Review of "The Naked Bird Watcher"

By Suzy Johnston
Cairn, 2004
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil on Aug 22nd 2006
The Naked Bird Watcher

''The sanity birds glided seamlessly through my dream, arcing high into the air on the updraft then swooping low over the churning sea....Then one bird fell. Screaming it dropped from the clouds, its body smashing into the hungry sea. Then another. And another....'' (p. 9).

This book deserves to be widely read by mental health professionals and others seeking an insider's view of mental illness. Suzy Johnston was diagnosed with manic depression while a student at St Andrews University (that's the one overlooking the Home of Golf). In The Naked Bird Watcher Johnston describes her experience with feelings of despair, suicidality, repetitive self injury and crippling self doubt. She describes several hospital admissions, and a long series of consultations with psychiatrists, general practitioners, mental health nurses and counselors. She also discusses family relationships, friendships and romances, sparing little in recounting what helped her recovery and what didn't. There are a number of people who will feel uncomfortable to say the least to read of how they have been perceived at various times, and others who might smile as Johnston recounts numerous anecdotes and vignettes of her life so far. The Naked Bird Watcher is not simply an autobiographical account of mental illness; it is the story of a life, including drinking binges, travel, and Johnston's performances in the rock band the Alkahounds. Episodes of mental illness are described as they were experienced: in student hostels, at home with her family, and in hospital. The book is written in plain language, with no attempt to craft an account in support of a particular stance about mental illness, or to interpret any of her experience in terms of a theory, medical or otherwise. This is the story of a life as lived.

In a previous review I discussed Walking on Eggshells, Johnston's mother's account of Suzy's mental illness. I can see now why mother and daughter have both published their stories: Jean has been the mainstay of Suzy's life, supporting her in times of crisis, listening to her declarations of despair, providing an anchor of security in a life that teetered towards an abyss. Other family members play supportive roles in Johnston's life, but it is Jean who features most strongly in this account.

Opening with a passage from a time in hospital, Johnston sets the scene for a story which for all its high points is never far away from another black episode. Johnston tells of her early life in Glasgow, her sporting prowess, adolescent friendships, incidents with her two brothers, and her at times rocky passage to university graduation. Most of the time she is a regular student; socializing, playing hockey and football, learning guitar, and developing a surreptitious smoking habit. She drinks a lot, and suffers a lot of hangovers, but rises to drink again. All that drinking can't have helped her low moods, but it is normalized in the context of university life. If Johnston sounds more than a little naÔve when she reflects on the harm done by other recreational drugs, she is probably typical of her peers.

The book recalls numerous interactions with friends, flatmates, nurses and doctors, as well as many critical episodes in Johnston's illness and recovery. In one telling section she recounts her decision to inflict lacerations, first with a compass needle and later using razors. She describes cutting and the relief that accompanied it without self pity: ''The pain was a revelation. I could feel again. It was sharp, clear and alive, smashing its way through the thick wall of Perspex that I had built up around me''.

In the course of her many contacts with health professionals Johnston has more changes in medication than you can shake a stick at. She reports finding some of these interventions helpful, and medication is a current part of her self management program. But I did find myself wondering if all those antipsychotics, antidepressants and tranquilizers reflected as much the limited therapeutic options of her clinicians as they did Johnston's need for relief from distress. Johnston also reflects frankly on various health professionals, mostly in terms of their willingness to listen, and ability to show understanding of her experience. There are lessons in this book for those of us who offer help to people with mental distress and illness: while hospitalization and medication proved invaluable at times, there is no substitute for listening, the warmth of conversation, and in Johnston's case a sense of humor.

The Naked Bird Watcher is a plainly rendered personal account, free of agendas about models of ''mental illness'' or the inadequacies of the mental health system. Johnston does make some telling points about stigma and discrimination, the need for sensitive and supportive mental health care, and the difficulties encountered in adapting to persistent low moods and social anxiety. At the end of the book she describes depression as ''like walking down a road blindfolded and falling into potholes. You don't know how deep the potholes are or how long it will take to climb out''. But climb out she does. Recovery, as Patricia Deegan said, is a journey, and for Johnston it is clearly not over. Johnston reflects without artifice that she hopes her coping strategies will keep her at home and out of hospital. If publication of her book helps in this process Johnston has achieved twice; she has helped readers understand one woman's experience of building a life in the face of mental health crises, as well as helping her own recovery. With The Naked Bird Watcher Johnston establishes herself not only as the author of her book, but as the author of her life.


© 2006 Tony O'Brien


Tony O’Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland,


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