Do you get depressed or sad on your birthday? Almost a year ago I wrote a blog entry on birthday depression. This entry has easily had the most hits and comments of all of my posts, suggesting that birthday depression is a huge issue for many and one that is rarely acknowledged.
If you’ve found this blog by googling ‘birthday’ or ‘pre-birthday depression’, please read this earlier entry first. It’s about feelings of depression that can emerge both before a birthday and on the actual day. These feelings can be powerful and debilitating.
Those commenting on the entry were wonderfully honest about their experiences and helped me clarify some of my thoughts about this issue. A year later, I felt compelled to write an update to expand on my ideas about this feeling and describe the emotional landscape on my birthday a year after writing the first entry. Thanks to all the commenters – the brief summing up below has benefited from your shared experiences.
Why do I feel sad on my birthday?
There are many things going on when a birthday comes round:
- The work and stress involved in planning a celebration
- the desire to have a good day
- the need to feel significant and to be acknowledged by loved ones
- grief at dreams that haven’t come true
- childhood memories of happy or unhappy birthdays (not necessarily conscious)
- general dissatisfaction with life
- for those who have children, the desire to model happiness on the day.
As if that's not enough, many of us feel compelled to berate ourselves for feeling bad. After all, this is our special day and we should be enjoying it - shouldn't we?
No wonder, then, that it's hard to get a handle on what birthday depression actually consists of. It can feel mysterious and inaccessible, as if a well of grief were closed up somewhere in the psyche that can't be experienced directly.
Because depression is a catch-all term that can mean different things, I’m reluctant to give advice about it. The positive feedback I’ve had about the last entry was because it didn’t try to help people avoid the depression, but just described the feeling from my perspective. So I’ve decided instead to simply include some suggestions for coping. Please bear in the mind that not all of the following may apply to you – as the 12-steppers say, take what you like and leave the rest.
- Don’t fight birthday and pre-birthday depression. Expect it, treat yourself gently when it comes, and be aware that it does pass.
- Keep bringing yourself back to the present. Be aware of your body in space, your breathing and the things around you. If you feel like crying, do.
- Plan some treats for yourself - buy yourself little presents and give yourself favourite experiences.
- If you’re planning celebrations and you’re feeling very down, try to make them on a scale that you feel comfortable with. You can always see friends separately rather than together, and spread birthday meetings over a few days or a week.
- If you're feeling really anti-social, don't feel you have to spend the day with others. If you do spend time alone, do something you enjoy or treat yourself in some way.
- Know that grieving and sadness have their own timetable, and can’t be rushed.
- If you are feeling significant distress, share it with someone else who you can count on to be understanding, or get help.
- Notice any small ‘gifts’ that come your way from the world. This doesn’t mean being endlessly positive or trying to make yourself feel grateful. But through the sadness it may be possible to see the bits of the birthday that are good, even if these are small or unexpected. (Sometimes the sadness can make these things stand out more.)
I didn’t really get full-on birthday depression this year, which was surprising because I fully expected to. Instead I got angry in the week before my birthday, while on the day before, and the day itself, I could feel a low-level negativity and annoyance, like a bad taste in my mouth that wouldn’t go away.
Depression is a catch-all word for a huge range of emotions and conditions. I’m not sure why I didn’t get significantly depressed, but I’m wondering whether the depression that swamped me last year, and to a lesser extent in previous years, was really a kind of grief. Perhaps I have been grieving for a lost life and now the grieving, while strictly it won’t ever end completely, is at a much lower level.
The anger before my birthday expressed my continuing dissatisfaction with my life today. This tends to wax and wane, but while the energy of anger can be freeing, it did get a bit self-destructive and over-the-top before it simmered down.
I did notice a couple of things about my birthday this year that clearly contributed to the negative feelings. I’ll detail them below, but I suspect that the nature of birthday depression is that it’s very individual, focusing on whatever circumstances are present for the sufferer.
Why I felt down this year – the main suspects
One thing I noticed is how much time it takes to organise a birthday. (And this is someone who doesn’t have to organise a huge party or any large gathering, and has flexible working hours!) I do have to buy my main present (from my parents) and arrange family get-togethers, but this year at least there were virtually no food or cleaning preparations. Yet the birthday still took significant time and energy to plan. I think this is one reason for the negative feelings: my birthday sucks up time and energy when I'd rather be ignoring it altogether.
This in turn brings up feelings of doubt and anxiety about whether I'm deserving of this kind of time and attention, and whether other family members believe that I am.
And this question relates to something else I noticed about this year's birthday – that family members stuck to their usual roles rather than trying to be nice.
Too often in the past I’ve used this blog as a flogging post for unsuspecting family members so I won’t do that here (well, perhaps only a tiny bit). Although I’d deliberately lowered my expectations this year, I still hoped that a couple of ‘recalcitrant’ family members in particular would make a ‘special effort’. Instead, the usual sabotaging non-verbal messages prevailed. And while I wasn’t exactly depressed about this, it fed the sense that I wouldn’t be sad when the birthday was over.
And of course there was the age thing – turning 47. It’s not so much about looking older, although I’ve feared that in the past, and no doubt will again – it’s about the knowledge that although I haven’t lived much of my life, or barely begun to realise my potential, mother nature and the ageing process are not going to make an exception for me.
The ‘end’ is drawing closer, inexorably – the numbers don’t lie. And yet I’m just beginning to understand the nature of the health issues, mental and physical, that are holding me back. Plus, even though my understanding is growing, these factors are still significantly restricting my life. What I’m getting at is that age itself is a ‘health issue’, and I fear that I’ll never sort the other issues out before age takes over everything!
Anyway, my birthday is over for another year and there is a huge sense of relief in returning to ‘normality’, or my version of it, once more. (Plus, I did get some wonderful cards and gifts that will result in a low-level spending spree at an anonymous but obscenely large shopping mall in a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne.) I wish everyone well who is going through this.
Please note: birthday depression is another term for birthday sadness. If you are having suicidal thoughts or think you may have clinical depression, please speak to your doctor or a family member, or ring one of the numbers listed here. Please reach out and seek help if you need to.
Would you like to share your story of birthday depression? Head over to the Birthday Depression website and share your story with others experiencing the same thing.
If you'd like to know more about birthday depression, I've written an ebook about it, also available through the website.
For a short time if you share your story I'll send you a mobi file of the book for free.