There are people in cancer remission for whom each birthday is an extra celebration, each Christmas all the more cherished. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the point where Christmas will be pleasant again, but birthdays do have new meaning now. I still don’t celebrate. I don’t answer my phone, I don’t tell people and I cringe over the well wishes that spring from an automated Facebook notification. But I do mark the day—quietly—as an achievement.
One of the reasons I grew to hate my birthday is that it felt so arbitrary. Twelve months pass…so what? (I feel the same about New Year’s.) Maybe there are moments during any given year that are deserving of a special dinner or at least an ice cream cone based on something good I actually did. Those are the times when recognition would be authentic. Going another 365 days? Not so much.
Except now. 365 is an achievement. When I was forty-nine and a half, I was committed to a psych ward. I was suicidal. If I hadn’t been locked up, I’d have totaled my car and, if it went well enough, totaled my body. Game over.
I managed to fake my way out. The immediate crisis was over but living to see another birthday seemed utterly implausible. I tried to be gentle, coaxing myself to hang on for two more years to see if I could turn my life around but I wasn’t invested. I was stunned that I made it to fifty. Life remained bleak, recovery impossible. The only way I survived was through running away on weekends to Seattle, Whistler, Victoria…anywhere that helped distract me from a stagnant, failed existence. It was an expensive coping mechanism but at least it wasn’t destructive like turning to drugs or alcohol. I’m fortunate that I’m not wired that way.
Lo and behold, fifty-one came, too. By then I’d switched psychiatrists after sessions with Dr. 7 became combative. I acquiesced to meds. First one, then a second as well. The lows weren’t quite as long or, well, low. I went off the meds, had a setback, went back on. And now I’m fifty-two. I’ve surpassed my two-year goal. I can’t say I’m happy…that was too lofty an aspiration. But I’m not depressed. I’m stable.
Sessions with Dr. 8 have gone from weekly to monthly, in part because work is too busy at the moment, but the urgency is gone, too. My family doctor no longer insists on regular check-ins. (Has it really been nine months?) And I’ve gone off my meds again. “I’m concerned,” Dr. 8 said during my last session. But it’s Day 27 without and so far so good. I’ve come to accept that I will feel sadness more than others. I no longer fear that I may be hospitalized again. If it happens, I just hope to have the wherewithal to drag myself to a different facility.
So…another birthday. Fifty-fuckin’-two. It’ll come and go without fanfare. I have a thirteen-hour work day and then I’ll hit the gym. Maybe I’ll have ice cream on the weekend. But this birthday seems like an achievement. Each one is a milestone. While I’m far from thriving and as alone (and sometimes lonely) as ever, I get teary realizing how much I’ve fought to last this long. I still don’t feel I’ve made any social inroads and I’m still relying on travel as a way of coping. (I have three weekend escapes planned for this month.) It continues to zero out my bank account but I can go longer without furniture. It’s not like I ever have anyone over. There is a lot of work for me to do to reach a point of being invested again. But I’ve given myself the gift of time. Seems I’m sticking around. It’s not exactly “happy birthday”, but it’s a birthday. And that’s something.