The one day that marks the time when we embarked on this beautiful journey called life, calls for a celebration.
Greetings, gifts and messages full of love and cheer pour in from near, dear ones and even from strangers.
Yup, the bank, my dentist, home decor websites that I shop from and even the girl at the local beauty parlour sends me a birthday note and a discount coupon too.
Not to mention the flurry of messages pouring in from social media.
Despite the abundance for the reasons to be happy about, the minute the clock strikes midnight, marking my birthday all I can feel is ambivalence, anxiety and depression tiptoeing in my life.
Yes, birthday depression.
It’s for real.
It’s hard to handle.
And the worst part is, I have struggled to understand it and more so to come to terms with it.
Needless to say, it has taken me ample courage to talk freely about it.
What does birthday depression look like?
Birthday blues feel like as if gifted by the universe something always happens on my birthday to make me cry or remind me that I don’t matter.
The probability of the phone ringing, any moment, repeatedly, all day long makes the 24 hours seem like a year long.
Especially because I dread phone calls, only from the people close to me. Am pretty okay talking to complete strangers.
But this isn’t the only reason because I have noticed the anxiety from the time I was 7 or 8 years old.
It might have changed form, but it shows up unfailingly.
Generally, I am not very excited about my birthday.
I look forward to it all year, but as it approaches, I am ready with a long list of reasons why I am better off without making a fuss about it.
I don’t have my birthday displayed on Facebook and neither on Twitter. I ceased reminding friends about it for a few years now, but there’s always that one friend or family member who remembers and thus begins the chain of messages and phone calls when all I wish for is to move on through the day as if it were any normal day.
At first, I used to feel the roots of my anxiety lay in the fact that I was scared of talking to people on the phone.
Being an introvert, I would rather write a long letter to every cousin, aunt or friend than talk with them on the phone for 30 minutes.
The need to tell the same stories and having to answer the same set of questions,
What are you going to do today?
How are you celebrating?
Aren’t you excited?
What gift would you like?
Where do you want to go to celebrate?
Often asked in the same sequence, over and over, makes things unbearable for me.
And last year, there was a new question too.
Did you finally decide to colour your hair? I’m sure greys must have started popping up.
So much for my resolve of happily embracing the greys, though there is hardly any white hair.
The Triggers of Birthday Depression
On digging deep I noticed a very particular pattern around my birthday.
My behaviour starts to change, and I get nervous, even sad often on the verge of tears and sometimes sobbing secretly on a day when I should be the happiest and brimming with optimism and gratitude.
Age is just a number. Isn’t it?
One thing I am almost certain about is I am not upset about growing older or dreading my mortality.
I have never been desirous of forever staying in my twenties. That’s why phrases like, thirty is the new twenty never caught my fancy.
Comparisons are traps
However, with each passing year, I can’t help but compare myself, my life with what it was like for my parents and my brother at that age. Often going beyond to the super successful cousins and also my schoolmates and ex-colleagues.
I know it is totally unfair.
Given the different lives we lead, dissimilar circumstances and other obvious differences. But the undue comparison, trying to compare my failures with their success at a given age helps add fuel to my already disappointed state.
Have you made any real estate investments?
Did you finally invest in stocks?
Why don’t you consider remarrying?
The barbs are endless and though they might change form, they are almost always revisited on the day when I grow a year older.
Expectations burden the soul
The pressure of sounding excited or having a grand celebration plan in place also adds to my anxiety.
I am pretty good at planning parties, choosing gifts and planning ahead of time. And thus the onus of getting everything set for the celebration (if I decide to have one), picking a restaurant, advance booking, getting the cake and other things ready always falls on me.
But when it comes to me becoming the centre of attention that’s when everything begins to fall apart.
It hurts to disappoint others by saying there’s no party and I’d rather stay at home.
On the contrary, if I go with the flow and plan a celebration, I can’t help but feel exhausted, breathless and eagerly looking for a quiet spot to feel myself again.
And on occasions when I decided to plan a grand party at home to gel with my passion for cooking and baking, I ended up jumping a red light and almost being caught speeding while rushing to get ingredients for icing my birthday cake (this happened a few years ago in another country). And at the end of the day, I was dead tired to look like a zombie in all pictures.
Fear of the unknown
Another trigger is the realization that I am slowly advancing towards the age when I need to get many more medical tests done (besides the biannual general health check-up) because of the family history of some grave diseases.
The unmet goals
The clear view of the unmet goals, the ones I’d enthusiastically set on my last birthday secretly nibble on my peace of mind, adding shades of guilt to the already blooming pangs of anxiety.
The wrong timing
My birthday falls right at the start of the holiday season. The push of tidying up the home, shopping, preparing sweets, regular feasts add up the stress around my birthday. With the responsibility to have all of these tasks done on time, adding a birthday celebration to the mix tips my mental balance.
And last, of all, the memories of the birthdays I’d spent with people who are no longer a part of my life, find a way to surface when I am already battling other demons.
It’s not that my being a quiet, private, introvert is something not known to my family and friends.
However, the planning they’ve secretly been doing to make me feel loved and extra special push me to the edge.
Besides, as my daughter is an extrovert, a people’s person, she loves having a bunch of people around to make my day special with a grand celebration.
It’s not that I do not get the underlying sentiments behind why people part of my life, want me to have an extraordinary day on my birthday.
But I can’t help but feel uneasy, out-of-place and often acting weird when all I need to be doing is gloating in all the attention, care and celebrations.
How I conquered my birthday blues
In 2018, I finally decided to amend things and take charge of my birthday after what happened last year.
Last year, my birthday fell on a Sunday. This added to the convenience of everyone (besides me) to plan a grand celebration.
My phone was abuzz from midnight. I could barely sleep that night and from early morning started festivities in form surprise visits from the extended family whom I hadn’t seen in years.
As expected, with time my patience of answering questions about my life (as a single mom and working from home) started popping up. And I could feel anxiety embrace me tightly.
On any other day, I’d have faced these questions without a flinch, but on a day when I was already ambivalent and edgy, I couldn’t handle it.
The minute the guests left, I had a breakdown and I broke into uncontrolled sobbing.
Pari tried to calm me down but I had an argument with her over something trivial (that I no longer remember).
I was so disappointed in my self that I wished to turn off my phone and go somewhere quiet where no one could reach me.
The angry tears, the heavy feeling in my chest made me do something that has been a proven pacifier for me.
I flipped open my journal and started writing everything that was clouding my mind.
I didn’t stop to reread. I didn’t care if I made any sense. It didn’t matter what I was writing, because at the moment I had no understanding as to what else I could do than to let my emotions flow freely on paper.
After writing for what felt like the longest 30 minutes I’d spent writing, I stopped.
I noticed I had stopped crying, my tears that had blotted the pages of my journal had dried up and I felt parched.
Gulping down a glass of water in haste, I was sure that I was back to my calm, composed self.
I not only felt lighter and brighter but determined to change things around so that what happened then is never repeated.
Later in the day, when I revisited my journal to read what I had written, I was amazed by the findings.
After initial purging of the pent-up emotions, I had repeatedly expressed my desire to find a concrete resolve to this annual ordeal of birthday blues.
But the most noteworthy bit was the fact that I had gone ahead to create a list of things I was grateful for despite the chaos I was caught up in.
I was glad that gratitude had come to my rescue, yet again.
I now had the top three things, written down that I was most grateful for and they needed to become the centre of attention on my special day.
Finding the best way to celebrate my birthday
It was time I did the homework to cut off the fluff that ruined my birthdays. And this time around, I was not going to wait for my birthday but get a plan in place well ahead of time.
I now had a list of things that I personally felt would make my birthday more pleasant.
♥ I tried not to overplan things or cram too many events into one day.
♥ I told myself that it was okay to miss some people and to revisit the fond memories of the past, but birthdays are the days when we ought to move forward in life.
♥ If someone goes to the trouble of wishing me a happy birthday or giving me a gift, I’d accept it graciously and appreciate that people are thinking of me and wishing me well.
♥ I’d also found ways to feel good about ageing.
A research in adults between ages 21 and 100 has found that there was an improvement in self-reported mental health in people of the older age group. This indicates that there is a steady boost in mental health as you get older.
Another research found that younger people were more distraught, while older adults were more likely to demonstrate less negativity. That means, with age, people tend to get a boost of positivity in their outlook.
Now I had research-based evidence to show that my sanity and optimism are on a rise with each passing year and my birthday is the milestone marking the growth.
♥ Instead of trying to act in ways that pleased others, it helped me to reflect and introspect and find ways to celebrate that really made me happy.
Ordering new books and having them delivered on my birthday and spending time reading a good book is what I’d rather do.
I teamed this up with my passion for cooking. Though I decided to not go overboard and had a limited, time-tested menu for a small, hearty, homely celebration. And to keep myself from getting exhausted, ordered a birthday cake that my daughter picked.
♥ Though the one task that yet needed handling was how to limit phone calls (at least in duration) and how to stop the queries that had a way of injecting anxiety in me.
Days before my birthday, I took out time to call each of my cousins and friends to have a casual conversation so that the catching up or the difficult questions weren’t left to be asked on my birthday.
I even went ahead and wrote long emails to the friends overseas to quench my desire for writing letters.
This way, by the time my birthday arrived, I had cut down all the reasons that could trigger my anxiety.
But had I succeeded could be tested only on the day of my birthday.
Though the best part was, all the work I had done in preparation for my birthday, actually boosted positive energy in me with the anticipation to see how I had fared in calming my birthday blues.
And when the clock struck midnight, I was ready with well-rehearsed answers (in my head) to not let anything come in the way of letting me have a Happy Birthday.
And I’m happy to report, I had a calmer, brighter, more bearable birthday this time around.
The song on my mind: Tujhse Naraz Nahin Zindagi ~ Masoom