Yesterday, I turned 19. I had no expectations. Though I may remind people endlessly that June 4th is my day for weeks prior, the actual event itself seems often kind of pointless. Birthdays are just days that happen to count one’s years. A testament to survival. However, this past year, I survived a lot, and what I didn’t expect was to be so astoundingly reminded of that. I didn’t expect the day to be more than just another day.
It started something like this: I arose to walk through my bedroom door, decorated with dangling streamers. I went to the bathroom and, as I closed the door, I heard a knock. I opened it to be greeted by a friend with flowers and a card. I went to get breakfast and met a “Happy Birthday” sign and a package from my family. I received gifts and a card. I treasured the card. I got dressed in a dress my mom sent me. I let myself like it. I let myself feel pretty. I let myself eat breakfast. I felt changed.
At this point, I realized every effort I made to make it just another day would be met by resistance. I was with people who loved me and cared and wanted me to feel special. So, I let it be so. There came the memories, which continued throughout the day. It was as though I was watching a split-screen film: the right featuring Alexandra today, the left playing scenes from the year prior.
It was not just the birthday signs, nor the flowers that were different than my morning in residential the year prior, but how they affected me. It was that they affected me. I allowed myself to be covered by the warm blanket of purpose that came close, I gave myself the gift to connect with the emotions and those who brought them. It was not just that my breakfast was optional, nor that I chose to eat it that was different than my morning in residential last year, but the energy. It wasn’t an accomplishment to eat my breakfast…twice, it was a privilege. Because I love breakfast and I look forward to it every night when I go to bed. I don’t fall asleep worrying whether or not I’ll wake the next day. I don’t wake up gasping for breath, moving around to get my heart beating, feeling the clouded swelling of my brain attempting to oxygenate. I awake to excitement and hope. I have energy and meaning, and when I feel lost, I search for it. I felt that change.
Preceding my cereal and fairy dress, my friend and I drove to Venice. She insisted on driving, I didn’t reject it entirely. She wanted to pamper and I opened myself to the chance that I deserved it. We drove along PCH, watching the sea glimmer and she turned to me, “Even the sea’s shining for you.” I smiled instead of laughing off my insecurity. I called my parents and told them I loved them. They wanted to celebrate, too, and I’ve begun to realize I’m not at liberty to deny them their happiness in my joys.
In Venice, we met up with another friend at Cafe Gratitude, a cute, trendy restaurant with some of the best ideas ever on promoting self-love in little ways. First off, the server greeted us wearing a T-shirt that had LO E surrounding her V neck. As we sat down, she posed us their question of the day, “What are you letting go of today?” I couldn’t think of anything. I realized that in that moment, I couldn’t think of a piece of my life I was willing to let go. Every single thing felt right, I was with some of the most wonderful people on a beautiful day in southern California, and I was safe with myself. I had a million things inside of me I never thought could exist. I was human and satisfied. I was so lucky. I let go of any thoughts surrounding a moment past right then. I grounded in the now.
The menu came (see below) which was titled “I Am,” with a list of options named positive qualities. We all ordered “Open-Hearted” pancakes, because breakfast is good enough to have twice. Though I felt a little bit like an episode of Portlandia, uncertain of what hemp milk was and how cashews made whipped cream, I soaked in the laughter of the scenario and the peace of the company…and the cashew whipped cream was actually incredible.
From then on, things kept falling into place. I went to session back at the residential house I was in this past winter, and was greeted by so many warm smiles and good wishes. My therapist had previously questioned whether or not I wanted to do therapy on my birthday, but I’d insisted, because seeing the faces of people who have helped me immensely on my journey, and those who continue to do so that was the best birthday present of all. I love my therapist, my dietitian, my whole team, and I loved the chance to be in the place that I first found safety, on a day when I could recognize the safety within myself. I was so grateful.
On my way out, I even got to stay for the beginning of a current client’s graduation. Seeing people transitioning to a lower level of care always gives me something. No matter what the stage is that they leave in, it is a powerful experience to witness the evolution that occurs in residential treatment. It often renews my commitment, sometimes inspires, and, at times, grows my gratitude for my own path. Another gift.
I got back in time to pick some flowers and prepare apple crisp (my favorite dessert), then headed over to another new restaurant for dinner with some more friends. I’d been surprised earlier with the knowledge that we’d be going and I loved having more of a reason to stay dressed like a princess. I was greeted with more flowers and gifts and smiles. Seeing so many that I love and who have been a part of my process was unforgettable. The entire time, I couldn’t help but compare. I got flowers last year on my birthday, but I wasn’t allowed to keep them in my room. I had apple crisp on my birthday as my birthday snack with all of the other residents, but I felt guilty, not only for eating, but also for being the cause of others having to eat their fears due to my birth. I cried over last year’s dinner: it was my most feared meal. Yesterday, in honor of my continued existence, I ate what I wanted and let love in, no tears.
At night, it all came to a close with a memorial. Last week, a previous client had passed away from her eating disorder. I hadn’t known her, but their was a memorial prepared at the transitional house I now live in on my birthday. Many people asked me if I wanted to go, if it would be hard to be there during my birthday. It wasn’t. Last night, I witnessed a community come together in memory. I saw the impact one human can have on the world. I watched the love of continuation, and the power of connection. I felt the energy of grief, peace, sorrow, resilience, confusion, passion, and the collision of a myriad of other emotions. It was a gift.
None of which I expected.