It’s my birthday today. I’m 34 years old today. Birthdays are hard for me; I’m not sure why. Holidays generally are difficult, but birthdays especially. On any holiday there is an expectation that it should be better than a regular day–feel better. But that isn’t how it always plays out. Holidays often just feel like regular days with a meaningless bow on top. The childhood joy has disappeared. The holidays haven’t changed, but I have. I can’t feel what I used to feel. Maybe this happens to all of us. I don’t know; I never really talk about it to anyone because I don’t want to put a damper on someone else’s holiday. Christmas is better now that my daughter is into it; her joy is palpable, so I feel like I can share in it. And her birthday is fun, too; I like to throw her fun parties, and I enjoy that. But my birthday? My depression tells me it’s a waste of a day; I don’t matter enough to be celebrated. Every year since I turned 19 I have momentarily thought this. The supporting evidence for this thought seems to be my inability to experience joy at my parties, presents, and well wishes. Again, my depression tells me that I know my own worthlessness better than my friends and family who celebrate my birthday. If they knew, they wouldn’t be celebrating. I feel like on my birthday I should evaluate myself and my failings as a human being, and I never come out ahead. I can always find innumerable things wrong with me, but, even if it’s only while I write this, today will be different.
Hanging in my living room, I have a great collage that I made about 10 years ago for a college class. Of all of the art of any medium that I’ve made, this is absolutely my favorite. I spent weeks on it, and was immediately pleased, as was my professor. It’s a piece about me with literary and artistic influences primarily from British Modernism. It’s about the importance and yet difficulty of connecting with others in both modern and post-modern times. The collage is primarily text that I wrote–diaries and poems–with literary quotes and images mixed in. 10 years ago I deeply felt a longing to connect with others but it also seemed nearly impossible. I had accepted depression as part of my life, but I still kept it hidden. This collage was the first time I made a public statement regarding my depression even if it was done indirectly. I would never at any time in the past or now say aloud some of the things I put on the collage. It’s crazy, romantic ramblings of a girl swimming through a sea of depression. I still haven’t read them aloud to anyone, but they’re there in my living room for anyone to read if you study it closely enough.
I love the collage because it really is a piece of who I was 10 years ago, a piece I crafted into something I think is beautiful. But it isn’t only beautiful because of the moment it captures. I continue to love it because it reminds me of how much I have grown. I no longer feel like the girl who wrote the text of the collage, but I love her dearly for being brave and trying to create something beautiful out of her suffering. Now, though, I feel much freer than I did then, and, if not the beginning, making and presenting the collage was an early step in loosening the chains of stigma. At 34 I am almost completely open about my mental illness. I don’t talk a lot about my dark thoughts, but I refuse to hide the fact that I experience them. 10 years ago I was afraid of rejection, now I am encouraged by acceptance. My brain tells me the same lies, but I am so much better at not listening. I still experience feelings of isolation, but I know I am not alone. I am a much stronger woman than the girl who made this collage.
So, on my 34th birthday, I once again choose love. Love for the girl I was, love for my ability to make something beautiful, love for my growth, love for my journey. I survived one more orbit around the sun, and I didn’t give up. Maybe, for once, I’ll bask in the spotlight of my birthday rather than counting my flaws. And if I doubt my worth, I can just look at my collage and remember how far I’ve come and how much stronger my voice is now. And when I look at it that way, 34 feels pretty good.