No matter how old I’m turning, my birthday is typically a fairly laid-back affair. I’ll go out to lunch or dinner with a few local friends. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I’ll whip up some cookies or cupcakes to bring along. (If I’m my typical, baking-adverse self, we’ll head to an ice cream shop after we finish the meal.) And of course, we’ll chat, laugh and reconnect. Simple as that.
But this year, as I approach 24 years old, everything, including my birthday celebration, feels weightier, thanks to my wavering health.
A year ago, as I eagerly approached my birthday, I never could have imagined the challenges that would lie ahead. An inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. A litany of mental health diagnoses. A stint in a residential eating disorder treatment facility, interrupted by yet another psychiatric hospitalization. A full course of grueling eating disorder treatment. Two treatment centers, countless vital checks, and lab tests, pills and appointments up the wazoo. A life on hold.
My brush with the reality that I was ill, really, truly ill forced me to appreciate the fact that I am alive. No matter how often I ruminated about the possibility of death, no matter how often I wished that my life was easier or craved a sense of normalcy, I marveled over the fact that I was living and breathing despite the horde of mental illnesses that threatened to kill me. I learned to appreciate the simplest things: the people who care, the small steps forward, the slow, steady process of healing. I gave thanks every morning for the ability to experience another day of life.
So as I reach the end of a heart-wrenching year full of health challenges and usher in hope for the year ahead, I won’t apologize for celebrating my birthday more heartily than ever before. This year, my birthday celebration will be bigger, flashier, and maybe even a little over-the-top. I’ll have loved ones flying in from out of town. There will be balloons and decorations and homemade mocktails and even a full-fledged birthday cake. And as usual, there will be plenty of chatting and laughing and reconnecting over dinner.
Is planning a big birthday celebration self-centered? Maybe. A little ridiculous? Perhaps. Couldn’t it wait until next year when I’ll be turning 25 and will really have something to celebrate? Sure, but why wait?
Experiencing intense suicidality, entering eating disorder treatment and working towards wellness this past year has taught me that life is too short not to truly live. We all have a limited number of days on this planet, so we should cherish every moment we have and celebrate life on our own terms. And when we’ve hit a significant milestone — a lengthy period of medical stability, a monumental amount of time sober, a birthday after a suicide attempt — we shouldn’t be afraid to unabashedly live it up.
This year, as my birthday nears, I’m choosing to celebrate life and rebirth and hope after illness with the people I love in the way I see fit. I’ve survived the hardest year of my life, I’m finally happy to be alive and I’m eager to unapologetically honor all I’ve overcome and all that lies ahead.