Why Birthdays Can Be Difficult When You're Chronically Ill

Birthdays. A day to celebrate being alive. One more trip around the sun. You’re another year older and 365 days have passed. Or, 525,600 minutes. (But hey, who’s counting?)

You’ve grown another year older, gained wisdom, experienced new things, and passed milestones. You dress silly, blow out fires on top of calorie-loaded goodies, and ring in this new stage of your life…At least that’s what I imagine they’re like. You see, birthdays when you’re chronically ill, are a tad bit different.

They’re odd. They’re bittersweet. Confusing and emotional. I celebrated my first at 13 and they’ve never quite been the same since. When you’re ill, birthdays are a reminder of all the things you’ve missed. Time you can never get back. (Though, I’m still holding out for that time machine any day now.)

It feels a bit like laying in a deep sleep, yet completely aware of your surroundings. Trapped. Confined. You hear and see everything around you, suddenly a forced bystander in your own life. Friends move on, drive cars, study school, and quite literally move away to college. Family ages. Siblings celebrate weddings and graduations. Phones get thinner, presidents get weirder, and planet earth keeps spinning — yet here you are, stuck inside invisible quicksand.

Imagine waking up one crisp November morning, ready to take on the day as a healthy 13-year-old kid. You head to school and to locker 830. Comfort surrounds you as friends laugh and plan out Friday’s dance. You’ve just won the student council election and next on the agenda is volleyball season. You head to Miss Spychalsky’s science class and sit in your usual spot: second row, fifth from the left. Electrons…protons….atomic numbers….What’s my name? No, seriously, you can’t remember your name. And where the heck are you? Suddenly your pen drops, your face droops, and your brain is, well, on a little vacation. Blackness. Blackness. More blackness.

Now wake up in 2017. You could head to school, but the teachers are long gone and the students exist only in dusty, ratted up yearbooks. There, you’ll find your picture as well, one you won’t quite remember taking. Locker 830 is occupied by your baby cousin and his friends, though he’s a bit taller and sports a five o’clock shadow. Eight years have passed. You’re now turning 21 in a world that just. Keeps. On. Spinning. And you can’t help but wonder, “Who would I have been,” if things turned out differently.

Girl reflects on past, while sitting with in a gown with an IV and medical bracelet on her arm.

Birthdays are a cinematic tale. A showing, on repeat, of the 2,738 days that have slipped by you. They’re the high school trips that would have been and the late night parties. The tiny, crammed up, but oh-so-proud college dorm room you would’ve displayed and the first nervous nights away from home. They’re a tale of your loved ones off soon to graduate while you’re going on year four as a freshmen. They’re the high school yearbooks filled with pages unknown to you. They’re a celebration of the passing of another year, and, that’s exactly the problem.

As each birthday approaches, I try to detach from it. “Just another day,” I declare to myself. Not to mention, I’ve got lots to be excited about: I’ve come a hell of a long way in treatment and I’m pretty darn proud of that. Yet, here I am, eight bittersweet birthdays in and I can’t help but feel a little sad, a little off, come that late March day. I desperately want to hop off the bleachers, tear off that bystander jersey, and start living my life. But, chronic illness works in mysterious ways and for now, I’m making the most of what I have.

Perhaps I don’t have to “fix” my birthdays and come up with the perfect game plan, a road map to my day’s mindset. Maybe they can stay just what they are: a day to reflect on all that I’ve made it through. For every minute I’ve missed, I’ve gained equal back in wisdom, character, and strength. I can’t get my my eight years back, but I can live my days fully, never again to take for granted another idle moment. I’ll strap on that birthday hat, go along with silly traditions, and celebrate. I survived another year and that’s a pretty big deal!

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Photos by Lotus Light Photography

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