This post is going to be a bit different to my usual articles. I’ve decided to tell my story about dealing with chronic dizziness and how bird-watching gave me my life back! I hope my story might inspire others facing difficult times or, if nothing else, provide an answer to a question I get asked all the time:
What’s a young girl like you doing bird-watching?
In the Beginning
The Laura of 2002 was carefree, having just graduated from University and about to set off around the world to follow my dreams of travel and adventure. I had an amazing year backpacking around Europe, living and skiing in the french alps, traveling to Thailand and eventually ending up in New Zealand for another ski season.
The snow was slow to arrive that year so I spent most of my time working in a store outside Queenstown selling merino wool clothing to tourists. #livingthedream
Dizziness, the First Time
One day I got to work and something just felt off. As the morning continued, the feeling got worse and I began to feel like I was losing my balance, the world swaying around me. I ended up at an emergency clinic and was told I had Labyrinthitis (inflammation of the inner ear) as a result of a cold and that my symptoms should resolve within a week.
A week turned into months and months turned into a year.
Doctors told me there was nothing I could do and that eventually my body’s balance mechanism would acclimatize and my symptoms would go away. I flew home to Canada and spent the next year living in my parents’ basement. I am lucky because slowly but surely the symptoms began to improve. I was eventually able to work full-time and resume a normal lifestyle.
In the years that followed I looked back on those dizzy times and it felt like I had imagined them. I hoped I would never face a similar situation again.
Dizziness, the Second Time
Fast forward to 2014 and I had a great job, I owned a condo downtown and had a busy and active social life. I loved downhill skiing, taking exotic international trips, playing soccer and anything outdoors. I was squeezing every last drop out of life and loving every minute of it!
Then one day I woke up and something just felt off.
Sound familiar? It started so innocuously, but within a few weeks it was apparent that my dizziness was back and this time with a vengeance.
Are you Drunk?
My balance was so severely impacted this time around that I couldn’t walk in a straight line, I looked like I was drunk! I discovered that my brain wasn’t correctly reading the signals it was receiving from my eyes, my inner ear and my muscles about how to balance.
I felt motion sick, off-balance and disoriented all the time! I couldn’t even walk down one street block without my symptoms getting so high I had to struggle back home, often clinging to lampposts. I became an expert in online shopping for everything since I couldn’t get to a grocery store (let alone be able to shop if I did manage to get to one!).
I had to stop working and I moved back home with my parents. #livingthedream #notreally
Living With This Condition
I had to do daily exercises called vestibular rehabilitation to try to “re-train” my brain how to balance. It sounds crazy, but it works! I spent on average 2.5 hours/day for 12 months going through a series of exercises, like standing on one foot with my eyes closed. My balance improved and I started being able to leave the house and resume some normal activities.
Unfortunately I was never able to get myself back to 100% and fatigue remains one of my biggest triggers. I think of my life in terms of “energy credits.” I only have so many to get through the day (much less than pre-dizzy Laura) and if I use them all up, my dizziness starts to spike and then it can take days, sometimes weeks, to get things back on track.
How Bird-watching Gave Me My Life Back
What do you do when you can’t work, you can’t do your hobbies and you’ve had to move back home with your parents?
There is obviously a risk of becoming depressed when life throws you this type of curve ball. Rather than get down, I saw my Mum’s Canon SX50 bridge camera on a shelf so I picked it up and began taking photographs of the birds visiting my parents’ bird feeder. I wasn’t totally new to bird-watching – my Mother is an avid birder so I had grown up around it.
In December of 2014, I signed up for Instagram and began posting some of the photographs I had taken. It was addictive! I got to know other birders from around the world and was inspired to keep going. I purchased my own Canon SX50 and started checking eBird to discover which birds were being seen in my area. Even if I wasn’t feeling well, I became motivated (ahem, obsessed) to go further afield to find more unusual birds.
Everyday, even if I felt dizzy, if I could take a bird photograph and post it on Instagram I felt like I had achieved something. Bird-watching gave me a purpose. Not to mention that I was learning so much about birds and keeping my brain active. Bird-watching is challenging!
Being out in nature, I get caught up in the moment and sometimes even forget that I’m even dizzy.
You get this “rush” from bird-watching that I previously thought was only possible from more adrenaline based activities like skiing. When you’ve visited the same spot five times and you finally spot that rare bird you’d been hoping for, your heart will be pounding! Especially if you only have a few seconds to get that perfect photograph of a unique bird.
I put up a bird feeder in my backyard so, even on days when I’m too dizzy to go out, I have fabulous nature to look at from my window. The most wonderful surprise is to open my curtains and see a new visitor on my feeders!
Lastly, bird-watching gave me a social element that can be difficult to achieve when you’re not working. I can’t socialize in the same ways as I used to (at least not very often), but I can meet up with other birders and photographers and walk nature trails. I’m out there enjoying the natural world and I love it!
The Secret to Happiness
Even for people without chronic conditions, I truly believe the secret to having a happy life is to find things you are passionate about. Hobbies and activities that push you to keep evolving and be present in your life.
I’m going to borrow an inspirational story that Kelley Nunn, the author of My Migraine Brain, shared in an article: The Recuperative Value of eBirding. This is the advice a medical specialist gave her:
He told me a story about a violinist he had seen in concert who became so entranced in her music that she would sway and move with her instrument as though the rest of her world had just disappeared in the feeling of it all. After the concert, someone asked the woman what she felt while playing and she answered,“Bliss.” His advice to me was to find my “violin:” something that was so all-encompassing that it could make the “What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get better?” thoughts about my medical condition disappear.
For me, bird-watching and nature photography are my “violin” and I truly believe they saved my happiness throughout dealing with a chronic condition. Whenever I have a bad dizziness day or feel frustrated, I pick up my camera and head out into nature and all is well again.
Thanks for reading.
→Information About Dizziness and Balance Disorders←
- Balance disorders are difficult to diagnose. A good place to start is the Vestibular Disorders Association
- Finding a good medical specialist is a challenge. Chicago Dizziness and Hearing is one of the best
- In my case, doctors can only tell me I have one of two closely related conditions: Mal de Debarquement or Migraine Associated Vertigo
- One of my favourite websites about dizziness is Labyrinthitis.org
- Vestibular Rehab with a qualified physiotherapist was the most helpful treatment for me
Want to know more about balance disorders? Have your own story to share? Leave me a comment below or send me an email.