Every year before my birthday, I try to go to bed early, because my anxiety gnaws on me until I can’t take feeling like a caged animal anymore and I just want to rip the bandaid off of the next morning.
Last night, however, I decided to stay up and face the day at midnight. I ran the laundry, tried unsuccessfully to read and generally tried to distract myself until the clock struck midnight.
I sat on my couch and meditated for ten minutes before crawling into bed. Eric groggily rolled over and kissed my forehead as he said, ‘Happy birthday.’ The tears I didn’t know would come, silently stream down my face as I bury my body into his.
They’re tears of exhaustion and sadness and grief. Inexplicable grief. The exhaustion of a constantly shapeshifting ghost of trauma and its hall of mirrors of which I can never seem to escape. The stifling feelings seep in like a fog, subtly at first, where it’s hard to notice. And then all at once, the fog is so thick I can’t see.
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Today marks 25 years since I was raped. It is also my 42nd birthday.
This year, as it has been for most of you, has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. I started the year with a terrible case of the shingles, for which I am still in physical therapy with no end in sight. I am currently recovering from a kidney stone. I have struggled with kidney and bladder issues for years because of scar tissue from the sexual abuse I endured from childhood.
My birthday has always been my personal barometer. The only way I know how to live with the baggage that comes with extreme trauma is to be open and vulnerable about what I experienced. There are no support groups for my level of trauma, no peers to talk to about it, only a therapist and a trauma specialist. Because of this, I have to talk about it because if I don’t, I feel the shame creep up my face until it’s on fire and I refuse to feel shame for someone else’s actions.
Every year, in the season of my birthday, I make myself busy, busy with something I feel is meaningful. I’ve never stopped going to therapy, but therapy for me has changed over the years. Initially, it was for acute trauma and trying to manage my anorexia enough to keep me out of the hospital. Then it morphed into therapy on trust and healthy relationships. I knew I would never have a healthy marriage and children if I didn’t. Then again it changed, into how to parent without being driven by fear of their safety. Now I go on an as needed basis, except for the three months before my birthday. Sometimes it’s once a week, sometimes monthly.
This year, because I am recovering from shingles and the pandemic, I don’t have a distraction. I don’t have a project. I’m just…here.
The root of my struggle with anorexia was and continues to be control. I started starving myself when I was seven, searching for control in a situation of abuse. I’ve been in recovery for twenty years; I wake up every day and actively make a choice to fuel my body and not starve myself. Twice in the last five years, I’ve almost relapsed. Both times, my team of providers helps me fall back onto what I call my ‘default plan’ — a plan in place so ingrained in the very fabric of my being, it’s a comfort to lean into it.
This summer, when the fog crept in earlier than normal, my therapist looked and me and ask, ‘Have you ever noticed that the only thing we’ve discussed over the years are things out of your control?’
I laughed, because until that point, I’m not sure I recognized that. I simply continued therapy because I wanted to be the healthiest person I could be. But that simple statement brought an epiphany — there are things I have control over (and don’t condescendingly say how to react and handle the situation because I’ve been gracefully ‘handling’ it for years). I was infuriated the shingles were bad enough to go to physical therapy twice a week. The answer the universe was trying to show me is to value my sleep. When I got the kidney stone, I was dehydrated. The lesson the universe was trying to tell me is to take care of myself before others because I can’t pour from an empty cup. In the simplest terms — I need hydration and sleep.
It sounds so simple, but I can feel a transformational shift. I don’t know that I’ll ever celebrate my birthday like a ‘normal’ human, or that it will get easier. My trauma is the petulant child in the room, demanding my attention while I try to ignore it. But this year, instead of trying to please a petulant child while holding my grief at a distance as my inner peace struggles to regain footing, my trauma, grief, and peace are sitting together, cohabitating with each other. They have settled into the core of me and I am able to breathe.