Living With Birthday Anxiety

My birthday is October 22. This year, I turn 52. I’m not at all worried about aging because I was brought up to believe that our 50’s are a great time period. Not THE 50’s but our decade of being 50. To be clear. And that’s proving to be the case. I’m a better version of myself now.

Birthdays have always been fraught for me. It has only been recently that I’ve been actively trying to figure out why. I thought I knew, but I grossly oversimplified. “Bad childhood” is not sufficient.

I tend to have all of this anticipation roiling over my life as I anticipate this ‘big day’ each year – as if there’s a literal hole inside me that can never get enough acknowledgment that my birth is worth celebrating. It isn’t about gifts or cake or gestures, it is about feeling confident that people value my existence.

Truthfully I don’t feel that people value my existence. I feel that being useful or helpful or even accomplished lends value to my existence, but that me finding value in my existence alone was programmed out of me long ago.

Growing up with parents who should not have had kids and were definitely not prepared to raise us to be healthy, functioning adults, I have often said “I should not have been born.” But I was and landed in the lap of a chaotic, traumatized family whose main objective was keeping the secret of the family predator. The fallout of that shared duty devastated many of us. Probably all of us, but I can’t say that for sure. I literally landed in that predator’s lap when my mother was hospitalized early after my birth for an indeterminate time and I was sent to live with him and his wife because there was no one else available I guess.

The realization that your entire adult family left you at the mercy of a known sexual predator rather than disrupt their own lives to help care fo you at your most vulnerable span of life is quite a bitter pill to swallow. How any plate can be too full to protect a baby is something I don’t understand. That level of rejection and abandonment echoes in my heart every day.

So the chaos and feast/famine mentality of my childhood left me feeling empty each year. And then I would chase any option to fill that hole, never succeeding, and feeling worse afterwards. But it would be over for that year and I could recover because there was Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to look forward to around the corner. But it is a vicious cycle each year, reliving the same agonies and sadness and thoughts.

My childhood birthdays varied. I only remember a few of them with much detail, but there was a point in my elementary days when life went downhill in our family and birthdays were just one casualty. My therapist pointed out to me that my recounting the good birthday experiences were about my feeling valued and cherished, not the gifts or the adulation. She suggested that I do well on other holidays because of having rituals, so why not incorporate more rituals into my birthday?

COVID-19 robbed me of a big bang for my 50th birthday, but it did give rise to a tradition of ordering sushi and watching my favorite movie When Harry Met Sally. I love that. I also really like the “best Facebook day of the year” when people wish me a simple happy birthday – that’s actually pretty great. Inevitably I reconnect a bit with some folx and that’s even better. I always send a message to my childhood friend Jeff Turlik who shares my birthday, but was one year older than me. We spent seven grades sharing a classroom party, a bond that cannot be broken. I share my birthday with others as well and those little annual connections are so lovely.

But I still feel an emptiness. My therapist and I are doing some trauma processing around it to figure out if there’s something connected to my other trauma experiences – perhaps one of the awful things took place on my birthday – or if it is more a cumulative impact of years of neglect and disregard of my emotional needs bubbling to the surface on the day when I am “supposed to” be feted and celebrated. It might just be a wound I have to live with, but I can examine it a bit and perhaps not let it ride roughshod over my entire month of October.

An article on birthday anxiety mentioned this

“I’ve just found in my past that, a lot of times when you put that much pressure on something, you’re bound to be a little disappointed,” she says. “With birthdays, it’s the celebration of you, so it feels like, Shouldn’t this be grander? Or, My friends didn’t text me.

And then you get immediately into this ugly space between the various versions of what you should do and what you actually feel. You should live it up. You should relax. You should celebrate yourself. You should be grateful for what you have. You should seize the day. You should realize its just another day. You should … you should … you should.

That’s a very painful space because the advice to live it up and to just chill don’t always line up with how we feel inside. Or with our external circumstances. For trauma survivors, the emptiness can render even the sweetest simple gesture into a treatise on the pain we carry around with us. That’s how endless holes work.

I’ve spent many years trying to cajole and persuade people to show they value me on my birthday – that’s not real. It isn’t who I want to be, but I can accept why I needed to do that.

One ritual I added into my birthday was doing some sort of charitable endeavor – a fundraising, a collection, etc. That seems lovely and I do enjoy it, but I also know that it is the only way my inner self can accept gifts – if they are for others. I’ve taught myself that I cannot simply accept a gift, there has to be value or meaning for someone else. That’s not okay. I deserve to be valued for another trip around the sun successfully completed, not out of obligation or a reward.

I doubt I will ever get there. 52 years is a lot of trauma, but it is worth trying to articulate what I need and maybe one day I’ll believe I deserve it. It feels better to be trying than just struggling.

When your anxiety and sadness around your birthday is caused by trauma or underlying anxiety disorders, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t need a positive mindset, you deserve to process that stuff and stop reliving the worst moments of yourself. You deserve better. You deserve for your birthday to be whatever you need – a big celebration, a quiet day, just another day, whatever YOU need, not what other people have taught you to expect.

For my 50th, I wanted to go to a high end day spa like Nemacolin and spend the day just getting all the masks and baths and massages while Laura did something else on the grounds and then having dinner together and spend the night in a fancy room. Then go home. I’ve reset that for my 60th birthday.

So I’m working on some rituals that are for me, not sourced from other people. It isn’t easy. My therapist asked me what I wanted as a gift and I come up empty. So it is a task now – each night as I fall asleep, I try to imagine what I want. I go through all sorts of options – clothes, books, music, furniture, throw pillows – and I can’t identify anything. I don’t need things, I need to feel valued and honored and worthwhile, dare I say respected. I need to be seen and heard, not reframed and refocused to meet other’s expectations.

That’s hardly concrete and does not make for a good shopping list. But the best I can come up with is throw pillows for our new sofa where I ‘work’ from a lot of the time, endless bags of cat treats for the ferals who rarely get any joy, and a new tablet. Maybe. The only ritual I can come up with is ordering a new tee shirt. Or maybe getting a mani/pedi but COVID-19 still has me wary of that.

I will probably do some sort of drive this year because October 22 is also the birthday of Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities and I am very proud of that timing. I birthed a nonprofit on my 51st birthday. Not too shabby for someone without a uterus and not much in the way of money.

So this year, I’m going to try and just process, pay attention, and pace myself.

It’s one month away so we’ll see …

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