Monday, May 24, 2010

Dealing with Birthday Depression and Birthday Sadness: An Update


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.
But there is often a huge gulf between the expectations of feeling good and the circumstances of the birthday itself. You may also find yourself dealing with underlying feelings of grief and  low self-esteem.

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.

Some suggestions

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.)
My experiences of birthday depression a year later

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. 

46 comments:

  1. Hello Catherine,

    an unknown person left a message on my blog this morning which lifted my spirits. It has encouraged me to comment here. I hope that your low spirits have lifted and that you are coping satisfactorily with the chills and dreary weather of winter. I enjoy reading your thought-provoking blogs. Please keep them up.

    Kind regards,
    Gaye

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  3. Hi Gaye,

    Thanks for your kind words. I've missed writing my blog lately. It's been a busy time with a few things happening that I'm looking forward to writing about, but I don't have a 'blog voice' for them yet. It's annoying, because I want the blog to be an outlet - but I can see a rush of entries sometime soon!

    Cheers
    Catherine

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  4. Hello, I am glad that I am not so alone on my birthday today. Today is my birthday! and I am sad. Do not understand why this day is so emotional as I am getting older. At 51, and the youngest of 9 siblings, no one even call. I have no husband nor kids, and I felt my life was useless. There is no meaning.

    Today, I can only pray for my mother and father, I lit a candle and said a prayer for them- and ask them to watch over me. I am quiet today, took the phone off the hook, because leaving it on - will be more sad to know - no one call me nor send me a card - they used to but stop.

    It is a sad day,but I hope to get thru it. It is only 8:11 Am.

    God bless.
    Meela.

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  5. Thanks Catherine- reading your stories made me feel that I am not alone.

    Thanks.
    meela

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  6. Hi Meela,

    thanks for writing. I'm sorry you're having a hard time. From my experience feeling lonely on your birthday is harder than on other days - it seems to be a time of taking stock, whether we like it or not.

    Like you, the power of the emotions I sometimes feel on my birthday is unexpected sometimes. It can be hard to understand why the feelings are so strong.

    Hope you can connect with your family on another day, and that you got through it okay.

    All the best

    Catherine

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  7. Your writing is extremely compelling and I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this post. Although very late...sending you love for your birthday. Hope this isn't weird since I am a complete random stranger. It's just that I felt like crying on my birthday early dinner today. Felt detatched from my body as the 'celebration' went on....felt like bursting into tears and totally insignificant....didn't feel special in anyway and everyone treated it just like any other dinner which hurt. the younger members of the family even showed boredom and indicated they couldn't wait to leave. I just felt heart broken because I guess my expectation were too high. I would do anything for them...but it feels like I mean nothing to them. I felt like if I disappeared no one would notice. I especially felt the absence of my dad and my cousin who have passed away. I just wanted them to show they really cared and with those high expectations I was disappointed. being unemployed and turning a milestone age of 40 made it worse.

    about to turn 4o year old woman

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  8. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for commenting. Sorry to hear about your experience. It's heartbreaking when rellies turn up to a celebration but treat us badly - I've sometimes thought in the past it might be better if they didn't turn up at all!

    When the family act in this way, for me it brings up feelings of unworthiness that stem from past experiences within the family - it's a bit of a double whammy, having to cope with the behaviour on the day, as well as the deeper feelings that are revived by that behaviour.

    Sincerely hope you are able to get some perspective on the experience and make whatever decisions are right for you re dealing with the family at this time!

    Cheers
    Catherine

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  9. My birthday is 5 days from now, and I really feel like crying for minimum reasons. As I am at work, I can´t really break myself into tears. On the other hand, the simple fact of writting this down is helping me. When I give it a little thinking I guess the main reason why I always get upset in my birhtday is because of girl friends. At least in Brazil, man have a very strong comitment to other male friends, and women don´t. You expect them to go and some just don´t show up, others give a bad excuse and other go but don´t really give you the attention you are expecting. Well, I think my pre birthday depression would get much better if I found new and better girlfriends...

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  10. Dysthmia is the clinical word to describe the feeling.
    Depression is a more lasting,more deeper state of suffering and not as easy to get out of...
    We need to embrace life and the connectivity to people and things we love.
    These things are truly Devine gifts to experience and share.

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  11. I'm turning 32 next week, and like every year, I'm depressed. Growing up, birthdays were usually small events with just the family, so I never really expected parties or big celebrations.

    On my 18th birthday I had a huge fight with my best friend which ended our friendship. Since then, I've had this feeling of dread that something bad will happen as the day approaches each year. I too, think about what I thought I would be like by now and am not...what I thought I would have accomplished and haven't. The past 3 years I've refused to do anything to celebrate because I thought I might cry through it. This year I was going to do something but I waited too long to make plans and now my friends are all busy. My Dad passed away a few months ago and going to see my mom is depressing, so I will be alone. I can't wait for next week to be over.

    Thank you for posting this. It's really helpful to know I'm not the only one who cries on their birthday...and feels guilty about it...

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  12. Hi Anonymous,

    thanks for your post - it sounds like many things have combined to make your birthday a challenging time. Hope you get through it okay in a way that's right for you.

    Cheers
    Catherine

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  13. Interesting to see that so many people suffer from the birthday blues...I'm sorry for it really, but at least I have some company!

    Birthdays remind me of my birth mother who gave me away like an unwanted, stray dog, my birth father who was clueless, my adoptive father who was stone cold, my adoptive mother who couldn't accept me for the person I am. My "terrific" friends and relatives who can't be bothered to send even a Facebook "hello and happy birthday" even though I remember their birthdays. My "friend" at who's house I got up early today to go to and spent 5 hours working on her floor ON MY BIRTHDAY. It reminds me of old boyfriends to whom the acknowledgement of birthdays was an unimportant social affectation in which they didn't take part. Other people's birthdays, that is.

    Think I need to get some different friends.

    Well, the one good thing is that the day's almost over. Thanks for providing a place for me to vent.

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  14. It's my birthday today.. I am the eldest of 4 and none of my siblings acknowledge my birthday. Which I always make a big deal about there's. I hate the getting older thing mostly from the age I was 18 I wanted to be older and looked it so told everyone I was 26 this lasted for 10years until I was 30.. I haven't been happy about it since. I think I'm most annoyed I never ever get a present that I actually like which is frustrating as I don't think I am hard to buy for... Anyway sorry to hear so many people do it tough on b day... Happy b day anyway. ... For me I'm going to just work and ignore all calls ..I'm a b day Scrooge lol

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  15. hi.. i never knew many suffers from depression on their birthday. Glad to know i'm not alone. My birthday is tomorrow and life's a little shitty right now. i wish things were different and simple.

    hope i could make it through tomorrow without crying.

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  16. Thanks for checking in - hope it goes okay.

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  18. I too have goggled "birthday depsression" as today is my birthday. I have been grumpy the last few days and crying today. I feel so low, so useless and feel unworthy of any attention. Although I don't wish this on anyone, I'm glad I'm not alone. I turned 43 today. My daughter was 13 a week ago. Naturally a made a big fuss about her special day with several parties and family gatherings, cakes, sleepover, presents etc. Today I tried to stop my FACEBOOK announcing my birthday, but I couldn't. I hate it when all my online "friends" who I never have any contact with are suddenly wishing me a happy birthday on facebook- I'm sure they feel obliged to do it. My daughter forgot it was my birthday, but later remembered and sang happy birthday. I deliberately didn't answer the phone when I knew it was family calling. "Happy birthday, catch up soon"- meaning, we are just saying happy birthday cos we have to but have no intention to actually do anything for you. I feel so useless and alone, Like I don't deserve a fuss, yet I also feel upset that no-one makes a fuss. My parents did get me a cool present- and even though I loved it- I feel like I didn't deserve it. I lost the plot tonight and growled up my 13 year old for being a selfish kid for not even making me a card or buying me a $2 present. I now feel terrible that I had said the horrible things I did. She's only 13! It's so weird, I want a big birthday fuss- but don't feel deserving of it. It's like I can't be pleased either way. I feel like a failure, I feel pain and loss - particually today wheb I realise I'm getting older and still single, still struglling, still broke, still don't have the friends I want- yet I'm sure outwardly people look up to me and think I'm great- which makes me more depressed- cos if only they could see how pathetic I really am! But, I will keep reading and looking for help on here. Just good to know I'm not toally nutty and crazy and that others are going through this to.
    Happy Birthday and BIG hugs to all who come across this. I hope it helps knowing that we all feel the same.

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    1. I understand and I feel for you. I also want to be simultaneously celebrated and ignored. Lowering my expectations for the day doesn't seem to help either. Underlying theme of disappointment. Stay strong.

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  19. Thanks for writing. Birthdays are a pain - lucky they're only once a year :-)

    One suggestion - take things into your own hands - treat yourself, plan something that you love, show yourself that you deserve a great birthday! Just an idea.

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  20. hi. its my birthday today. i feel so depressed. I should never expect. never ever.

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  21. Thanks for commenting. Hope the depression passes soon - please speak to someone if it doesn't.

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  22. Thanks for writing this. I have always hated my birthday. My dad always worked, or was away at a medical convention, and my brothers and sisters were "always busy". I have spent the majority of most of my birthdays alone. Last year my dad had a massive cardiac arrest- on- my 50th birthday. He was placed on life support and lasted 10 months after. We cared for him at home. I always had birthday depression before this, and this year, its even harder. I decided to celebrate my birthday on a different day. I'm just one of those people who always had something crappy happen on theier birthday. Heck, on the day I was born, my mom was in a car accident- I guess that set the precedent... Anyway, I'm the one who makes time for everyone, but it's never reciprocated. This year I'm making my own plans and if no one shows up, oh well. At any rate, I'm glad that birthday depression is normal. I have no children no husband. So, all I can do is make it special for me and do whatever I want. For a change!

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  23. Thanks for sharing this. Hope you get to do exactly what you want on the day - it's your birthday after all, so you should at least get to do it your way!

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  24. I didn't really think that this was that common, but it seems a lot of people get depressed on their birthday. Today I'm 52 and I'm definitely feeling blue. It seems as long as I can remember I've always tried to downplay this occasion, the question I can't get is why. I really don't mind getting older, I don't mind attention, I'm fond of receiving gifts, but for some reason always get bummed on my birthday. This year it's a lot worse for a couple of reasons, 1. my Dad passed a couple of months ago which really sucks and 1. my marriage isn't doing so well right now. I am usually the one who's 'strong' for everyone else so maybe my birthday just spawns my own person pity party...that's about the only reason I can think of.

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  25. Thanks for commenting - hope you feel better soon.

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  26. Hi - I, too, found this by Googling birthday depression. I have always had birthday blues as an adult. When I was a kid, my mom went all out. She would always throw a party with our friends, make a cake, there'd be presents and lots of hoopla about "your birthday!"

    When I started dating my now-husband, my birthday depression went into higher gear. One, I was getting older (my 30th birthday was really hard) and two, he's weird when it comes to presents/birthdays. He is a great guy in a lot of ways and I really love him. But he can also be self-centered and aloof ... he often doesn't want to come out of his own little world to plan things/do things for others. He will sometimes try hard but miss the mark and he will sometimes put off even thinking about the occasion until the day (not just with me, but with things like Mother's Day for his mom) and will just send an e-card at the last minute, out of obligation it seems.

    I turned 40 a few days ago, and it sucked. On the morning of my B-day, he sent me a lame free e-card with a note saying I could have an afternoon at a spa on him (meaning he would pay out of his own money, which we each have a little bit of each month). I would have been happy had be bought or sent me an actual gift certificate to a good spa, but one of my biggest pet peeves is "promised presents" that it then falls on the gift receiver to follow through on (because I doubt my hubby would). I have seen him do this with his relatives - wait until the last minute, panic, grab a card and jot a note of a promise of a present that he never follows through on.

    I read something online where someone had said her birthday depression was tied up in realizing how few truly close people she has in her life and how little those people truly "get" her, demonstrated by getting a gift or doing something that really hits the mark.

    To make matters worse, my 40th went downhill after the "present" with him apologizing and asking how he could "make it up to me" but not making any other gesture the whole day. I had planned a day trip to the beach and, on the way, we did an errand, which involved him buying something really expensive he wanted for himself (logistically, it just made sense for us to do that errand on my b-day even though he felt weird about it). I was sad all day and we ended up getting into a fight about his expensive purchase. He never did do any gesture like buying flowers or getting a dessert for me or anything the rest of the day.

    We did have a nice dinner by the beach, but then he got drunk and revealed something he had done (and lied to me about) that could have jeopardized his job. It made me so upset I almost wanted to split, which we have been talking about on and off for a few years, but we are in therapy and both want to stay together.

    It was the most horrible birthday I've ever had. I'm hoping something good will come of it as he is planning to get sober when he returns from his trip. I am still having trouble dealing with how crappy this birthday was. I feel like my life is in a shambles. I don't want much - just my husband's love and for him to understand my birthday depression, do a few low-key, thoughtful things that show he cares, cherishes me and "gets" me.

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  27. Hi Bluey,

    Thanks for commenting. Sorry to hear that your birthday sucked! So often the birthday can be a flashpoint for whatever else isn't working in our lives. Hope you can work these issues out with your husband.

    All the best

    Catherine

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  28. Its my birthday today and I have been sad since last night. And for people who live in africa, people don't really understand depressions. Decided to google to see if anyone else gets depressed on their birthdays. And I found this thread. Its been helpful. Atleast I realised am not alone.

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  29. Hi there,

    So glad you found the thread helpful - you are certainly not alone when it comes to birthday depression - hope it passes soon :)

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  30. My husband suffers deeply from birthday depression.....I have read all these blogs and I am shocked at how many people suffer from this! I believe in God and I know he can take away all these bad feelings, if we all will surrender them to him.....He has changed my life and I know He can change yours too! I pray for my husband and I want to send a prayer of love, hope, restoration, renewal, and revivement for each of your lives. I have faith that He can fill your hearts with true joy and will place the right people across your paths to help make a difference in your lives. Choose your hearts' desire, and then work to fulfill it. Do not give up!

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  31. I came to this site having typed birthday depression into google and honestly, I don't feel like any of the above apply to me. Every year, party, no party, celebrated, not celebrated, the entire day, I just feel sad and I honestly can't identify a cause. I'm sorry for the commenters whose lives aren't going as they hoped or aren't getting the attention they need. I just wonder how alone I am in just feeling sad for no apparent reason on this one day in particular.

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  32. Thanks for commenting. It's good to get different perspectives. Hopefully others can add comments about this.

    Perhaps I should also add something to the original blog entry as I've thought more about birthday depression since setting up the website. I think there is a 'garden variety' form of birthday depression that some people experience. Perhaps it's connected to all the mixed emotions of past birthdays as well as the fact that birthdays are very important in our society, but they don't always give us the chance to acknowledge changes taking place in our lives. There's a book that I found very helpful on this subject, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes by William Bridges.

    I'm not sure if this applies to you - everyone's different - or that you need to do anything about this. Just acknowledging how you feel (as you're already doing) and giving yourself some space in the birthday to feel it is more than many people manage.

    All the best.

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  33. Tomorrow is my 33 bday and here I am, just sad and crying. And I just don't know why. My life isn't perfect but I don't think I am sad for any particular reason. It's something that just happens.
    I remember when I was a girl I was always excited for my bday, party or no party I was just happy. But as an adult I get the blues just before my birthday.
    The only thing that made me smile today is to know that I am not alone.
    Thanks for sharing your stories. I will cry a little bit more and will go to bed hoping to wake up tomorrow in a better mood to deal with my emotions.
    Happy birthday to me!.......not! :)

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  34. Thanks for sharing this, Anonymous. Hope the sadness passes soon - but you're right, you're certainly not alone : )

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  35. Tomorrow is my birthday, but I feel people are just disrespecting me. This morning I was tired of it, but instead of a conclusion my mom yelled at me instead. I don't know what say about, but that's the story :(

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  36. My birthday is on the 23rd of May and I will be turning 61 and for as long as I can remember when May rolls around I get into such a great depression that I'm not afraid to say that I get very emotional up to and including the day and I can't wait for 12:01 on May 24th because my birthday is over actually if I could I would go to bed on the 22nd and not wake up until the day after my birthday I think that might be a good choice thanks for listening

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  37. Today's my 18th birthday and I just woke up wanting things to be great but soon realized I have no friends and my family were too busy to hang out with me..I have "happy birthday!!!" comments on Facebook but it just doesn't help..I made my own cake my own birthday dinner and now I just want the day to end..

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  38. Thanks to the last two commenters - and sorry that you're feeling bad. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel sad is a help - hope the feelings pass. If not, please reach out and get help.

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  39. Birthday depression and just want to be alone. Get screamed at and told I'm rude. Unfortunately, it's forced on me. I guess everyone thinks it's their day.

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    1. Am sorry bout that ... happened to me too today .. they were planning a party and I refused it ! So everyone is angry at me ! Weird ,, this is my bday not theirs .. constant crying tho

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  40. If you are feeling sad on your birthday and are alone, go find a homeless shelter and serve breakfast or lunch.. When one of the hungry, down and out pass by and say thank you take a moment and thank yourself.. Just by being you.. By being born, by being there helping someone else you have validated that you are special.. You are important.. While I to have always been sad on my "special" day, I have found that I enjoy giving of myself more on that day...

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  41. I am usually quieter on my birthday but when it's someone near to me or my child , I am crying all the time, while I make the cake while I blow up balloons.....I just don't get it

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  42. Wow! I thought I was the only one who experiences this most every birthday since childhood! Yesterday was my birthday and I cried , yelled at God. I screamed and asked for answers! I'm sick of this stupid sadness on my birthday. Growing up birthdays were never a big deal. I was lucky when I got birthday cake. One year I was given a used bike. My family was working class poor. This is a great day now that my birthday is over!

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  43. Hello, tomorrow is my birthday and I was keen to read something decent about birthday sadness. I couldn't find anything in my language (I write from Brazil) but I'm thankful I found your blog. Being aware this happens to many people helps in a way. I feel very embarrassed when I am the centre of attentions. If no one remembers, it's even worse. I suppose I should do a lot more thinking until I find the reasons for that. This year I decided to celebrate. Yes, I couldn't resist the pressure and will go out with a bunch of friends. But I am celebrating today, the day before. By midnight I should be drunk. Let's see how this helps. Good luck to everyone out there.

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