I remember my 10th birthday like it was yesterday; where we lived, the smell of the air, even the lighting. That morning, my big sister (from the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program) – Leslie - picked me up for a fun-filled day at a carnival. She surprised me with my very first balloon bouquet, and as simple as it sounds, it absolutely tickled me. She let me eat all the sugar, and she encouraged me to get my face painted. She spent the entire day walking around the carnival with me, making me feel like I was the only thing that mattered to her. I walked around the carnival with her, wondering when we could go home so I could wash off the itchy face paint (but I still loved it).
We got home sometime in the evening. She walked me up to our apartment, letting me go first with my huge bundle of floating balloons and ridiculous clown face paint (looking back, I looked a little John Wayne Gacy like), and when I opened the door to the apartment, I was surprised with a party! My very own party, just for me! Family and friends were there, mom made tons of cupcakes (my favorite kind of course), and we played games. Leslie obviously stayed, so I had to politely tell her that the face paint had to go (and truthfully, I was kind of mortified. Although now I am entertained that at ten years old, someone gave me the John Wayne Gacy look). I laid in bed that night thinking about how amazing the entire day was.
No birthday will ever beat that birthday because of how it is committed to my memory, my heart. I felt wanted.
I always knew I was loved and cared for as a child. I recognized, even at a young age, that my mother was trying her hardest and working her ass off. But I always had a nagging feeling of being an inconvenience, being a roadblock to her dreams, being the reason she had to work several jobs to keep us clothed and fed as an uneducated single mother. She couldn’t break free from the cycle passed down to her.
But I never really felt wanted, and I believe it is a mix of my unhealthy empath traits (feeling guilty for being born) mixed with her struggles.
That unwanted feeling escalated as the years went on. Puberty, a chaotic family life, being constantly outshined by my all-star basketball playing older brother and the cutest, most vibrant little brother a sister could have. No fault of theirs of course – I was a lost, lonely, isolated teenager that was just as awkward then as I am now. That doesn’t bode well with other teenagers, as you can probably imagine. I did not have any true friends. I was being bullied, I was bullying, and I was isolating myself with these outlandish behaviors.
Anyways, as the years went on, the birthdays got – bleak? By thirteen I was just an asshole. I was lashing out, rebelling at every chance I got. I was placed on the PINS (Persons in Need of Supervision) program because she just did not know how to handle me. That program was a complete waste of time. It completely inconvenienced my mother, and I had to partake in mandatory counseling. If you are familiar with the process here, someone can only be helped if they want to be helped. I went in every week and said what I thought they wanted to hear until they were sick of listening.
My mom tried to love me, but honestly, I was hard to love during these years.
I remember my sixteenth birthday the way I remember my tenth birthday, but not for the same reasons. The previous birthday was supposed to be a day for me at the Art Gallery. That birthday celebration never happened.
We had big plans for my sixteenth birthday, though. We were going to go to our favorite restaurant – you guys are going to love this – Ponderosa. That was a big deal, and it was going to be the whole family – even my cool older brother that rarely wanted anything to do with me (age difference). I remember feeling excited for the first time in a long time. I had something to look forward to – a day with my family to celebrate my special birthday. Ponderosa! I strategically picked out my outfit. I felt happiness and anticipation for the first time in such a long time.
I could feel an uneasy tension building over the course of the day, but I could not tell if it was actually happening, or if I just expected it. By the time the dinner hour rolled around, my parents were in a full-blown fight. Ponderosa and my birthday were the farthest thing from their minds. My older brother paced around, wondering if he should wait it out to see if we were going to go to dinner, or if he should carry on with his nightly plans of hanging out with his friends.
That was it. I hit my breaking point. I remember sitting on my bed, feeling the screams penetrate and pierce me while I just sobbed. I sobbed about my happiness. I sobbed about my strategic outfit. I sobbed at the chaos. I sobbed because I knew my older brother’s heart broke as he watched his little sister. He did the only thing he thought might help, which was offer a hug – his first act of compassion since we were little kids.
I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed because everyone knew how excited I was for dinner that night. That dinner never happened. I felt stupid. I felt unwanted. Insignificant.
That night, I decided I was never going to feel like that again. I made myself acknowledge the pain. I walked myself through the day repeatedly until it hurt enough for me to promise myself that I would never look forward to another birthday, ever, ever again.
And I don’t.
This isn’t about a birthday. It’s about my childhood trauma building into this one moment, at sixteen, on my birthday. There’s obviously more to this story, to my story. Maybe someday...
All this noise, all these memories, get baked into us as an adolescent that shape who we become, and we don’t even realize it because we are so in it. It is amazing what we conform to when given no other option. Unfortunately, we can’t undo a day committed to memory, we can't un-bake a cupcake, but we can teach ourselves to bake our own, the way it was meant to be, and enjoy it. I try every year.
Turns out life gets a hell of a lot harder, the hurt, disappointment, the embarrassment. My adult self recognizes this. My sixteen-year-old self tries to break free. My ten-year-old self smiles.