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To the People Who Have a Difficult Time on Their Birthdays

There’s an expectation of birthdays. Numbers one through¬†39¬†are all great celebrations. They’re the best day of the year. Once¬†you hit the 40th, you are expected to have low-key dinners with a few close¬†friends so you aren’t reminded too heavily of the years that¬†lay behind. While¬†this may be true for some people, it is certainly not the norm.

I remember the last birthday I enjoyed. February 14, 1999.¬†It wasn’t even my own birthday. My eldest brother, Nick, turned 16 on that day.¬†It was a wonderful party at my church with biological family as well as church¬†family. I was a child then, and I acted like one. There were no worries. There¬†was no depression, no sense of loss.

On June 22 of that year, I turned 9 years old. My two eldest siblings were gone with the church youth group, and I was eight days away from surgery for my cleft lip and pallet, which would require five incisions on my head, each leaving scars which are still noticeable today. I was scared and felt alone. It was certainly no day for celebration.

Less than a month later, Nick was killed in a car accident.¬†Come October, we’d leave behind the mountains and only home I’d ever known to¬†move to a different part of the state. Since the loss of my brother, I had felt¬†isolated and scared. Now I was in a strange city, a strange school. Of course,¬†the sense of isolation only increased. The next three birthdays were spent in¬†this hostile city, with no friends and always a hole in my heart, a longing for¬†the brother who had been my best friend for those nine years I’d known him. It¬†was during these years that I realized I didn’t want to have birthdays any¬†longer.

My 15th birthday was spent on a trip with Upward¬†Bound. I didn’t say a word, hoping no one would know. But the staff had¬†been warned and made a big deal of it before we even had breakfast. When they¬†saw me crying later, I was no longer allowed to eat, and told I needed to grow¬†up and be respectful. And so on June 22, 2005, I had my first suicide attempt.

In the years since, I have not celebrated many birthdays.¬†And the few I did, I’d elect to have a few friends over for burgers, trying not¬†to mention the significance of that date. Birthdays are now a reminder of loss.¬†A reminder of loneliness. A reminder of my mental illness.

But the truth is, that’s OK. You don’t have to enjoy your¬†birthday. It can be just another day of the year. You can be one of those¬†people who have to check your ID when someone asks your age because you don’t¬†keep track. It’s OK¬†to close yourself off from the world for that day. It’s¬†also OK¬†to take a walk or go to dinner by yourself.

For me, birthdays are like the anniversary of a loved one’s¬†death. Why should I be expected to celebrate it? For you, maybe you’ve had¬†trouble making friends and birthdays are a reminder of a lifetime of party¬†invitations sent without reply. Maybe you spent your childhood caring for¬†younger siblings, never celebrating, and you don’t see the point in starting¬†now. Frankly, there are any number of reasons why¬†you might want to forget about¬†your birthday. And they’re all valid.

So take some time to yourself. Forget what day it is. Forget¬†your own age. When someone tells you it’s weird, tell them not to worry. Being “normal” is impossible. But you’re great at always being you. And I think that’s¬†pretty awesome. Be yourself. Do what’s right for you. After all, there’s no one¬†who knows you better.

On your birthday, when you have never felt so alone, remind¬†yourself that this weird dude named Jesse Mann loves you. Because you are so¬†amazing, I didn’t even have to meet you to care about you. When you are¬†treating it as any other day, remind yourself that you are resilient. Remind¬†yourself that your spirit drives the ocean tides and your soul holds up the¬†heavens. It’s OK¬†that you have a difficult time on your birthday. But remember¬†that you are fantastic every day.