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Why My Favorite Birthday Memories Include My Chronic Pain

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I was home on my 19th birthday, miserable and unwell, when there was a cautious knock on my door. I opened it to stare into the faces of my schoolmates before spotting the mastermind  – my good friend Eunice. I let them into my messy apartment in my crumpled pajamas, and we sang happy birthday to the girl who wanted to throw up on her cake.

The presents were fabulous because they were so thoughtful. I’m sure many teenagers dream of being in a band, and I was no exception. They delivered a rare, left-handed bass guitar right to my doorstep, complete with amp and wires. To top it off, they threw in an acoustic guitar, because choices are good, right? So now I had two guitars, when one was more than enough for my tiny hands.

Eunice also planned two other surprise birthday parties for me with more fabulous gifts. I owe my memories of turning 21 on the beach to her. She had managed to gather my good friends from all walks of life, and the beautiful Calvin & Hobbes collection they gave me is still treasured to this day. (If you like, I can give you her number for a small fee.)

Then there was the time I planned my own 27th birthday party. You know, a few easy drinks after work at a relaxed Spanish bar. Isn’t that what “normal” people do all the time? What could go wrong? Apparently, everything. I realized that for me, strong painkillers are just expensive Tic Tacs. The full-blown chronic pain experience was going to induct me as a permanent member that night.

So I went to work with a flare, and by 7:00 p.m. I felt bushed. But it was my birthday, damn it! I wasn’t going to let a little pain dictate my life! I have pictures from that day of me with a big smile looking happy. Pictures speak a thousand words, my ass. The night went downhill at top speed, as it tends to do come nightfall. I went to sit near the bathroom, pretending I was waiting for my turn. After another torturous hour, I knew I had to leave my own party or risk breaking down in front of everyone. By then it felt like there were thick nails pounding through my muscles deep into my bones, throbbing in dull monotony. I rubbed my flesh until it turned a raw red.

This incident is where my phobia of being stuck in town late on Friday nights comes from. There I was, hunched over the sidewalk in agony, while my friends, Shree and Sacha, attempted to hail a cab. After another long hour and a nasty run in with a careless driver, cost no longer meant a thing and I booked a black Uber cab. (It was still new back then, so that was all they had.) Homewards we rolled, looking all fancy. People staring from the outside had no clue how much pain I was in.

Being at home provided no relief, except for the freedom to sprawl on my bed in unglamorous positions, bawling like a baby. My mother and sister fetched endless tubs of ice-filled water and massaged my sore arms. I remember sobbing and begging, “Mommy, help me. Help me, please!” But there was nothing she could do, and I could hear the heartbreak in her voice. I can’t remember, but I believe we went to the hospital that night. My most memorable birthday, for sure.

Come to think of it, the birthdays I remember in technicolor detail are those where I was in significant amounts of pain. Where time slows to a crawl, and you soak every second up like a sponge. Where my friends showed me what true friendship is about. Where false countenances are all put aside, and people are kind and sincere. Now that the pain has faded into a pale imprint in my mind, those are my favorite birthday stories.

This post originally appeared on Medium as part of a #100WritingDays project. 

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Thinkstock photo via shironosov.

Originally published: March 17, 2017
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