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I grew up in Texas. After high school, I became an Airborne Ranger. Ranger training school is the world’s best stress school, and I survived. After the military, I jumped headfirst into the culinary world. When I graduated, I traveled around the U.S. for a decade to perfect my craft. I settled down in Durham and started Durham Catering, Only Burger, and Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken.

I was on a roll. I felt I could accomplish anything.

Durham Catering and Only Burger were later sold. With the success of Rise locally, I was approached about franchising my concept in 2014. A year and a half later, the first restaurant franchises opened in The Triangle. Now, there are 16 Rise locations across the U.S.

It was a big challenge, but something I wanted to try. Why not? I thought. I had accomplished everything else I tried.

The signs of my first nervous breakdown

At first, it was great. I was making a lot of money, and it was exciting to grow my business. Then the cracks began to show. Not only in my restaurant business, but in me. Work and the pressures that come with running a multi-unit franchise got to me. It wasn’t long until I had my first nervous breakdown.

I went to rehab to treat my long-standing addiction. I hoped to come out better on the other side. It helped me greatly, but when I returned home, I continued to struggle. I decided to move away from my family. I dove into my work by traveling in North Carolina and visiting other store locations for the next six months.

In the end, I couldn’t control my company. I couldn’t control myself. I needed help, I realized I would once again need to get professional advice.

When I sat down with my new psychologist on December 17, 2018, he asked me a series of questions. One of the questions included what I really wanted out of the office visit. I told him I wanted a pill to make me feel better. My doctor told me I did not need a pill – I needed a hobby.

Tom Ferguson researched everything about bird watching. He watched hours of YouTube videos, bought binoculars, scopes, and gear. He even traded in his sports car for a truck and joined three local bird-watching clubs.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but this was the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. He asked me if there was a hobby I was interested in. I told him I liked bird watching. He was a little skeptical that I could slow down enough to bird watch. I took his words as a challenge. I dove headfirst into the world of birds.

While Tom’s experience of therapy and bird watching helps him deal with depression, everyone is unique. If you experience depression, please consult with a doctor who can identify medication, coping skills and other tools that may work for your needs.

How I delt with my anxiety

Birding saved my life. I researched everything about bird watching. I watched hours of YouTube videos, bought binoculars, scopes, and gear. I even traded my sports car in for a truck. I joined three bird clubs and

signed up for a bird watching trip in the Outer Banks. A friend suggested I read “The Big Year,” the true story of three guys on a quest to count more species of birds than anyone else in one calendar year.  

I watched the movie version and realized there was a competitive angle to birding. What? Birding is competitive! I’m in! The Big Year starts every Jan. 1 and finishes up on Dec. 31. I thought I might not win, but I bet I would set the rookie record if there was one.

I was out at the crack of dawn New Year’s Day, and almost every day that first month. One day, while birding, I realized I wasn’t caught up in my troubles. I was at one with nature chasing birds. I broke down crying. This time it was tears of joy.

I just kept saying thank you, God, thank you.

Birding gave me the ability to start balancing my life and helped me treat my anxiety and depression. I could now start doing some real work on myself and find the happiness I was missing. Birds saved me, and I made a promise to tell the world for the rest of my life, and as loud as I could, about the therapeutic values of birding.

So here I am a year later. I’ve traveled to more than 15 states birding. I started a podcast for sharing my experiences and some tools I use to get through life–touching on birding and martial arts–with my friend Hardee Merrit. It’s called “Ninja and the Birdman, Tools for Tools.”

I started a bird club in my hometown, the D-Town Bird Club. I’m currently working on a social media site called Your Birding Story to connect birders with each other, give them a space to share their birding stories, and help get them started in birding through the help of the American Birding Association.

Turns out, there is not an official rookie birding record, but out of a little over 1,000 bird species, I ended up seeing 355 in 2019.

As we like to say in Texas, not too bad. The best thing that came from this year is that I now know going through a rough patch in life doesn’t have to go on forever. Even though I might not win every battle, and I still have problems to deal with, I will always consider myself undefeated.

This is my story. I hope others who struggle with depression and addiction can find hope and inspiration.

My story is also a testament to the value of health insurance. It wasn’t until I had to utilize the health care system that I saw the true value of health insurance. With Blue Cross NC insurance, I was able to find great therapists and doctors. They even paid a portion of my rehabilitation though it was out-of-network and out-of-state.

My health insurance helped me navigate the health care system. I saved at least $100,000 in medical bills. Being able to get the care I needed for my anxiety saved my life. 

Tom Ferguson

About Tom Ferguson

Husband, father, chef, serial entrepreneur (Rise Franchising, Only Burger, Durham Catering), Birder, and Blue Cross NC member.