The (dis)comforts of turning 50

Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others.

As I approach my 50th birthday, I naturally have been reflecting on well my 50 years of life. This past year has been a doozy, My 19 year old cat Simon died a few days after my 49th birthday. I had to end my relationship with my fiscal sponsor for the AMPLIFY project and it has been on hold ever since. My webmaster informed me that the sheer size of the data of this site makes it impossible to successfully manage on a traditional server, in part because previous webmasters had used some creative coding. We were looking at a $10,000 bill to fix that the right way and in the meantime, I have to endure unexpected crashes. I lost my first (and only) column because I insisted on being paid in a timely manner. I was about to launch a blogging artist in residency when COVID came along and nixed that. And nixed so much.

Social security cut my benefits without explanation forcing me to jump through endless hoops to restore them. My mental illness symptoms flared up after a few weeks of quarantine and I was sick for over 12 weeks, ending on the sober reality that my medication had poisoned me and left permanent damage. Our dog Ana ran away one morning, directly into traffic on a busy road and I had to chase after her while still sick. Ana was sick, too, and she died in late September in a nightmarish experience at the emergency vet’s office. Then my SSDI benefits were threatened again, this time by the Commonwealth.

I’ve written 30 In Memoriam posts as of this morning and mourned the deaths of at least eight members of the regional LGBTQ community. Even something as simple as a sinus infection went sideways resulting in my getting two COVID tests the same week we watch the Trump Administration creates a circus sideshow about the President’s diagnosis.

People I love won’t follow social distancing guidelines and/or lie about it.

As part of my therapy, I am using EMDR tools to treat my complex trauma diagnosis. I’ve come to realize some very sad realities from my early childhood that distorted my capacity to have healthy attachments throughout my lifetime. That’s sad, but helpful information as I continue to process trauma – we’ve been focusing on the ‘softer’ experiences to prepare me for the difficult times ahead.

Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others.

I have spent most of my adult life making myself useful – culminating in become a social worker. I organize drives, I volunteer, I created this blog. I try to engage myself as a form of self-comfort. It does work, but it is not sufficient to resolve my need for comfort.

Do I feel accepted by others? Yes, but usually in the context of being useful. I don’t have many true relationships based on being accepted for who I am. There’s always a price to pay. I recognize that may be my skewed perception.

When someone offers me comfort, I am always amazed and so grateful because I don’t think I deserve it. And to be clear, there are multiple people in my life who have repeatedly offered me comfort in emotional and physical ways. Their kindness stays with me. But the resiliency we typically build from being comforted does not stay with me. I remember it and try to draw out feelings to remind me of a kind gesture. But it is an exercise for me, not something that comes from a lifetime of being comforted and safe. I have to work at it, every time.

Last year, a friend gave me a lovely gift basket for my birthday, including a bag of ground pumpkin spice coffee. After I made it, I left a trace amount in the bag, then tucked the bag next to my coffee station. I was using the visual reminder along with the faint aroma to remind myself that someone cared about me.

The truth is that my childhood and family experiences are horrific. I know this. I know that outside of my therapist, finding anyone to listen who won’t be triggered or upset is hard to do. My friends try but their understandable struggle to find something comforting to say quickly sends me into the role of comforting them. That’s not their fault. People aren’t taught how to respond to this stuff. They are often hiding their own pain.

So I am unsure I can or will ever be able to accept comfort and acceptance from other people.

For my fiftieth birthday, I thought I would create some rituals to demarcate this momentous occasion. I would give myself credit for the things I have accomplished and the progress I’ve made. I got stuck on the third step – celebrating and comforting myself. This idea wedged itself into my head that I might be magical, that I might be able to find my way to my ancestors and reclaim my legacy. Not Tarot cards and candles, but metaphorically stand in the forest next to the bog and find that tug backwards past the generations of trauma to a place where existence makes sense. Not only do I not want to appropriate, but I don’t want to be distracted by practices that do not belong to my ancestors. But while magic is stuck in my head, it’s not generating any ideas on how to throw my arms around turning 50 with gusto.

Sure, we’ll have some cake and get takeout. That will be nice, but it isn’t quite the level of comfort I was hoping to create. Originally, I planned to go to a day spa – huge treat for me – and enjoy some body treatments to help me feel more grounded in my own skin. The kind of spa with seaweed wraps, mud baths, and fluffy bathrobes. That’s not possible. And I’m fine with postponing that outing, but struggling to find a substitute.

Rough childhoods make for very few good birthday memories and lots of dashed hopes.

What would be comforting given the circumstances? My therapist asked me to give that some thought.

I made a list of some comforting things that would be sensory related and enjoyable.

But while I want them, I don’t feel I deserve them. I feel that asking my friends – I have no family – to spend money on me to celebrate my milestone birthday is what a greedy con artist would do. Would a basket of gift cards fill this void? Can you imagine a pile of gift cards just for you? Would I let that fill the void?

Clearly, I have more work to do.

Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others.


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