Birthdays / by Sarah Schwartz

I love birthdays.

I love that there is a day set aside to celebrate someone's existence. Not for any particular accomplishments or qualities, (though those may be mentioned by the celebrators) but for the whole life of a person. A day set aside to say, "Hey, I love you, and am glad that you occupy space in the world. I'm glad you're breathing in and out. I am glad that you are."

I love celebrating my friend's birthdays. I love planning surprises and writing cards and making sure that person knows what a grip they have on my heart, how much better my life is because of theirs. I love making other people feel loved from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes.

I like my birthday. I use the word "like", because February 12th of each year overwhelms me a smidge.  The cards and the calls and the celebration, while life giving for this "words of affirmation" girl, also make me squirm a bit.  I am uncomfortable, receiving such unadulterated love. My mind immediately starts spinning as to how I can reciprocate such acts of kindness, how I can pay back the time and energy others put into acknowledging my life. I feel bad that people put effort into a day just about me. Even writing this, I feel anxiety rising in my chest, the fear that I have taken up more than my allotted time or space in an individual or group of individuals lives.

What if I am found out? What if I am not enough? What if they realize I'm not worth the fuss?

This fear doesn't just come on my birthday. It comes when I apologize for telling my best friends too much about my day, or when I nervously look at the clock to make sure I'm not taking up too much of a professor's or mentor's time. It comes when someone asks how I am and I give them a cursory answer before quickly circling the conversation back to them. It's the belief that if I shrink myself, if I am a relationship in people's lives that requires no maintenance, no effort, maybe I'll be allowed to stick around. If I never ask for anything, I won't ever have to face being told I'm too much, that I'm not welcome or not worthy. It's the reason I almost never get angry on my own behalf, let alone express that anger. Don't cause a fuss, Sarah, don't rock the boat. Don't give them reason to not want you.

Once, someone came along who was adamant that they wanted all of me, not just the fragmented parts of myself I offer to the world in hopes of not being too much. As you can imagine, I am not easily convinced of such things, but they persisted, and with time, won me over. But shortly there after, for reasons that are too complicated to explain here, that changed. Almost overnight, it became clear that my presence was an inconvenience. Conversation, an arduous chore. On good days, I was tolerated, and on bad, I was ignored.

I took it as a challenge. Just you watch, I will need nothing from you. I will shrink so small that I barely require oxygen. You will not even know I am here! I will be better and more desirable than all those other silly human people with silly human people needs. I will require so little that you will applaud me for how easy it is to be with me. I will win your affection by being the most unaffected, nearly non-existent person you have ever known!

Wrong.

Even then, even after all my shrinking and stuffing, I was told that I had asked for too much. Not only that, but my asking was likened to a betrayal.

I knew it wasn't true then, and I know it's not true now. And while I wish I had never heard those words, or felt the pain that came with them, in a strange way, they have guided me down the path of understanding my own dysfunction. It was my worst fear realized; that occupying even the tiniest amount of room in someone's life would be deemed "too much", and I would be rejected. My worst fear actually happened, and let me tell you, it was crazy.

And so this week was my birthday, and I felt my traditional wave of birthday emotions; gratitude and love mixed with fear. I thought about all of my hiding and apologizing and shrinking, thought about my whole, messed up economy of earning love through pretending not to be human, and decided that with this new number, I need a change. Call it growing up, call it showing up for myself, but to borrow from Buddy Wakefield, in the year I am 23, I want to be unapologetic for living.

This year, I want to be unapologetic for my personhood. No more contorting into impossibly small spaces so that others might find me palatable. No more apologizing for having something to say, and needing someone to listen. No more dancing on the outskirts of my loved one's lives, hoping they won't resent me when I need a firm place to plant my feet.

23 will require a lot of unlearning, a lot of grace and patience and being ok with the mess that comes with blowing the dust off of the neglected places of my heart. No one ever said being a whole person would be easy. Actually, I'm pretty sure it's going to be really, really hard. And as with most things worth pursuing, it will take more than me. It took a village to raise me, to get me to 23, and it will continue to take a village to teach me how to live well, to love and allow myself to be loved.

And maybe next year, I won't be so apologetic for having a birthday.

"I choose to be unapologetic for healthy living.

I choose to be unapologetic for living.

I choose to politely ask myself to step aside if I am in my own way.
If I do not get out of my own way, I choose to call a friend
who will have me removed.

I choose big me big you.

I choose chin up, best foot forward, stick my landings.

I choose a safe place to land." (Buddy Wakefield)