How Mental Illness Changed the Way I Feel About Birthdays

birthdaycake

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say I’m making up for lost time.

Today I turned 24 years old (this is the point where half of my readers are like, WHAT, since I don’t think I’ve posted my age publicly until now – you’re welcome).

I know a lot of people who don’t make a huge deal out of their birthdays. They see it as just another day of the year. They don’t go out of their way to tell anyone. They stay in, enjoy a glass of wine, watch a movie, and fall asleep with the television on.

More power to them – really, whatever floats your boat – but I am definitely not one of those people.

I savor all the well wishes, the cards, the hugs, the birthday cake emojis. I buy myself a cake and a present; one year, I even sent myself a couple of e-cards (at the bottom it read “Love, You” – yes, I realize how weird this sounds) so I would have something fun to wake up to.

I stalk my Facebook wall, starting right at midnight, and revel in the outpouring of love and affirmation. I loudly tell waitstaff at restaurants that it’s my birthday with the hopes that they’ll sing a song.

But contrary to what it seems, I’m not actually a brat.

In fact, I didn’t always behave this way on my birthday. My birthdays used to be quiet. When I was no longer a kid and I was expected to organize my own party, they largely slid by, mostly unnoticed.

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say that I’m making up for lost time.

The thing about being a teenager in the throes of mental illness is that it was difficult, if not impossible, to motivate me to care about the fact that I was a year older.

To me, it was just a reminder that I had spent yet another year struggling without making any progress. You could say it was a new year, and you could even put it on a card and wrap it in a “happy occasion” bow, but to me, it felt insignificant.

The years all blended together underneath this dark cloud of bipolar and anxiety and they were rendered meaningless in the fog.

My birthdays as a teen went something like this:

  1. Resenting how damn cold Michigan is in late November. Resenting not having an earlier birthday so I could at least enjoy some sunshine on what was supposed to be “my day.” Sometimes this also meant staring angrily out the window at the snow on the ground.
  2. Wondering if any of my friends would remember (mind you, this was before Facebook was so popular). Being amazed when a few actually did.
  3. Eating carrot cake with my family (my mother makes a carrot cake that is out of this world, so I requested it every year).
  4. Going to bed and imagining a parallel universe where I actually did something important on my birthday.

Truthfully, I think that when you’re in survival mode, the idea of celebrating the fact that you exist seems so asinine when you spend more days than not wishing you didn’t exist.

When my mental health started to rebound, though – therapy, meds, rinse, repeat – I started to feel differently about birthdays.

The first birthday I can remember feeling distinctly different about was my 20th birthday. I remember thinking about how, when I was younger and deeply depressed, I had never imagined myself getting any older than 18. Turning that corner and getting into my twenties felt like a huge accomplishment.

It was a revelation. It was like unlocking a bonus level or discovering a sequel when you thought the book series had ended. I felt like I had cheated death – like I was living when I wasn’t really supposed to be.

Looking at that number as it shifted from 19 to 20, I had this sense that my being alive was a tremendous accomplishment; my birthday stood as a reminder of the resilience it took to keep living, to keep fighting, to stay.

That year, I actually did celebrate for the first time in a long time. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, radical faerie extraordinaire, had a show in Ann Arbor. I went with a new friend of mine – a new friend I would eventually start dating a couple months later. It was a magical evening.

I realized that night something that had never really occurred to me before: I had a future.

And if that future involved radical transgender performance artists and some cute queer who buys me coffee on my birthday, I suspected that my future might not be so bad (spoiler alert: the cute queer who bought me coffee that night was also the cute queer who I married three years later).

Life didn’t stop at 18. And if I could live to be 20, maybe I could live to be 25, or 30, or… wow, is there really life after 30? They tell you life is short and that you should never assume you have more time, but the thought that I could live another decade, another two decades, even more – that thought shook me to my core.

Finally reaching my twenties made me feel like I had a whole new lease on life – and that’s when my obsession with birthdays really began.

I’m a big believer in making a huge fuss out of your birthday, but it’s not because I’m self-absorbed (okay, I may be a little self-absorbed – I am a blogger, after all).

It’s because I love any and every excuse to celebrate the fact that we’re still here. When somebody says “Happy Birthday” to me, what this translates to in my mind is, “Hey, kid, you made it. You’re alive.”

Still being here – which, when I was younger, was never something I imagined – is a big fucking deal. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it another day, let alone another five, ten years.

This year is the most important year yet. I am 24, and my first major depressive episode happened when I was 14. I look back at where I was ten years ago – ten years, can you believe that? – and I’m amazed.

Ten years ago, I didn’t think I would make it through geometry class, let alone grow up to be an actual adult (another spoiler alert: taxes are terrible, paying rent is painful, but being an adult is, all in all, the best thing ever and totally worth the wait).

Ten years later, I did make it through geometry. And not only that, but I survived many depressive episodes (and manic ones, too). I graduated from high school – hell, I graduated from college. I came out as transgender. I moved across the country to California, I got married, I started my career as a writer-

Hold up, y’all, as a writer. Which is its own bucket of “what the actual fuck” because when I was 14, I refused to show my writing to anyone because I was embarrassed and afraid that I wasn’t good enough.

Can you imagine what teenage Sam would have to say about all this?

Birthdays, for me, are the one day of the year where I have an undeniable excuse to celebrate everything that I’ve overcome to reach this stage in my life.

And, yes, while I believe that we should dabble in self-love and affirmation every day of the year, there’s something magical about getting older that makes those affirmations feel so much more meaningful.

Ten years ago I never imagined that this was my future. Hell, what future, I never imagined a future! I didn’t know that, on the other side of all of that pain, there were was something worth waiting for.

I realize that birthday cake emojis or balloons are not remarkable in themselves. I know that to most people, cards and parties and waiters singing songs are all superficial things to care about.

But they all remind me of perhaps the most tremendous thing I’ve learned in my 24 years on this planet: You just never know.

Every single time I claimed to know what the future had in store, I was wrong.ย 

And never in my life have I been so happy, so glad to be wrong. It’s a kind of “wrong” that’s worth celebrating.

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24 thoughts on “How Mental Illness Changed the Way I Feel About Birthdays

  1. Gavin Wyer says:

    I am 57 years old now and I never believed for a second that I would see 30. I often refer to myself as an “old fart” and others see that as negative while I see it as fucking amazing! I AM STILL HERE!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SingTravelAct says:

    Congrats and Happy Birthday! I recently turned 49 and am amazed to have gotten this far. Every decade has its own excitement. So – there’s more to come, not just survival but being amazed by the journey. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A Voice says:

    Thank you for sharing, so great to read that and realise I’m not alone in my dismissal of birthdays. Unfortunately I haven’t quite gotten to the point of not having the mind frame of ‘great another year of suffering’ but reading this gives me hope that it will happen one day.

    Many happy returns, I hope you had an enjoyable day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I hope that you get there one day and give yourself the celebration and affirmation that you very much deserve. I know that it can take a long time to get there. Rooting for you! And thank you so much! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  4. Raye says:

    This post made me remember that when I was 18, I couldn’t imagine living past 25. I was in the depths of depression. And now I’m 26 and completely forgot I once felt that way! We are still here, and that’s fucking fantastic! *highfives*

    Liked by 1 person

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