It's July, it's my birthday this month. My birthday is something I still struggle with and have found hard to talk about over recent years. This year I felt a slight change, which meant I felt more comfortable talking about it. Here goes...
TW: This post includes references to depression, self harm and suicidal thinking.
I used to love my birthday. As a child I used to get what I called "Christmas attacks" and "Birthday attacks", where I would become over stimulated and excited. This would manifest through jumping around, likely some shaking smiling laughing and running about as well. Maybe in part that is why my feelings around birthdays and Christmas have been so hard for some people, including myself at times, to process.
Like what happened?
I think the short answer is, it was two things. My depression and my suicidal thoughts.
My depression (which I still experience, just in a very different way now) created or engaged a very strong sense of sadness within me. I did not feel happy or joyous about things. Every day was a struggle. I got used to masking my emotions and tried to just carry on. 'Celebration events' were times when I felt added pressure to pretend to be happy. To some extent we all have moments when we pretend to enjoy something more to please ourselves or other people, but then you are doing that everyday; and then you have that extra pressure to 'be extra happy' when you maybe struggling the most. It's hard. It's really hard.
My depression really sucked the joy from me. While there where bigger moments, it was a gradual thing. I didn't noticed it happening at the start. But celebration events, really hit me each time. That pressure, the expectation from myself and from other people was so exhausting. I was really sad and these celebration events just reminded me how sad, which then triggered more sad.
The suicidal thoughts... Sometimes I still get them. But I am much better at managing them now, and maintaining a sometimes exhausting set of coping strategies. But I didn't always have these. My late twenties and early thirties were emotionally and mentally difficult. I think there was around a two+ year period where I honestly didn't think I would be alive to see my following birthday. There were times when I was ready for this to be over. I didn't see a future, I saw only more pain and sadness.
Extremely fortunately, after a few seasons of therapy, five years+ of medication and a lot of self work, I feel 'better'. I am not cured of my depression or my self harm thinking, but I am in a much, much better place; mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
It is because of that growth and work that I now manage celebration events and really try to be mindful of how my mind can work. I know that right now birthdays are difficult. They are a reminder that it's a year later and I am still here. I'm here and I didn't think I would be. I am alive, with a wife, a job, cats, a home, friends. It's still hard to process that on these dates.
Over the last 5 or so years I have tried to manage my birthdays. By minimising them as much as possible, just getting through. Surviving the day. Then moving on the day after.
That was my plan for this year too. However the week before my birthday I worked an extra 16 hours and had time I needed to take back. So a few days before my birthday I changed my plans; knowing I could always just log into work at home if that felt best. Even on the morning of my birthday I wasn't sure if I would just end up opening the laptop and working the whole day as originally planned.
I decided that I would want and likely need to work some of the day, so I planned my tasks based on the most pleasant or enjoyable ones to complete. I also wanted to try and incorporate non work positive enjoyable actions too.
How did it go?
My plan was this, start the day around 8am with a run at the gym. This would get me going, use up a lot of physical energy and give me some feel good endorphins. Plus the sense of achievement if I hit a good distance. Which I did I managed over 10 miles, I was very pleased with that.
Use the middle of the day to complete some household chores. Washing is a task I get a sense of achievement from, plus having gym clothes that need washing twice a week means I have a routine I like now.
I rested for two hours, catching up on Disney+ shows. Then spent a few hours in the afternoon working, including recording a podcast.
This plan meant I got to enjoy a few things throughout the day, while keeping busy and managing my mental wellbeing at the same time. It was tricky, there were moments when I was fidgety and slightly restless. But the structure helped.
The evening spent with Laura was lovely. I am so fortunate to have her in my life, as anything, let alone as my wife!
The part of the day which was most difficult was opening cards and presents. This was really tricky, and I had to stop two or three times because it was too difficult/ unpleasant. I just didn't like it. I was far more happy with hugs.
The presents aspect could be my low self worth, the link it has to people pleasing, or celebrating. It's likely all three with a few other things thrown in.
Through the day I generally stayed away from my phone, responding to birthday messages the day after. This is definitely something I will do again in future. I think the gym was also an awesome thing to do in the morning. It used up a lot of energy and those endorphins made me feel good; at least until the post run sore parts kicked in. So that will likely be something I try next year too. I'm trying to work out how I incorporate that into a Christmas Day?
This year's birthday had it's difficult parts and moments. However it was a 'better' one than I was expecting. A lot of work and difficult conversations have gone into managing my mental health and particular moments like birthdays. This hasn't just happened. So there was a moment of positive self reflection there. A small well done me.
While there's no guarantee the next birthday happens, or goes as well. I am surprisingly and pleasantly optimistic about it.
Thanks to everyone that sent me messages, cards and gifts. While its hard to accept them, I do appreciate them; and you. Thank you.
Thank you for reading and being part of mental health conversations. I will be adding a few links below to support and information.
Samaritans - https://www.samaritans.org
Stop Suicide Campaign - https://stopsuicidepledge.org
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) - thecalmzone.net
Find your local Mind (England and Wales) - https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/local-minds/
Mind's Information and support about depression - https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/about-depression/