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To the People Who Have a Difficult Time on Their Birthdays

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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.

Originally published: June 30, 2016
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