My birthday came and went on the 1st of the month. Since having my son, my birthdays feel like this odd reality that sneak up on me suddenly. Not a big scary sneak, but more like a sneaky cat that you can see moving, they just think they’re moving so slow you can’t tell.
My birthday during my childhood was magical. The ongoing family joke has been that I have a birth month, and not just a birthday. Celebration after celebration. Lunches, presents, friends, parties. Having a birthday around Halloween is probably the best holiday to have a birthday on. Especially in Southern Colorado, where our Halloween celebrations were always followed by Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Having a well defined shadow side that only grows as the years go on makes this time of year giddy and special to me. Loving to dress up also helps.
My favorite memories of my birthday were combined Halloween and birthday celebrations. I still went trick or treating at 18 years old. At the time, I didn’t think it was weird, and was baffled that we had so many nasty looks. Now, knowing I’m actually autistic, I can claim wholeheartedly that Halloween is a “special interest” of mine. Also known as an obsession. I could go off on a whole diatribe about the history of Halloween as we know it now (I won’t, but if you’re curious leave a message below and I’ll diatribe in response).
In adulthood my birthday shifted and took on a life of its own. I can’t recall a single birthday since I turned 20 that I haven’t had to step away to cry in the bathroom for a moment. Looking back with my new perspective I’ve realized my plans falling through felt more devastating than they logically were, but that’s just part of being me. I also need to keep in mind that the feeling of what I’m supposed to be doing for my birthday to make me seem more normal isn’t necessary for me to conform to. It’s okay if all I want for my birthday is a long bath with a book, some board game time with my husband, and dying my hair. But this is a new realization this year, and before now it’s been devastating when my birthdays haven’t looked how they’re “supposed to.”
The last birthday I had that I clearly recall a really spectacular celebration was my senior year in college, Halloween night. The night I met my husband, in fact. I had a giant potluck with my roommates, then headed to the bars.
This memory is bittersweet. The sweet being so carefree and early 20s. Running amuck in such a different way than childhood. Surrounded by people. Laughter, drinks, excuses to dress up in crazy outfits.
The bitter being that it hit me the next day that I had two friends that came to that party. Our house was full to the brim with people. Music blasting, food covering our kitchen, drinks circulating, and the hooka loaded up with fruity tasting tobacco (no, not weed, I’ve never been much into getting high).
My roommates were there, of course, but over the years I’ve regretted ever having roommates in college. It’s one of the few arenas in which it would have been nice to have the autism diagnosis before college started, so I didn’t feel like I “needed” to have roommates in order to grow as a person through college. All that having roommates did for me was ruin friendships that might have blossomed into something wonderful in future years.
At no point do I remotely regret this Halloween birthday celebration my senior year of college. I met my husband that night. I got to spend the evening with my dear friend that introduced me to said husband and when she decided she’d had enough of the party I met another lovely and amazing human I still call a friend at a local bar. It went down in my memory as a successful celebration.
Following this evening, very possibly because of this evening, I ended up with mono and a thrashed immune system.
I also slid into an autistic burnout. Something I had no name for at the time and no idea I had gone through in the past (and would go through again and again throughout my life). Burnout is somewhat different than depression, something else I deal with regularly. This particular burnout caused the deterioration of relationships with a number of friends I’d made through college, in the dance community, roommates past and present, and some writer friends as well.
There’s an excellent article on the Thinking Person’s Guide to autism about autistic burnout so I’ll direct you there for further information instead of reiterating what Kieran has written extensively about. It’s a long article, but very well worth the read if you or someone in your life is autistic, or you think they (or you) may be.
A shorter, and more condensed example can be found at this site, too.
The next few years my birthday’s were often simply disappointing. I’d plan elaborate Halloween themed parties, involving intense decorating, themed foods and cocktails, and invite as many people as I could think of.
The big day would come and I’d bustle around with excitement, doing last minute preparations. The texts and calls would slowly start to trickle in. This person stayed up too late the night before and is nursing a hangover still. That person is sick. This other friend can’t make it, sorry, no other explanation.
It would end up being just my husband and I with more food and alcohol than I knew what to do with.
Of all those years I have only one memory of my birthday celebration being truly fun and spectacular before I decided to give up on planning big parties. Only six people celebrated with me, but they were all lovely and wonderful people and six people ended up being a perfect number to feel like a huge celebration and also gave me a chance to connect to my friends. Even this celebration didn’t go as planned. I had two very dear friends from college in town. One, we’ll call her Kelsey, had gone back to California the day before (or so I thought) and the other, we’ll call her Lexi, texted earlier in the day to let me know she couldn’t make it. The only people planning to join us at this point was a very dear friend, we’ll call her Jessica, (I’ve had the pleasure of being her friend for 20 years now! 20!). She took the time to drive all the way from Boulder to join me. That’s a good three or four hour round trip car ride. I knew we’d still have a lovely evening with just four of us (myself, my husband, Jessica, and her boyfriend). But I still received the text that Lexi wasn’t going to make it and I felt the familiar sharp pang in my stomach.
Over the years I’ve lost a lot of friends. I’ve had a lot of people trickle in and out of my life. I know this is a normal part of growing up and a normal part of friendships evolving. But I often don’t understand why these things happen. Why did this friend decide to sit at a separate table and all the other people I invited to join us text her instead of me to see what we were up to? Why did another friend stop returning my phone calls and texts completely out of the blue? Why did a friend I felt excited to be back in touch with but couldn’t make a scheduled call with because I was in the middle of an anxiety attack decide it wasn’t worth continuing to speak to me and respond to my several attempts to reschedule? Why did this other friend sound surprised to hear from me and brush off my invitation to do something, even though we’d seen each other just a few months before? Why did that one friend bail on a planned lunch – three times in a row? Why did that friend pretend not to know me in the grocery store?
With those friends I didn’t elaborate with them or ask questions. After over a decade of trying to get to the bottom of why I constantly felt like an outcast and seemed to have friends drop like flies, I just stopped wondering. This is clearly just human nature in my experience.
But when I had that text from Lexi my brain goes back through memories (many, many more than those few examples). I’m thrown from one memory to the next, like a crazed movie clip reel. I’m suddenly back in the space, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, of those moments where I’m left with my stomach dropped out through my knees and my heart clenching up. Moments I’m confused and hurt by friends.
So the unexpected text throws me back to instance after instance and my memories reel. It’s in those moments I’m not surprised that PTSD symptoms show up in autistic brains.
So later that evening, when I got a knock on the door, and Lexi and Kelsey are on the other side surprising me, my heart fills with joy to the brim to a point that it hurts again. Tears are brought to my eyes. I’m sobbing again for the second time that day and my feelings of happiness and joy are so close to the earlier feelings of abandonment and despair that I have an oddly detached moment of wonder at how emotions are such a physical reaction, and that pain and pleasure are truly interconnected.
My birthday celebrations that year end up being the last party I attempt. It’s one of my best memories of adult birthdays. A few close friends, drinks, good food, and lots of stories and laughter.
I thought I’d end on a high note. I’d rather have that be my final big party memory than another failed attempt at a party.
Why ruin that memory by trying to create a celebration that could end in the confusing, heart stabbing sadness that so many other birthdays have?
So this year I mused over past friendships and celebrations. What makes a fun week and a good celebration of my time on this earth so far? I love Halloween and Samhain and Harvest Festival celebrations. I would love to decorate the house with a fun theme and have a few good friends over for some cocktails while we play board games.
But I’m experiencing autistic burnout. Again. Added to some postpartum depression that is on top of my regular depression. Not to mention my regular and intense anxiety, especially social anxiety, the thought of a party sounds great in theory. Then I think of the time, effort, and energy required to just simply be around any other human and I feel the tell-tale tightening of my chest, burning and pressure on my heart, urge to burst into hysterics and I know this celebration in theory will stay in theory.
It would be nice to have another couple come over (with their kids) and play some games. But knowing how I’m feeling lately, like I’m wobbling on a precipice that looks into a space below me that is strangely fogged and slimy all at once. I feel on the verge of losing myself and my sanity at any moment. I waited until the last possible second to ask anyone to come over for games. Unsurprisingly, the two people I count as true friends in my current mental state are busy. I feel a twinge of the old memories surface and my body feels flung back into past friendships gone murky and the pain associated with those old friendships and I shed a few tears. Not because of these current friendships. Logically I know I can’t be upset that people have lives they can’t simply stop living and drop at a moments notice to celebrate a birthday with me. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. My system can’t help itself, though. These wounds are too deep and too many.
Instead I had a bath. I read a book. I drank some wine. I collected myself. I didn’t cook. I didn’t go out. I felt healthy in the fact that I could finally recognize exactly what happens to my system when I overstimulate it and then go out in public or be around a lot of people.
Everyone needs a break. Everyone needs to feel special and celebrated and loved in this life. But the way in which we experience breaks and love is so different and varied.
You hear throughout life how we’re all special and unique and different like snowflakes but the majority of people can relate to one another on an intrinsic level. You’re different. Just like everyone else. So when I talk about needing a break I’m inundated from all sides with well-meaning people telling me to get away and get out of the house.
But I’m already in a burnout. I’m also depressed. My system is on full overload.
So getting out means I have to wrap my head around getting dressed, getting in a car, driving somewhere, walking into a space that might be unfamiliar and overwhelming with lights, sounds, and people. New smells, possible fluorescent lights that buzz behind my eyes, noise, noise, and more noise. Noise in the form of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and even a physical pressing on my skin, like being wrapped in cellophane. This “getting away” and “going out” feel like a physical assault on my entire system. How is this a “break”?
So a bath with a book sounds amazing. Relaxing. Recuperating.
So for all my well-wishers who tell me to get out and get away for awhile, I take that simply as someone who genuinely cares about me wanting me to have a good birthday. I finally feel okay enough with myself to say that’s not fun for me right now. But at least I know those of you wishing me some time away only says these things out of love.
And I know that on this birthday I have genuine friends and people who care for me in my life. Which helps these bubbling memories of past, rotted friendships seem worth it. Because I know this husband and these friends in my life right now are that much sweeter and I appreciate them that much more. In some ways, I appreciate them more than they probably even comprehend, because when we’ve been so deeply wounded in the past it makes the good that much more treasured.
So thank you, true friends.
I did have a great birthday. I didn’t cook. I took a bath. And I became a little hermit-recluse for the weekend.
My system needed the quiet and the familiar.