It's an old, somewhat sexist, adage that women fear ageing. Indeed, every time I do state that a birthday is creeping up on me again, that seems to be the assumption many make - I don't want to get older. Certainly, we're fed this shit socially on a daily basis with every eye cream ad, every poster for cosmetic enhancement, every article on how we're all killing ourselves by not breathing purified oxygen on a daily basis. Truth is, I revel in getting older. With each passing year I have felt more freedom and liberation and indeed, you couldn't pay me to go back to my teens or twenties with all their pressure, judgement and uncertainty.
What's more, having now passed the halfway mark of my expected lifespan, I already know too many people who have not even made it this far. I've been to funerals for people younger than I am now who have lost their lives in a myriad of ways. I therefore have a keener sense of mortality than I did 10-15 years ago and how fleeting it can be. There are no guarantees here and I am more fortunate than many others to have made it this far even if my body doesn't work as well as it did when I was younger and is only going to continue to deteriorate over the years.
So if it's not the boring old trope of fear of ageing, what is it? Unfortunately, there are a series of events associated with this time of year that tend to lead to a heightened anxiety. It's not like I haven't tried desperately to subvert these associations over the years. Hell, last year I even booked a plane ticket overseas for the day after my birthday so that regardless of how the day itself panned out, I could reflect upon an awesome trip for a long time to come. Yet while that assisted last year, as the anniversary of my birthday has edged closer this year I've found that again, I'm having to be incredibly careful of my state of mind. The lead-in has not been good, particularly with regards to my physical condition, and therefore any subversion I achieved last year feels irrelevant.
There are so many things over the years that have happened that I negatively associate with my birthday. Of course, there are the childhood (and early adulthood) traumas of organising something with people promising they'd come along only to have almost no one show up. I think most though have probably experienced that at one point or another. Then there have been family politics. April is a really busy month in the extended family for birthdays and mine is the second last in this line. By the time it rolled around, the energy and enthusiasm for it after all these earlier events was barely a flicker.
Beyond that, I remember one year when I made myself unavailable for an overseas work trip for a special family birthday only to have that same person turn around and say that I needed to "get the fuck over it" that they couldn't be bothered meeting me for a couple of drinks for my own birthday later on that year. I remember an argument which occurred one year across the table which had nothing to do with me but as the personal gripes of others played out, this event provided an opportunity for them to go public. I remember going to a birthday event in this long April line only to hear a racial slur from a fellow party guest go by unchallenged by all present and because of this, I left soon after.
That's all smaller stuff though. My 30th and 31st in particular remain hard to shake. On my 30th, I had spent the entire evening prior in tears because my then abusive partner had decided to go at me. It wasn't the first time he had done this around my birthday, but it was by far the worst. It was like he couldn't bear there being a date which revolved around me and happened on my terms and would therefore set about ensuring that it was sabotaged. Despite the fact that I was mentally distressed and hadn't slept, I remember painting a smile on my face and going along to the events planned for the day: dinner with some family members followed by live music at one of my favourite haunts. Said partner didn't come along to most of it. My mum knew something was off with me but didn't push it. Only a few people turned up for the bands which was disappointing but I pushed on. By the time I got home, I pretty much just collapsed in a heap.
By my 31st, I had started a new independent life but the echoes of what I had recently left remained. Mere days before it, I had been in hospital for surgery because after several months of assessment, doctors had concluded that my body wasn't following the usual natural course of action which occurs for most following a non-viable ectopic pregnancy and they decided to finally remove the afflicted Fallopian tube. So on my 31st, I was on a lot of painkillers, was mentally processing an end to many months of medical assessment, was facing my first birthday unafflicted by the manoeuvres of that ex in years and was eating Yum Cha. The food was great, the company was warm yet the entire day felt like a delicate balancing act which I was destined to lose at any moment.
No, it hasn't always been a bad day. There has been some wonderful things happen and some great nights had. But there has also been an ongoing pattern of pushing through while having no energy or emotional reserves. Of being made to feel irrelevant or worthless within this date, or beyond it, despite it supposedly being a celebration of of life. It's been noted by others that I do start counting down my birthday each year quite early. While this has been laughed at by some who assume it's just me serving reminders, a large part of it actually relates to my own mental preparation around that date. What am I in for this year? What exactly is going to go down? Will I again be required to paint smiles on while the agendas of others play out? Will I again feel worthless on the day?
I've made a real effort to try and turn this around the past few years. It has mostly worked, with a few exceptions. Wonderful friends have additionally tried to help me get past all this by doing what they can to encourage and support. I haven't, unfortunately, completely gotten through these birthdays without something happening though in the main, they've been improvements on past events. I'm beginning to wonder if I ever will successfully break these associations. Perhaps as I continue to get older, it will continue to be a day of reflection. The real positive here is that I've passed another milestone and I'm still here with more achievements under the belt than I had this time last year. Perhaps the celebration of life, in my case, needs to be decentralised because if I am honest about it, 38 has been a year of challenges and triumphs and reflecting on those is probably more important.
That being said, I am glad I am celebrating my 39th. I'm even gladder that the organising of it was taken out of my hands so I didn't get caught dwelling on all of the exponentials of what could go wrong. Thank you to those wonderful union sisters who did that for me. Here's to another year ticking over and to life in general.