Friday is my 38th birthday. It is a bittersweet celebration.
On the one hand, this will be the first birthday in three years (the gods still willing) that I won’t be in the psych hospital, won’t be too medicated to take birthday calls, won’t have to watch Fourth of July fireworks from behind a reinforced Plexiglas window.
On the other hand, I’d always imagined that by this time, I’d have all my shit together. No more manic upswings, no more head-first dives down into the well. And sleep? Shouldn’t I know by now—infancy long gone--how to sleep through the night without all the god-awful middle-of-the-night wakings? And my arms, transected by all those scars. They haven’t faded AT ALL. I meet other moms—the moms who have their shit together—and I hide my arms at my sides or behind my back because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy and won’t let their kids play with mine.
Certainly by 38, I’d be able to blow out the candles of a decadent chocolate birthday cake (double-layer, ganache frosting) and eat a slice without anxiety, without IT telling me I was too fat to eat even a bite. And I wouldn’t have spent hours scouring my closet for something to wear that wouldn’t make me feel fat, that wouldn’t feel too tight (aka touching my skin). At 38, I imagined I’d be able to say that I’d made peace with my body, did, in fact, enjoy being touched, even looked at by my wonderfully patient husband instead of reaching for the light switch (to turn it off) every time we make love, or squirming when his hands range across my thighs or belly (IT whispering: He can feel how fat and disgusting you are. Run away. Shut down. Feel nothing.).
At the very least, I hoped I’d feel confident that I was a stable Momma, that my kids wouldn’t have to live with my volatility, my shouting and quick flashes of anger—that I would be serene, have equanimity in all my dealings. And then there’s the sad passing of my dream—that by now, I’d have had baby number 3. These past few weeks since the garage sale and its unloading of all the baby gear, I’ve found myself, while driving around, scanning yards and porches for my lost stroller or swing. Mine, I still want to say, mine, mine, mine.
What is mine is this birthday and its demands that I lay claim to the past 38 years. This is my life—scarred, broken, but healing. I’ve survived suicide attempts, am surviving now day-by-day, accumulating time on this earth, time with my family. Time. The most necessary of birthday presents. And what I need to trust is that I will allow myself more time to free myself from IT.
I’m reminded of a photo of myself from my seventh birthday. Hours, still, until the party guests arrive. Behind me, a picnic table decorated in a pink tablecloth and balloons; streamers crisscross the air above me. And there I am, pig-tailed, standing in roller-skates in a rainbow bikini, arms thrown high into the air, hips thrust to one side. I AM IT, the photo says. I look at her, at me, and see a girl who is completely herself, full of herself, filled up by the wonder that is herself and I want her back.
I found a fragment of her today. It was beautiful, sunny if cool, so we decided to go on a walk out by the lake with the kids and a new colleague and her husband. Initially, I had the usual jitters I get whenever I’m around anyone new—I’m an idiot. I should keep my mouth shut. I have nothing worthwhile to say. But as I walked ahead of her, I listened to my daughter who was trotting beside her chatter away about our dogs, her lizards, the mealworms and crickets and beetles she feeds her lizards, and how she has to mash the mealworm’s head before she can feed it to her lizards otherwise there’s the possibility the mealworm might crawl out through the lizard’s stomach. Talk talk talk. My daughter didn’t care what she sounded like or if she was boring this strange woman because my daughter was fully convinced that she was someone worth listening to because she was both interesting and worth it.
So at the end of walk, the woman turned to me and said she’d seen my book up on campus and looked forward to reading it.
“What are you working on now?” she asked.
This is a question that typically provokes insane anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in me since for the past few years, I haven’t been working on anything. Unless you count trying to keep myself alive. But recently, I have started working on a new book, so I said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, a memoir.”
Her husband jumped in. “What’s it about? Your whole life? Or something specific?”
Deer in headlights. Panic. IT said: DO NOT SAY A WORD. LIE. YOU CAN’T SPEAK THE TRUTH.”
Bikini. Rollerskates. Birthday wish.
I took a deep breath. “It’s about being Bipolar. And a Mom.”
Christopher smiled at me. He knew how much it took for me to say that much, to reveal that much to strangers. “It’s really brave, what she’s doing,” he said to them. “She’s fierce.”
Brave. I like that. Fierce. Even better. Adjectives to live by this next year.