Three years ago I sat down to write a blog entry for Slightly Nutty. My recent birthday had been a day of dark thoughts, with a sense of underlying menace. Not because of anything that happened on the day but due to an undercurrent of feelings concerning what was then my forty-sixth birthday. I called the entry ‘Hit by pre-birthday depression’.
The response was strong. The entry became the most widely read of my entire blog, with 1,810 page views. It seems there’s a bit of a syndrome out there. A lot of people fall into a heap at this time, and then kick themselves in the guts because they feel guilty about not appreciating the efforts of friends and family to help them celebrate. Others simply feel sad because their loved ones don’t show their appreciation on the one day of the year that it matters most. Many of those who commented thanked me for sharing a common experience that doesn’t very often get an airing.
A year later I suffered a much milder bout of birthday depression and decided to record what I’d learned about the phenomenon to date. This second entry was also popular, with over 1,100 page views.
In that second entry I reluctantly gave some suggestions for dealing with birthday depression. I didn’t want to tell people what to do, or imply that they shouldn’t be feeling bad, when I knew many would already be feeling guilty. Much of the awfulness of birthday depression stems from the belief you have no right to be feeling so bad.
Well, I’ve just had another birthday. And like an eccentric doctor who operates on herself, I was curious to see how I’d go this year. It wasn’t what I expected at all.
A low-key celebration
First, I need to set the scene a bit. I have a rather fractious family. Given that we’re Irish Catholics, a group that tends to operate in closeknit clans, it’s taken me more than half my life to realise that this is an intractable situation and I don’t have to try and change it. So for the second year in a row, I chose not to spend the day with any of my four sisters. There was no acrimony. Three of them phoned me to deliver birthday greetings – I’m planning to catch up with one of them next weekend – and the other sister delivered greetings via Facebook.
So what did I do instead? I went out to lunch with a friend, to a cheap cafe in a vibrant, eclectic part of town that served the Middle Eastern food I crave (Balaclava Road East St Kilda for the Melburnites). Afterwards I had afternoon tea with my parents, who spoiled me with flowers and a very welcome monetary gift. Then I went home, answered my phone messages (which led to some cosy chats), and lounged in front of the television, alternating between watching it and reading a good book.
And guess what? I felt fine.
Why the change?
In reporting my experiences I want to make it clear that I’m not making any generalisations. The many comments I received suggested to me that the experience of birthday depression is different for each person who suffers it. ‘Depression’ is a catch-all term anyway that is often used to mean sadness or grief.
So while I would love what I say to be useful, I’m certainly not saying ‘I beat birthday depression – you can too.’ Quite the opposite: birthday depression is very common, and the only recommendations I would make is that people let themselves experience it, be nice to themselves, and take their needs into account when planning the birthday. But the mystery of why there was no birthday depression for me this year is still worth solving. Here are my theories:
Grieving in advance. Over the past few years as I’ve hit my late forties I’ve been grieving quite a bit for past mistakes and the direction my life has taken romance-wise. In the last year or so I’ve reached a much greater level of acceptance of where I’m at. Perhaps I am finally accepting ‘life on life’s terms’. (Not that I don’t get angry sometimes – I do – but for some reason the anger didn’t surface on my birthday.)
Planning the birthday to take into account my family’s shortcomings. From my years of celebrating birthdays with my siblings, I knew I’d end up feeling bitter and angry if I included them on the day. So for the second year in a row I spent the birthday without them. It was easier this year for everybody because it wasn’t a new thing. I felt not a shred of guilt. I freely admit that I’ve been lucky that my family have simply accepted this and yet were still able to wish me well on the day – not all families would be this forgiving.
Writing and sharing the experience. The experience of blogging about birthday depression and receiving so many positive responses to the entries has empowered me and given me the courage to explore the process more deeply in myself. I’m very grateful to all the people who have commented, and I sincerely hope you’ve been able to adjust your celebrations to minimise the pain.
Preparing for the feelings. I told myself it would be okay to feel sad on the day, and allowed any feelings to come up in advance.
Lowering my expectations. Just as I’ve let some of my most cherished dreams go (not completely of course – they are still there, but I accept my present) so over the past three years I’ve learned to adjust my expectations of the birthday. I plan ahead, choosing activities that are in line with where I’m at, and don’t expect the birthday to be super-fantastic. (I’ve had to learn to do this gradually – don’t feel guilty if you find this hard to do, or don’t want to.)
In fact I felt so light, cheerful and special on the day itself that the following day I found myself with a whole new phenomenon on my hands – post-birthday depression! No flowers, birthday greetings, gifts or trips out for lunch. It was back to normality, and I didn’t like it one little bit.
Having said all that, my fiftieth is coming up next year, and if I don’t experience a new round of wailing and gnashing of teeth on the day and in the lead-up to it, I’ll be quite surprised. But at least I have a whole year in which to farewell my forties.
Please note: if you're suffering ongoing depression then you may need to speak to a professional. These words are no substitute for medical advice - please seek help if you need to.