mental health. It was a deeply validating thing, and a very important piece in my healing process.
When did you become interested in birds and birding?
When I moved to Utah for a few years after high school I had never traveled before, the natural world there seemed so exotic to me. Every bird, mammal, tree or flower were all new to me. I started doing a lot of outdoor activities with my friends there with the national parks, mountain ranges and rivers as the backdrop. That cemented my love of nature.
In my early 30’s I bought a pair of binoculars and maybe went birding once or twice a year. In 2017 I had just gotten out of a relationship with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder and decided to go on a guided bird outing at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. They were doing a regular Sunday walk. I wasn’t interested, questioning why I was doing
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker-Louise Ruggeri
this, and I wasn’t really hearing anyone talking to me but then we came across this big field where there is always tree sparrows and Bobolinks, and the male Bobolinks were singing and doing their mating dance. I was totally wrapped up in it and I snapped out of what I was feeling, and I was just there. It was a solid few minutes before I came back to reality, but I remember thinking ‘wow’ that just took me completely away. That was the moment for me where I knew I needed to do this more. It was a revelation.
From 2017 I had only done 10 lists, in 2018, 100 lists, and by 2019 I had entered 406 lists. I was just hooked after that. On a down day, it pulls me out of bed which I’m so grateful for.
How has birding helped you in processing or healing with your mental health?
It’s helped so much in so many ways. Physically, it gets me moving on days when I’m feeling unmotivated. Emotionally, it stops me from ruminating on things, and helps me regulate my emotions. I can be in any mood and go out birding and come back feeling better. Mentally, it’s my primary form of stress-relief. When I am birding, I always have this moment—sometimes it takes 5 minutes, sometimes an hour, where I do this big deep sigh. It’s not a conscious action on my part, it just happens, and I recognize this now as the ‘relaxation response’ –where my hypervigilance finally shuts off and my parasympathetic nervous system kicks back in. The only other time I can seem to achieve this is when I am home alone doing breathing work and medication.
It also helped me as I entered menopause about 7 years earlier than most women. I experienced a hormone related depression that left me numb for a year. I felt disconnected and ashamed that I felt nothing for anyone. Birding never demanded anything of me, and it helped me feel joy and wonder now and then, they were dull sensations, but they were still there. That kept me going until the fog finally lifted with the help of HRT (hormone Clay-Colored Sparrow-Louise Ruggeri
It’s a break for my brain. It’s very dear to my heart, it’s my thing. It something I do mostly solitary. It’s my time and my space, where I recharge my batteries. It’s helped me feel more solid as a person and a part of my identity. I love it, I am proud of it, and I want to talk about it all the time. It enriches my life in an important way, without it I wouldn’t feel as much of a purpose or meaning. It has given me a reason to stay engaged and interested in the natural world.
How has birding helped you in your daily life? Long-term?
In daily life it’s a chance for a break on a busy workday. I can go outside for 5 minutes and take a mental break. Long-term it’s given me a way to take these mini breaks from stress and life along with other tools I have like breathing, meditation and writing. I think those breaks have a long-term effect being able to escape.
One time I had a medical issue that was stressing me out and I was sitting in the doctor’s office. There was a Red-Tailed Hawk sitting outside the window, so I consciously decided to watch the hawk to help me calm down. It’s just become part of my toolbox.
Are you involved in your local birding community? Has that helped or hindered you in any way?
I’m a member of Ocean State Bird Club. I’ve written a couple of articles for their newsletter, and I’ve led a walk with them. I wanted to be involved more but when the pandemic started, it triggered a lot of anxiety and it’s hard for me to extend myself
when I’m dealing with anxiety and stress.
I have a few friends in the community but I don’t have a lot of time to bird, so I bird alone more often.
I am a social justice supporter and I do have some concern about how racism has been handled in the communities and I would like to see more work done in that area.
Summer Tanager-Louise Ruggeri
What is your favourite way to bird or go birding?
I like to go alone. I love to sit down at night and look at my needs list on e-bird, figure out what I haven’t seen yet this month and tailor a day around that. I’m not rigid about it but I like spending a Sunday trying to get those birds and having a long lunch break with a good sandwich.
Do you believe there is something specific birds have to teach us?
My love of birds makes me want to save them; I do what I can to keep them around. I think that’s something they can teach us; they are in such trouble, and I don’t ever forget that when I’m out looking at birds. I get so much pleasure and mental health benefits and sometimes I feel like a terrible person because they are struggling as a whole, the bird populations have dwindled with habitat disappearing every day. I don’t have a lot of time to volunteer much but I make posts with facts about a photo I’m sharing, and they aren’t always uplifting when I’m sharing about the decline in population. If I can get one person to pick up a fact about pesticide spraying etc. I think that helps.
Short-Billed Dowitcher-Louise Ruggeri
Does birding ever effect your mental health negatively?
There have been times I have pushed myself to go look at a rare bird and I don’t really want to do it, or I’m stressed about time. We had a Common Cuckoo show up in Rhode Island in a beautiful farmer’s field and so many people showed up who were destroying the field and not behaving ethically, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. I try to walk away or avoid those scenarios. I’ve been yelled at for asking someone to leash their dog where Piping Plovers were nesting. I am very strategic about where I go and who will be there.
Then when Covid started everyone wanted to be outside and one of my favourite places became very busy. People were destroying habitat and leaving garbage everywhere, so I avoid it now. Its great people are going outside more but they didn’t know how to ‘be’ outside which thankfully has gotten a bit better.
Is there a birding story that makes you instantly smile?
Last year I was out at Beavertail State Park, and I had two Common Nighthawks flying around my head. They tussled on the ground and flew around me again, I could feel the wind against my face from their wings. There’s lot of little stories like that I can look back on and they are wonderful memories.
What bird song immediately lifts you up and why?
The first time I heard a Red-Winged Blackbird in the Spring, I feel it in my body. I heard the first one this year in February which was a little early for this region. It was just doing a very weak very first part of the song and I just stood there and was so excited. That song gets me every time.
What recommendations would you give to someone getting started using birding for their mental wellness?
Do your own thing. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what other birders are doing and how they are doing it. If you want to do this and you want to learn, go
Red-Winged Blackbird-Louise Ruggeri
at your own pace and remember the reason you are doing it. Go slow, read a lot of guidebooks in bed at night, absorb it and enjoy it. Keep it simple. Do it for the right reasons, don’t let it be another stress in your life.
If you could give one message to mental health care providers about birding and why they should recommend it to clients what would it be?
I was just talking to my therapist about it, and she said I need to think more about birding as being therapeutic. There is a lot of science about being outdoors and how it impacts mental health. I use it as a conscious coping mechanism for my mental health. I would just say to look at the science and suggest it to your clients.
If you could convey one message to the birds, what would it be?
We are watching, we care, we are pulling for you, and we are trying!
Eastern Towhee-Louise Ruggeri
Thank you so much Louise for sharing your story with us!