I had a cool birthday this year. I can say that and really mean it, and that’s an epoch for me.
Months before my birthday I had ‘the talk’ with friends and family who wanted to know what I wanted to do for my birthday.
Right way I replied, “I don’t have one of those any more. Just let me hide under the covers for the day and it will be perfect.”
A month or so before my birthday I looked online for a search of, ‘how to enjoy your birthday’ and, ‘how to have the best birthday by yourself’. The lists of results were typical of what you would expect: give yourself a spa day, watch movies, eat your favorite foods, go out for dinner, see how many birthday freebies you can get and make a run on them…
When you’ve looked death in the face, live a life beset by chronic pain after being run down by a van, been raised by abusive jerks who only ever loved themselves; you either sink and die, or you learn to make the best of every good moment that you have. I realized that any day I could, I did all the things on the list (except the freebie thing which didn’t sound very fun anyway!).
I give myself spa days and enjoy the days when I have little or no pain with the ecstasy of someone who knows the relief of when pain leaves. I enjoy a generally healthy diet; but I treat myself on high quality treats that bring more light and joy into my life. I don’t like going out for dinner the most because my husband and I are both excellent cooks and my husband was practically begging to let him make me a birthday dinner.
Neverthless; I learned something from the list: love yourself. Celebrate yourself.
Somedays it’s hard to do those two things. It’s a world that seems to love to beat us down instead of lift us up. It seems like things that should be innocent can turn and embroil you before you know it. It’s scary to let yourself love yourself again after the world tries to teach you that no one, including you, especially you, is worthy of love.
I realized that it was hard to enjoy a birthday for many reasons. I have some special ones that are documented with childhood photos where black eyes and bruised face and arms show how my dad reacted to his daughter looking so pretty in her new birthday dress. I don’t have a single birthday picture where by the end of the day, I’m not bruised from the age of four. That’s some tough birthday mojo to get over. That’s some pain that has to be a ‘top 100’ for reasons to never love having a birthday.
I was shown from an early age that my beauty equaled pain and a ‘punishment’ that was meant to be a show of ‘favour’ from my messed up dad. I was shown that every year, it got worse. The world got a bit smaller, there were new ways to be humiliated even if that was being overlooked once I got ‘too old’ for my dad (twelve was when he started to find my transformation into womanhood repulsive and get mad at me for each curve and adult feature that developed).
I had twelve birthdays where love equaled pain and bruises that were put into snapshots for the ages, after that, I was neglected and my family found new ways to hurt me. My mom forgetting it was my birthday to the point where I had to get my birth certificate was one of my neglecting traumas. She didn’t believe it was my birthday. I kept waiting for her to surprise me and say she was joking, but by the time I got my birth certificate out I knew there was no joke.
She rummaged in her purse and gave me a crumpled twenty dollar bill and told me to get myself a cake and birthday dinner with it. I biked to the store after school and bought the a cake mix and some soda. I went home to an empty house and made myself a cake. I iced it after it was cold and sat waiting in the darkening house for someone to come and remember me.
I put the candles I had bought on the cake, only fourteen, I lit them and sang happy birthday to myself and blew out the candles. The rich chocolate cake tasted like dust in my mouth and I left it with a bite taken out of it sitting on the kitchen table, the little bit of smoke dissipated already from the candles.
After that; I didn’t like my birthday. The year before I had waited by the window for my dad to show up: he showed up over a week late with a cheap necklace and a distracted hug. I should have been grateful that his attention wasn’t on me the way it had been when I was younger, but it only hurt all the more because it felt like for having birthdays I had let him down. I had gotten too ‘old’ for him.
“And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days…”
― Collected Poems
When I came downstairs the next day I saw that my mother and younger brother had eaten all of the birthday cake. I told my mom, ‘Happy Anniversary’ and kissed her on the cheek. I didn’t cry, I didn’t berate, but part of me closed a door on birthdays. My parents had been separated several years by then and the reminder that it was her anniversary to my dad was something that made my mom happy then. She still had hoped that he’d come home to her. She did cry and said, ‘thank you’ and then she hugged me tight. It was her day, she felt comfortable enough to give me a snippet of love then.
Years later I had a teacher question my intelligence on my birthday in a way that was reprehensible and unexpected. I had hid away from the day but my husband had braved the outside world to attend a meeting and it had been he who had been confronted with the attack on me. I’m putting this in the kindest possible way, it was MUCH worse than I’m phrasing it here.
It was always something on my birthday. I had tried having big birthdays, little intimate get togethers, everything inbetween. Not even hiding under the covers was safe! I even had a therapist who suggested that I try moving my birthday to another day and month entirely because she saw the malignant pattern that stalked me and had tried for several years to help me evade it to no avail.
“I give up, there’s no fixing it! Just… I don’t know, maybe you could celebrate it in March or May??”
I agreed whole heartedly, but the problem was that April still existed and the twelfth day of April had to come no matter when I placed my birthday.
So this year, I tried to focus on what other people did for their birthdays. I know I’m not the only one with birthday trauma. Birthdays aren’t very fashionable, an uncomfortable reminder of mortality in a world that seems to speed up more and more every year.
I read an article, I’ll try to share the link, because it was the article that made me change my outlook on birthdays.
A fellow was talking about the AIDS epidemic and how traumatizing it was to see his young, beautiful, vibrant friends sickening and dying around him. He said that he called his mother, a loving woman and told him about his distress.
Her response was to talk about her own trepidation about aging and birthdays. He interrupted her and told her that this was different. These were young people, they hadn’t had a chance to live their lives and it wasn’t fair!
She silenced and for what he described as one of the rare times it ever happened, his mother became angry with him. “Is that what you think? That I’ve lived my life and that I might as well be dead? Do you think it’s any easier to leave the world when you’re my age than when you’re your age?
She proceeded to reveal to him the fears of aging, the terror of watching your body fall apart no matter what your age, the fear of losing your lover no matter how many wonderful years you had had together.
The journalist was now the age that his mother had been when he’d made that call and he had come to realize the wisdom of her words. He loved life, he had love, he also had loss… but we all have loss. The longer we’re blessed to live in this world, the more loss we have.
And the poignancy of the birthday became apparent to me. All the talk about self-love and spa days didn’t do the same thing that article did. After all, no matter how bleak the world has been to us, doesn’t it make the milestone of reaching another year all the more beautiful?
I had wanted to talk about how beautiful my family and friends had been to me this birthday, but there was too much wrapped up in why it mattered to me that those things happened this year. I found the love of the light enough in those words, the knowledge that I not only love myself, but that I am beloved to be beautiful.
I was still worried when ‘the day’ rolled around. It’s not like what they say with curses, just don’t believe in it and it can’t effect you’. No. It’s not like that at all. I’ve tried that. Whatever the birthday curse was, it was there whether I wanted to look at it or believe in it or not.
What changed wasn’t the gifts I was given, it wasn’t the people I surrounded myself in, it was a sort of treasuring of the day. It wasn’t a celebration, it was an opportunity to look to the past. It was a day to love myself for being a survivor and for having survived with love and light. I survived with the truth, without denial. I survived and I have another year ahead of me with the people I love and the things I love to do.
My situation is not ideal, but it’s so much better than so many other people in the world. It’s better even than it was for myself in previous years, because for the first time, I’ve told the entire world the truth of what my childhood was like. I feel sorry for my surviving brother and my half-sister who hide in denial and fear from the past. I feel proud of my older brother who tried to come to terms with the past before his sudden death. He and I were never close because we both tried to uphold the idea of having had a ‘normal’ life and all that was unsaid and the manipulations of the adults around us kept us from ever being close. But before the end, he said some of the truth and that’s better than the cowards who survived him and still try to placate and hide from the past so that they can find, ‘normal’.
I have told the police the truth. I have told the page the truth and I have ensured that others will continue to exact some sort of leveling of the past as well. I’ve done everything I can for that little girl who sang happy birthday to herself. I did what I could for the four year old in a sailor dress whose bruises became more apparent as the day went on. I told the truth for the girl who was turning six and had the prettiest yellow gossamer dress down to the floor like a princess that clashed with the black finger marks on her cheeks.
Love this little girl, she’s part of every birthday I will ever have and have ever had.
These are the parts of myself that cannot understand the point of having a birthday. These are the parts that desperately needed to be acknowledged and told that they were loved. When it comes to self love, it isn’t enough to love who we are now. We have to love who we were on the journey that brought us here. We have to hear the lingering ‘Happy birthday to me,’ of the quavering little voice and love that girl. Be there for her.
Every year on my birthday I was shattered apart as the weight of these parts whose pain they never forgot, even when I had put it far from my mind.
Now that I’ve shared this, I feel more free to talk about the rest of my birthday. I have a new guitar that put the name on my band together, I was given my name on a kickstarter project for one of the most advanced mass produced Artificial Intelligence androids developed and a lot more!
I’m in a good place in my life considering what the world has given me to work with. I had a good birthday. My husband made me a cake (black forest, not too far from the dark chocolate cake a fourteen year old made for herself, but this was made with gourmet ingredients, not a cheap mix and we got to eat it!) he made me a feast as well! We had friends come by, I had gifts from friends, fans and family sent to me before and after my birthday.
Maybe a few people forgot, maybe a half sister who hates the truth remembered and didn’t say a word (to be fair, I didn’t send her a birthday greeting either… I don’t think it would have been welcome). The same is true for the little brother I raised, the brother who called me ‘mommy’ because our mother was never there for us. The same brother who lied to the police, repeating back his father’s lies for things he was in the cradle for and had no memory of as he told me several times.
Some people are best out of your life, other people, and the parts of myself, are best in my life. I’ll continue to remember. I’ll continue to bear the stigma of being an abuse victim (believe me, there’s no reason I would lie, it’s not fun having people think of me the way the truth allows).
Happy Birthday to all the birthdays that have been. All the years a little girl was her daddy’s princess and she was too pretty to be left alone. All the years that same girl took care of herself and her family at her expense. I have the truth and it’s the truth that makes a birthday a good day. It’s not acknowledging all the ‘yous’ you’ve been that makes them a curse.