Well before sunrise, my alarm sounds.
Birthday snuggles and a little extra time cozied up under our linen sheets and terracotta-colored duvet. My head rested against Ryan’s chest with our arms wrapped around each other.
Same as most mornings, Ryan beats me out of bed to dress and get our morning coffee started. I lay there, slightly melancholic, gearing myself up for a day of celebrating me.
I throw on my faded, oversized, forest-green, hooded sweatshirt over my pajamas and slip on my shearling-lined moccasin slippers before heading downstairs. My hand habitually grazes the banister, which I notice is lined with gold streamers. Rounding the corner, our fully-decorated kitchen comes into view.
The bright pink, green, and gold pinwheels purchased for our son’s golden fifth birthday three years ago, the pastel tissue accordion shapes originally used for Ryan’s birthday in our Denver apartment a couple of years back, the colorful “Happy Birthday” banner from my campervan adventure birthday the year before, and much more. He must have spent at least an hour the night before meticulously arranging this eclectic array of nostalgia from what we refer to as our “birthday box.”
In our home, birthdays are the celebration equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and honestly, every other holiday rolled into one. We’ve always used vacation days to celebrate each other, and our son, Leo, on our own special days. Together, the three of us.
The lead-up this year has been different as we continue the adjustment to living in a new state, moving between three Colorado cities over the past three years.
My first birthday after relocating from Wisconsin was full of excitement and adventure, exploring our new home base.
Last year, we embraced the necessity of social distancing and celebrated with a three-day birthday road trip in our campervan, full of mountain hiking and picnics. This year, our plans had been much more up in the air after experiencing roller-coaster health issues with our son, whose genetic disorder appears to be catching up with him day by day.
Even though we’ve become genuine experts at making the most of things in the most beautiful, thoughtful ways since Leo was born, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming, visceral sense of sadness. Palpable aching darkness, stretching from my chest through my lower guts, paired with immense guilt and shame for not simply being grateful and excited for my special day.
In an attempt to simply shake off these feelings, I forced myself to graciously enjoy our early-morning time together. Our favorite local espresso blend coffee, pastries from the bakery down the street, planning options for the day ahead depending on Leo’s state/mood, and seeing my phone light up with texts and social media notifications with sweet messages would normally be a recipe for joy and elation. Instead, I felt like I was going to puke or start bawling. Maybe both.
What’s wrong with me?
After a bit of searching Dr. Google while slipping away to the bathroom, I realized I’m far from alone.
Birthday depression, or birthday blues, as I’ll continue to call it, is surprisingly common.
There are many reasons one can take on the birthday blues: age denial, unmet milestones, feelings of failure, expectations and pressure, lack of friendships, existential crisis, family dynamics, nostalgia, feeling unloved, and the list goes on.
As someone who has struggled on and off with situational depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, coming down with a case of birthday blues makes sense.
In my mind, the obvious contribution for those of us who experience issues around our birthdays has always presented exclusively with aging. The negative stigma around aging is no problem for me, as parenting a child with a terminal illness quickly reframed getting older into a blessing. In our home, aging is a true gift, intentionally never taken for granted.
Grief of what was, what is, and what will be completely blindsided me. Losing my grandmother earlier this year—my lifelong truest source of unconditional love—paired with the undeniable realization that the birthdays spent “the three of us” are likely numbered, as Leo’s terminal genetic disorder progresses.
Good lord, how does one flip the switch from such languishing heaviness to exuberant celebration? The truth is, if health is a priority, we simply cannot.
Society says “I should be happy on my birthday.” As a reformed people-pleaser, I chose to put my needs first in not giving in to this expectation. Instead, I opted to treat myself to a heaping dose of the tried and true healthy coping skills developed over the years, in an effort to soothe my bleeding heart.
Attending a live Zoom class with other writers, some of whom are becoming lifelong friends. Indulging in a half-hour of reading in our infrared sauna, warming me to my literal core and metaphorically sweating out my sadness. Taking a family walk around a nearby lake that may not be considered an epic hike, but still provides the most stunning reflections of the Rocky Mountains and puffy, cloud-filled sky.
Enjoying a favorite meal of homemade veggie burgers with buffalo wing-coated french fries, followed by a slice of chocolate cake. Responding to the “Happy Birthday!” love messages from those closest to me; however, giving myself permission to hold off on following up with everyone else.
While November 12, 2021, may not go down in history as the most magnificent birthday, observing my heart and being still with my feelings will undoubtedly make it one to remember.