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When Birthdays With Chronic Illness Don't Feel So 'Happy'

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The past few birthdays of mine have been remembered as: recovering from a month-long battle with mono and wisdom teeth removal surgery, and getting my driver’s license (16th); feeling fatigued, beginning to get sicker, and feeling lost in my own world (17th); and lastly, two weeks post-Lyme-diagnosis, spent a day and a half in the hospital just a few days prior, and doing my best to prepare for a trip to the Pacific Northwest (18th).

Getting my driver’s license was cool, I think. I honestly don’t remember anything from my 17th birthday. And Washington/Oregon was a blast, but all of  the stuff before and after the trip, not so much. I didn’t know that I was sick until a year ago, and I didn’t exactly know how sick I was a few months prior to diagnosis. So, my 16th birthday was merely a different illness, another surgery, and another major-life event. The rest, I blame on Lyme.

I’ve learned that things don’t always go my way, and that’s life. I’m simply reflecting on the fact that I don’t feel like the past three years have happened. I look back and realize how numb I was to sensation, to emotion, and to time. I now see that I wasn’t just numb for the last year, but for a few years before that. I can remember events and happenings, but I have no emotion for them. I know I was supposed to be excited about graduating high school, I was supposed to be ecstatic that I got my driver’s license, I was supposed to be overjoyed to go to my most favorite place (Seattle), but I don’t know exactly how I felt.

People say that birthdays and other events of-the-like go by in a flash, and that I didn’t miss out on anything. But, here’s the thing, I did. I missed out on the positive emotion that comes with the celebrations. I missed out on the memories and feelings that were made each year. The whole “being one year older doesn’t really feel different” is a lie. Why? Because when you’ve been numb to reality as long as I was, you do feel different. I feel like I’m skipping from 16 to 19, and all the stuff that happened in between just was, nothing more to it than, it was. All that to say, and I think that I actually value life more now. Simply because it’s quite obvious as to how oblivious I was. I have always been one to try to live in the moment, to take it all in, because we only get this one life, and God’s unconditional love motivates me to do more. I was never one to neglect a celebration, to dismiss an event, or to wipe away memories. I’ve never not valued life, simply because I want to see God’s greatest intentions.

Becoming a year older with a chronic illness is like celebrating yourself, when you’re not actually inside yourself. You feel like you’re watching it all happen from the outside. People say, “Happy birthday!” and all you can do is smile and say, “Thanks.” People give you gifts, but you don’t know what to do with them because, well, are they real? You get texts with birthday emojis spread all over the screen and you have to do a double take because you forget it’s your birthday, you forget you’re not 17 anymore, you’re an adult. You feel like you’re replying to all of the best-wishes for someone else.

Realizing it’s your birthday when you’re dealing with pain, nausea and emotional instability can be scary. You just want to hide, you don’t realize how numb you are to the reality of becoming a year older. You’d rather stay the same age until you can fully appreciate what each age has to offer. You don’t know how to express your desire to avoid all of the shenanigans that come with having a birthday, every year.

When the next birthday comes around, you forget how to react to the birthday wishes, simply because you’ve been numb to the emotions that are supposed to be felt, more than once. Putting a smile on your face is really easy, but trying to show appreciation for birthday messages is a whole other struggle. Little does everyone know that you do appreciate their kind words, but you also have no desire to celebrate and recognize that you’ve made it X-number of years on earth, especially when you feel like you want to sleep forever.

You remember what birthdays felt like as a little kid, but are you supposed to react with childish thank you’s and giddy excitement? Or are you supposed to be composed and mature? What do you say to someone who wishes you a happy birthday, and you don’t really feel like it’s a, well, happy birthday?

Meanwhile, all at the same time, you want so badly to be able to appreciate the joys of each year, experience the celebration of another year older, and feel the happiness that birthdays naturally bring.

So, here I sit, on my birthday, slightly confused. I don’t exactly know what to do, 1. because I’m in Georgia and don’t know anyone and 2. because I kind of forget what it feels like to have a birthday.

I can tell you, that right now, I am so grateful for my mental clarity, I am so thankful that I’m not numb to emotion or time anymore. It’s a little overwhelming, but I’d so much rather be feeling overwhelmed and slightly confused, than completely dazed. I’ve made it around the sun one more year, and I’m happy to say that I’m glad about it. It’s weird to realize, in full, that I’m not 18, or 16 for that matter, anymore.

I’m determined to take the time to recognize another year on this magnificent plant. I plan on making each year worth it, whatever that might mean. My life is going to make a difference in the lives of others. As I get older I will know more, I will gain wisdom and insight. I am going to take what I believe God gives me each year, and run with it. I’m going to make birthdays positive and enlightening. I’m going to challenge myself each year, I’m going to set goals for each new age. I’m going to grow with every birthday.

I’m not going to allow myself to think of my birthday, or anyone else’s for that matter, as a mundane, annual event. Each year will be celebrated with joy and gratitude. Each year will be dedicated to appreciation and thanksgiving, to God and everyone else who makes a difference in my life. Life is precious and time definitely doesn’t slow down. My determination to make my life worth something is unwavering. We’ve survived this long, why not strive for more?

Every birthday is a chance to make a difference; it’s a chance to change something in this world; it’s a chance to grow and become stronger; it’s a chance to become wiser and more loving; it’s a chance to dedicate your year to do what makes your heart happy.

Chronic Lyme Disease has got nothing on my birthday anymore. I may be in pain, and I may be sick, but my mind is clear, and I’m ready to celebrate!

Follow this journey on Live Younique.

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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