Yesterday was my birthday, and it was an awful day. I’m not saying that for pity, it just was. Nothing happened – it wasn’t awful because of any event or negligence. Hubby, Kids and Dad were all very loving and thoughtful and delightful. My life is great in relative terms, and I have plenty of reasons to love my birthday.
And, it was awful.
The Awful came from inside, and not because there was another candle on the (metaphorical) cake. From where I’m sitting, there is only one alternative to aging, so I’m very thankful for every birthday and every year. I have outlived friends, I have outlived children of friends, I have survived my own stupidity. I’m grateful for every year, and I have never felt the need to fluff about my age. The Awful wasn’t about aging.
The Awful came flying at the side of me like that speeding demon of a car that somehow appears out of thin out after you have looked left and right THREE times each before pulling out. And t-bone me, it did.
I want to write all the “right” things right now. I want to encourage someone by listing here the highly effective plan that pulled me out of a nosedive. But I need to be transparent, and – for today – the two are mutually exclusive. I didn’t give in to the Awful, but I did have to ride it out. There was no pulling out of the nosedive, only sticking it out until bedtime gave me a Hall Pass.
I’ve pretty much always – all my adult life, for sure – struggled with my birthday. I don’t tell many people (she says, now telling “the world”), because people pretty much universally have a need to tell you how you should think or feel on the day of your birth. (Actually …. if only it was limited to one day. Wouldn’t that be nice????)
“You should be grateful!” (assuming you’re not).
“What could be wrong? You have an amazing life!” (assuming a lot of good factors somehow negate the possibility of any painful ones)(also assuming that ignoring painful truth will somehow make it disappear ………)
“Awwww, you should enjoy it! It’s YOUR day!” (assuming that the struggle is a choice over enjoyment, because – ya know – people love feeling like excrement instead of feeling happy…..)
Seriously, why do we do that? Is it because we are uncomfortable with the person’s discomfort? In which case, making them feel more uncomfortable should surely turn the ship around then ……. (*headbang*)
I digress. I was saying that it’s pretty much always been a struggle. I’m married to the best person I know, my kids are seriously amazing, I have a strong gratitude practice, I have a strong faith which helps frame things in a bigger picture. My health is …. somewhere in the middle, but closer to “good enough” than “not good,” I have a ton of truly quality people in my life who love well, I even finally found a church I’ll say I love – which I didn’t even know could be a thing ……. so, why the Awful?
Because Shame is no respecter of persons or circumstances.
Shame is highly pervasive, and maddeningly ubiquitous. You will find it in every setting, every socioeconomic class, every educational level, every body type, every family dinner table. Everyone, at some point for some reason, battles Shame to some degree and for some measure of time. For some individuals, it does not linger, and for others, it is the mapmaker of their lives. I have struggled with it on a cellular level. If Shame was an Olympic sport, I’d legit be on that bloody Wheaties box.
I have spent many years trying to outpace Shame on my birthday. I’ve had a fair amount of practice at this point, clocking in at 30 birthdays in my adult life alone. I feel like that makes me an expert. I have tried so many different things – the gratitude list, the plans just for me, doing something with a friend, going to a favorite location, Ben & Jerry, even spending the day doing acts of random kindness or serving the underserved. And, sure, all of these have merit and all are beneficial. Absolutely.
They also do not make the truth less true, nor does it magically disappear as a result of executing them.
See, “wherever you go, there you are.” (Did Kabat-Zinn originate that saying? I don’t know.) You can adorn yourself with the finest threads, change your hair, make yourself up, drive your dream car, lose weight, change jobs – whatever it is you personally think will mark time for when you can really start living your best life. But if your core issues that result in Shame are still unresolved, that Shame will continue to leach out like rust through paint. You can’t (effectively) paint over rust; you have to sand everything down and eliminate the rust, and then apply the new color. Otherwise, the rust will return, and spread, and keep ruining through the top layer.
And which version of Shame specifically shows up on birthdays? My experience, for me and with close friends, is that it hits you in the Who You Are department. Nothing brings up the meaning of your individual life like the day you were born. For me, I’m still working my a$$ off to get out from under a mercilessly heavy (personal) belief system and history that brings ugly words – lies – like “undeserving” into the conscious conversation. It’s subtle at first, like just feeling uncomfortable when someone sends an eCard that describes their version of you. For me, it escalated at the speed of light into trying to look forward regarding goals and plans and seeing nothing. There was a biscuit-can-like explosion of exaggerated failures and limitations (real or perceived), which led to a truly crippling despair. It was like someone put a stick in my emotional bike spokes, and I ended up face-planting and with a massive road rash. I couldn’t see.
Did you tell anyone? No. (Well, not directly and not anyone close to me.)
Why? Because I know better than to despair like that (which sounds more harsh and judgmental than I mean), and people tend to like to remind you that you know better – and the shame I already had about how I felt and my inability to get out in front of it was more than enough. I couldn’t bear anyone adding to it. So I suffered in (relative) silence.
To be honest, in hindsight I don’t know that telling would have helped. I really don’t. I think I had to just ride it out. I’m not saying or advising that telling when you’re struggling doesn’t help – I would never say that, because more often than not it’s the very thing that shifts the tides. What I’m saying is that I think I, personally, needed to observe what all came flying up yesterday – and what the triggers were. All of those things can be very valuable information for moving forward when we’re willing to be honest, and just BE. I didn’t need to Should myself to death yesterday, and I certainly didn’t need it from anyone else. I think some of what happened yesterday was delayed grief over some hard truth, and that needed to happen. I think some of it was old defaults, and hurtful history, and I’m working on those. And I think some of it was facing questions I have not sat with long enough to answer (or, answers I have found before and continued to run away from). I believe in God, and I believe that my life has meaning – first and foremost because God gave me one. And even so, I couldn’t get my footing yesterday. And I wanted to have some bright a-ha moment to share about it and change your life today, but I think the exercise for me (and possibly the gift for you) is coming clean about having a crappy birthday despite most things in my life setting me up for a good one.
Life is very seldom Either/Or. Most often, it’s Both/And. We are way too dichotomous as a society. I am both thankful for and aware of the aspects of my life that are good and fortunate and privileged, AND I had a really hard day yesterday. I both believe my life counts and that I have worth, AND I struggled quite brutally yesterday with not being able to see a lick of it. I both believe I am here for such a time as this, and that there are things for me to accomplish – people to impact, change to affect, things to do – AND I could not hold on to any of that for any amount of time yesterday. It just wasn’t there. I could not get my footing yesterday, not at all.
This post goes out to those of you who go through life, and/or special events, “Shoulding” yourself to death. This is for you who have some harsh judgments about what your days (or lives, or recovery) should look or feel like, and a fundamental inability to let that go. Feelings aren’t right or wrong – they’re more like indicator lights on a vehicle dashboard; they don’t mean you total the car, but nor should they be dismissed as nothing.
I have a (largely) great life, I’m grateful for my life and my immediate family and relative health. I believe, fundamentally, that my life has value. I believe in God and I believe God is good. And, I struggle with shame that sometimes hijacks perfectly good days or special occasions. Both/And. I know shame is a cruel liar, AND I still get derailed by it sometimes. I won’t always, but I do now. It’s okay to be honest if that’s you, too.
Be real. Face the truth. Tell the truth. Ride the wave. You don’t have to live within the emotional confines of Either/Or. There’s room for Both/And. There’s room for honesty, and questions, and struggles, and mess. There is room for all you are.