I have never really enjoyed my birthday. Most of the birthdays I remember growing up, if I had a party, I would end up off to the side crying, while the other kids were having fun playing games. For whatever reason, I could never find happiness in what was supposed to be a special day.
This sad tradition continued into adulthood.
Last year, I spent my 34th birthday in isolation. The highlight of that day was when the mailman delivered a book I ordered about qualitative research methods. I was excited because this book was to help me move forward with my dissertation—the dissertation that I am still writing. I went to work that day, then afterward, I dined alone at a dark, secluded, overpriced restaurant in downtown Chicago. It was me, a filet mignon that I couldn’t afford, and a strawberry fizz martini. I flirted with the nice, most likely gay, waiter, but that kind of flirting is always safe. I left the restaurant slightly tipsy and filled with food but feeling empty of everything else. I’m pretty sure I cried myself to sleep.
This year, as my 35th birthday approached, I started down that sad road, thinking about everything I didn’t have and comparing myself to others. After all, when my mama was thirty-five, she was on her second husband and having her second child…me. At thirty-five, I am still single with no prospects worth mentioning, and my only child has four legs and a tail. But even as I reflected on the negative, the positive began to win out. So I made a choice to be happy on my birthday, even with the imperfections in my life.
I still spent the first part of my 35th birthday by myself, but I did something a little different. In the afternoon, I visited a farmer’s market downtown and talked to lots of people. I did the healthy thing and bought some fresh fruits and veggies…and cheese. I even bought myself flowers. I made a decision to be among the living. Later that evening, I had a steak I could afford because my friends made it for me. I had two martinis and a big piece of chocolate cake with my good friend as we both bitched about men and talked about life. And I walked away from the evening feeling very tipsy and full. Full of food and full of life.
As I left my friend’s house that evening, I began to reflect on the change in my emotional outlook from last year to this year. What in the world could have happened that changed me so much? I was still in the same, if not worse, financial situation that I was in last year. I was still single, no prospects, living with my mom. I was still an unpublished writer and undiscovered musician. I’m still working on a PhD, which I’m very passionate about, but at the same time completely frightened that I will never finish.
I decided to do some research on myself. I’ve always kept a journal, but I haven’t really been consistent with my entries until the past couple of years. So I took a look at my journal entries from this time last year to get a better understanding of my journey over the past year. I began with looking at an entry a few days before my 34th birthday:
July 30, 2010: I turn 34 next week and unfortunately have to accept that I am in love with a guy that does not love me back. Sometimes I get a fraction of what I want, but I have never received the entire thing from him.
I find that it’s better to go ahead and accept it rather than to fight it. Fighting it makes me hate myself for loving him, and fighting it makes me obsess over him.
And why do I hate myself? Because I’ve spent very limited time with this guy. Dinner and sex. We’ve shared countless e-mails, which is nice, but no long talks, no long walks, not the type of connection that I’ve envisioned for myself.
So this is why I hate myself for falling for this guy because to the average person, it does not make sense.
And let’s not talk about all the times he’s told me point-blank that he was in love with someone else and didn’t want me to get too attached to him. While at the same time telling me how wonderful I am. So of course, I’m thinking if I’m so wonderful, he should eventually change his mind about me, right?
I don’t know who is crazier, him or me?
I just know that I love him, and the worst thing is that the feelings are not returned.
I cannot believe I am writing this on paper. I would not even tell my shrink how I feel about this man.
I am trying to date other guys, but I just haven’t been very successful yet. It’s difficult. My heart is open…I think.
After reading this, I began to, as we qualitative researchers say, extract the common themes: self-hate, despair, depression. I really do not even recognize this girl. Who is she? I may have not even wanted to spend time with this girl. She sounds pretty hopeless, pathetic even, at times. I want to tell her how beautiful she is and that she should not waste any more time on this loser who has no interest in her.
I was starting to get harsh and judgmental with my old self, which was not the point of what I was trying to accomplish. Honestly, if I had been asked a year ago if I loved myself and if I felt good about myself, I would have said that I definitely loved myself. Of course I did. I was going after what I wanted. I was trying to make this man love me.
I was lying to myself.
As I read more, I began to feel sorry for the old me:
August 2, 2010: Two days before my 34th birthday. I am back at a place that I never want to be, emotionally and utterly depressed. I will say that yes, I had hoped and prayed and bargained and meditated and whatever else you can think of to have this man by my side for my birthday, if nothing more than to have a nice date. But unless a miracle happens within the next 24-48 hours, it does not seem like that will happen.
So I sit here, thinking. Sad tears are falling; I’m alone. I long for this guy to be crazy about me, but it hasn’t happened. So I sink back into these hopeless feelings.
I think about how to either make the pain go away or not feel this pain at all.
I’m here alone, thinking, crying, and fantasizing. And in two days, I’ll be grateful that I’ve turned another year older and think all the while that it’s just another day.
Many addicts say there is a bottom that you have to get to before you can begin to change and ask for help. I would say that what I had just read was one of my emotional bottoms. I knew I had to make some changes and begin to accept the fact that I was love-addicted. I didn’t really know what that meant. I just knew I didn’t want to live like this anymore.
It took some time, but several months later, I cut all ties with the man. No calls, no texts, no e-mails, no smoke signals. I deleted his number from my phone, unfriended him on Facebook. I went cold turkey, the way the recovering alcoholics do it. I wrote about that too:
November 5, 2010: I’ve made it. Five days sober. I wasn’t addicted to any kind of substance—no alcohol, no drugs, not even food or sex. This isn’t even about codependency. I was addicted to a fantasy of being with a man who would never be available to me. I kept trying to trick my mind into thinking maybe if I was sweeter, maybe if I was more eccentric, more interesting, nicer, he would want to be with me. Surely he could see, or eventually see, how good we could be together. But the more I held on to this fantasy, the more empty I felt and continued to feel. I lied to myself that we could be friends and held on to those crumbs for way too long.
My so-called draw to or love for him was based on my own insecurities and neediness. And my inability to let go of him was because of my own emotional loneliness and the thought that the fantasy of a relationship with him was better than being completely and utterly alone. But something started to happen once I started to seek God again. I came to realize that first I wasn’t alone, and any loneliness that I felt or was going to feel, well, God was going to make it okay. And that is when I got the strength to completely let go.
I’m not saying these five days have been easy, but they haven’t been devastating either. I’ve been praying for strength in getting over my addiction. And as I slowly have been letting go, I had thought that my addiction had been to the man himself, but I now believe the addiction was to some kind of image that I had created in my mind of this man and how I wanted him in my life.
But the reality, as the words of close friends began to ring in my head, was that he was not the one. God has a “one.” Somewhere for me, I just have to wait patiently for him and wait on Him. And the one He has for me will not be a fantasy or give me only little pieces of himself; this one will be real, and I will not have to create some fantasy in my head about our love for each other because our love will be right there for me to experience with all of my senses.
I beam with pride as I read this entry. My strength had begun to emerge, but I did go through a withdrawal period. This was because when I removed the obsession, all I was left with was me. I had to become my own friend, my own lover. And I was spending twenty-four hours a day with myself. So I figured that I better start to like the person I was spending all my time with.
I began to get to know myself, and I realized that I had some demons from the past that I needed to confront and release. And when I started releasing the demons, I was free to live and really dream for the future. I had an amazing strength that I had not even tapped into. This moved me along to a journal entry from several days before my 35th birthday:
July 20, 2011: I will not give up. I will take it one day at a time, one step at a time. I am starting to feel my professional confidence coming back. My attractiveness, not so much. But I think that will come with time. I am still very lonely and dreading my birthday a bit. Not dreading living this long, just dreading the actual day.
Last year I felt so alone on that day, but being around people would not have helped. I was in a different frame of mind then. I’m in a much more evolved, and some would argue better, state of mind now. I don’t feel as empty, and my emotional loneliness is not as deep. I am much more grateful, and I have developed tools to help me cope. Using them is the challenge.
But my life is filled with wonderful friends and family, and I do have my mother, who I’m grateful for. I just always have this feeling like I should be doing more, that I should have more. I’m never good enough for myself.
I see lovers holding hands or moms and dads with children, and I no longer envy them. I smile because those scenes warm my heart. But then I get sad. Sad because I long for that warmth to fill my heart. And I’m not sure what I can do to fill that part of my heart that is empty. I am filled with God’s love and that should be enough. So I feel guilty for the continued longing in my heart.
August 1, 2011: So only a few days before my birthday. And I feel really grateful to be alive.
There are some bad situations that I may never find gratitude in. But I am learning that even some of the worst things have a blessing inside of them somewhere. I just have to be patient enough to find them.
Today, I am genuinely happy. I am happy to be alive—grateful for the love and light that is present in my life. It’s so much prettier to focus on rather than the dark. I can pull the dark out and deal with those feelings, but I must never let it outshine or overshadow the light.
I felt the light yesterday when I was at church. I ran into so many wonderful people, including one of my spiritual mentors, that prayed for me. While he prayed, he called me “God’s beautiful creation.” Instead of resisting that compliment, I just accepted the wonderful description of me and let it permeate my soul.
August 3, 2011: So one day before my birthday, and I’m not emotionally where I want to be but not where I was last year either. So I’m grateful. My challenge this month is to be grateful in everything and grateful for everything. Even the seemingly bad stuff.
But I got emotional yesterday when I opened up that sacred place of loneliness where my desire lies.
So I have to keep telling myself that I’m grateful for being single. But not in the way that I have in the past. There’s no grand amount of freedom that is so much better in single-land compared to a relationship. Because who truthfully doesn’t want someone to care about them and to connect with them and take a small part of that freedom away. That’s bullshit. I’m grateful because this time has allowed me to get to know myself better and to get to know God better.
In getting to know myself better, I have learned the lies that I have told myself about myself, and I have examined and analyzed the events of my childhood and how they have affected me. I have become aware of behaviors and coping mechanisms that no longer work for me. I am getting to know myself and praising the good and being gentler with the bad.
I’ve gotten to know God’s love. I have a daily relationship with Him, which on my end has its ups and downs. But it is strong. It exists. It’s the best thing in my life.
So getting to know myself and being drawn into a closer relationship with God are the reasons why I am grateful in this moment for being single. I’m not lying to myself about my desires, making it seem like this glorious time of fun and independence. I want to be in a healthy, meaningful, growing relationship.
So the research I began on myself asked the question, between my 34th and 35th birthdays, “what in the world could have happened that changed me so much?” I don’t know if I will ever have a concrete answer to that question. I just know that I have more clarity about so many things. Clarity leads to knowing (really knowing) who I am and getting closer to God.
I had been trying to get from point A to C without doing what was necessary to work through point B. I wasn’t necessarily trying to skip point B, just lightly treading over it. Or as my therapist so eloquently told me one time, “Michele, up until this point, you’ve been dealing with your wounds like putting patchwork on a leaky roof. It solves the problem for a little while, but eventually, without a permanent fix, the problems begin to leak through again.”
So here I am trying to deal with me. I’m not trying to make anything happen; I’m just trying to just be. I realized that a lot of my unhappiness last year was because I felt a huge disconnect from a spiritual source (God). I sought God out and I found Him in more ways than I could ever imagine.
I am more aware now of God’s love. I feel it especially at times when things are scary and uncertain, and I should be stressed out and crazy, but instead I have a sense of peace and confidence.
It has been a gradual progression and transition where the beauty in and through my life is beginning to shine through. I notice the beauty in the smallest things and in the smallest ways: when I make a decision that is best for me, and I don’t feel guilty about it; when I speak up for myself without feeling nervous; when I truly feel that I am God’s beautiful creation; when a man stands me up for a date, and I don’t let it affect my day. I know that I am changing.
So I am here, alive and well and a work in progress. I know that the very fact I am still breathing on my birthday is proof of God’s love for me and confirmation of a purpose for my life. My unfailing prayer is knowledge of that purpose and the power to carry that out.
Common themes: faith, hope, and love.