Last week I had a birthday. It was a big one. One that gets half an aisle at Party City. Notice I didn’t say, “Last week I celebrated my birthday.” That is because I don’t feel very celebratory on my birthday. What I feel is anxious.
I know, why should my birthday be different from any other day? I am an Anxiety Sister, after all. But I am especially anxious around my birthday. In fact, each year, I find myself feeling birthday anxiety days, even weeks before the actual occasion. This year’s birthday anxiety began right after New Year’s. Come to think of it, I don’t think there was even a gap between the end of my holiday anxiety and the beginning of my birthday dread.
Lest you think I am exaggerating for humor’s sake, let me be clear: I am not talking about muttering under my breath about getting old a la Grumpy Cat. My birthday angst is bona fide twisted stomach, erratic heart beat, dizzy and sweaty anxiety.
It turns out that I am not alone in this particular type of anxiety. Events often make people—especially Social Phobia sufferers—edgy, but birthdays seem to be particularly provocative. Here’s why:
1. Expectations. You’re supposed to be happy on your birthday. In fact, people shout the command “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” at you all day long (and even for several days surrounding the big event). But what if you aren’t feeling particularly happy on your birthday? What if your birthday turns out to be one of those crappy days when nothing goes your way? Not only are you then having a bad day, but you also have to feel worse that you are having a bad day on a day you are supposed to be having a good day. I find that the one thing that guarantees a lousy day is pressure to make it an especially good day. And not to get all philosophical on you or anything, but all that celebratory pressure can make you question your general happiness in a way that every other day of the year does not. Talk about a slippery slope. Once you start examining whether you are truly happy, every decision you have ever made becomes suspect. The only time I have ever wondered if I should have stayed with my first husband is ten hours into my birthday, when I have rerouted every fork in every road I have ever chosen just to figure out which one has caused me to be unable to have a “happy” birthday.
2. Comparisons. Closely related to #1 is this notion that your “special” day needs to be noteworthy and, really, what I mean by noteworthy is Facebook-worthy. Which is really all about social comparisons. The more “friends” you have on Facebook, the more videos you have seen of surprise birthday parties atop the Eiffel Tower, impromptu serenades by Beyoncé, entire rooms filled with teacup roses, gleaming gift-wrapped and bowed BMWs, tiaras and necklaces dripping with rare gems, etc., etc., etc. Makes it hard to appreciate the 50-dollar Amazon gift card your husband put on the toilet paper roll so you wouldn’t miss it.
3. Numbers. Obviously, the bigger the number, the less happy you deserve to be about your birthday. Think about it. Saying “Happy birthday” to an 85-year-old is like saying, “You should be happy you don’t have too many of these celebrations left.” Nobody likes to contemplate her mortality. Anxiety Sisters, in particular, are already too preoccupied with death. Why remind me that the demise I’ve been panicking about for my entire adult life is statistically more likely now that I have aged another year?
4. Posts. This is another numbers thing. It’s also a comparison and expectations thing. I’m talking about how many people leave you birthday wishes on your Instagram feed and Facebook wall. What’s considered respectable? 20% of your friends? 35%? Is there a formula that takes into account time of year (everyone’s away in August) and other factors?
5. Stupid questions. For some reason, birthdays seem to bring out the worst small talk has to offer. Some examples from this year: “What did you do on your first day of your sixth decade?” (my answer: “Same thing I did on the last day of my fifth decade.”) “How does it feel to be alive for half a century?” (my answer: “Better than the alternative.”) “Does it feel different to be 50?” (my answer: “Nope. Anxious as usual.”)
Does anybody else have birthday anxiety?