It’s my 34th birthday today. Which I’d completely forgotten until two days ago. A far cry from the 3-month-long calendar count-down of my youth, being reminded of what was once a major holiday in my own mind by a distant family member both amuses and fills me with reflective gratitude. I know that for most people, birthdays lose their meaning as we age. 34 is no milestone. It’s just, as my 3-year-old says, “kinda like a kid but mostly an old lady” sort-of age. It’s the fact of it’s forgetability, however, its sheer mundaneness, that feels like a miracle to me.
How many birthdays did I spend dancing on the edge of my own self-destruction, stunned and ambivalent about flash-banging my way through another year? How many celebrations come back to me in a dusky haze—not the good kind, like waking from a sweet dream into sunlight, but the sharp-edged-nausea kind, the “oh, God, what did I do,” kind. The amount of time that I spent marooned by mental illness, smothered by substance, enshrouded in suffering amounts to almost half my life. Which is a breath-stealing truth—one that leaves me wiping tears and stroking grief, needing a minute to center myself.
But only a minute.
Because these days, y’all, I’m busy being a human. I have pee beds to strip, and tantrums to wrangle, cookies to dole out, and lullabies to sing. I have fights to pick and apologies to make, prayers to say and blessing upon blessing upon stunning blessing to feel thankful for. Today, I get to walk through the world awake and alive, a person among people, a wife and a mother, a sister and a daughter and a friend; a maker of mistakes, a feeler of big feelings, and most days, as someone I’m truly proud to be.
Six birthdays ago I was dying. Today, I mixed water with packet oatmeal and wrestled my two children into play clothes while they scream-sang Happy Birthday to me. I’m weeping just writing that sentence. I think of all the things I almost missed, and it’s enough to send me to my knees. I shouldn’t be on the planet today, with all the ways I carelessly, callously, arrogantly, meticulously worked toward my own ruin. And yet…
Lots of people like me succumb to addiction and mental illness—more than any of us cares to acknowledge. More still live long miserable lives struggling. I don’t know why I got lucky. And I can’t say for sure that I’ll be lucky again tomorrow. It’s a “daily reprieve,” as is said. What I do know for sure is that somewhere along the way, I got desperate enough to turn my face toward Spirit and let God gently lead me out of my own way.
I had help doing that. You know the saying about “being alone in a room full of people?” I sulked and stalked and tore through rooms filled with folks who cared for me, hiding in my Hell armor, wreaking havoc, until one-by-one the room emptied, leaving me with only my peoplest of people. And then those people, the ones I know would never abandon me, started eyeing the door. Because I was abandoning myself.
And it hurt them too much.
I scared myself as much as I scared them, and all that fear combined and grew and overflowed until the choice was succumb to the fear or open the door and take a peek at faith. The choice was mine alone. Their gift to me was solidifying my desperation.
Step-by-shaky-and-tedious-step, I have clung tightly to their hands and walked forward. And then backward, but mostly forward. And there's no summing that walk up in a paragraph because it's still happening. The act of “walking forward” is what I write about these days. There is no destination. There's no "there." I'll never arrive. That's important to remember.
I think that for awhile I thought that sobriety would look like some strange form of zen piety, all peace and calm; or maybe stoicism peppered with the occasional brilliant-and-wise one-liner as I looked down from my mountaintop perch: Be Gentle with Your Sadness, as Someday, it Will Rain Down as Happin—yeah…no.
I thought that mental health would look like me becoming someone entirely new. I heard all these people saying things like “today I’m a completely different person than I was when I…” and I was all “heck yeah! Sign me up for that. And a brain transplant would be awesome while you’re at it, because it’s scary-as-hell up inside my skull.” Instead, I wake up most mornings just like I always did—kind of nervous and grumpy—and I walk through my days listening to a head full of the most obnoxious and verbose Peanut Gallery occupants: Ego and Fear, Unease and Shame, Petulance and Irritability and Self-Loathing. (And it’s super annoying and I would still like my brain transplant, thank you). Instead, I’m still me. But I’m me with help.
I have tools today to quiet those voices—12-step meetings and meditation and yoga and screaming into pillows and praying and therapy and oversharing on the internet and I know that it’s possible to behave differently from the noise in my head. For example, when my two tiny children won’t stop shitting everywhere and screaming at an octave high enough to perforate a dog’s ear drum and my husband has decided to quit his job and grow a Duck Dynasty beard, my inner monologue sounds something like “Oh my sweet G-string, stop yelling at me, you sticky, horrifying little creatures. Why can’t you live outside and wipe your own butts? And you, Husband, that better be generic cereal dropping into your face pubes because I can pretty much promise you that Mommy’s Blog ain’t going to be an income generator and EVERYBODY GO AWAY AND LEAVE THE REMOTE.”
But. I don’t have to feel like a good mother to act like a good mother. I don’t have to think like a good person to behave like a good person. I want self esteem? I’d better be behaving esteemably. I’m still me. It’s still hard. Simple, but not easy. But I have the power of choice, today, y’all. It’s like how so very many of us approach exercise: do I want to do Pilates? Wait…no, I really don’t want to do Pilates. I don’t do Pilates. This is a bad example. Whatever. I just mean that the tools are there. If I use them, I feel better. I behave better. I like myself better. My life is easier. If I don’t…please, someone call my husband and take him out for a cheeseburger.
It’s my 34th birthday today. I was supposed to get up early and go on a fun excursion with my husband, but instead I stumbled out to the porch with cold instant oatmeal and cried onto my laptop keyboard. Life, y’all. It’s happening on its terms and I have the incredible gift of going along for the ride and trying to keep my side of the street clean. Today, just like yesterday, and just like, God-willing, tomorrow, I get to go off-script and screw-up and rise again and have some fun and snuggle my loved-ones and take care of myself and look up at the sky and say thank You.
A million times, Thank You.
Happy Birthday To Me.