Today is my birthday.
That’s actually kind of hard to say, because I hate birthdays. Many of them have been awful. I won’t go through the litany of stuff that’s happened, because in the grand scheme of human horrors, it feels self-indulgent to whine about shitty birthdays. But since I was a kid, birthdays have been days I feel particularly alone, lonely, isolated, unseen, unloved, and like a failure.
Last year some friends threw a surprise party, which I so appreciated. I’d always wanted a surprise party, but I had never admitted it. I wanted my friends to just know that beneath all my birthday hate (removing reminders from Facebook and telling people not to acknowledge it), I secretly craved someone who understood that what I really, really needed was to feel special without having to ask.
Two years ago, my counselor pointed out that expecting the people in my life to be psychic was, you know, a bit unfair, and she encouraged me to express what I wanted. The resulting conversations were quite enlightening; several friends said they had always wanted to celebrate with me but felt like they had to tiptoe through a minefield, trying to respect my stated wish to pretend like my birthday didn’t exist. So that helped, but it was too late to plan anything that year, so I got myself a python instead. And a gargoyle gecko. And last year, I started this blog, and a week after my birthday some of my friends arranged a surprise party, and it was lovely.
I knew I wouldn’t have a surprise party this year because, well, COVID, and also because you can’t have a surprise party every year, even though it would be really cool if you could. The last thing I wanted was to spend the day alone, and I anticipated a bad crash. I cleared my schedule and put together a stack of books to read about God’s love and planned for some quality work on my novel.
And I prayed. I prayed for a good birthday with people in it and at least one good surprise. I don’t know what that can look like in COVID season. But I guess that’s where the surprise part would come in, right?
I so often feel like good in my life is defined (by other people, not by me) as the absence of bad things. “At least you have a roof over your head.” “At least you have a paycheck.” “At least you have your health.” And yes, these are blessings, and I do take them for granted more than I should…but all of those “at least” statements implicitly shame me for desiring more.
Still, as I thought about what would constitute a good birthday, my first thought was the absence of anything bad: no drama, no emotional crisis, no awful crash. (Okay, full disclosure: My first first thought was that meeting the love of my life at the DMV would be pretty darn amazing.) Not being able to see people does mean that some of the things that ruined previous birthdays aren’t going to happen this year. For example, I won’t have to listen to my roommate having drunken sex with my crush. (Not that that’s ever happened. Or that I’m still bitter about it.)
But…is the best I can expect really just an absence of bad things? A reasonably pleasant, mellow day without any major emotional upheaval?
People tell me God is capable of big things, things we can’t even imagine. Don’t limit God, I hear, don’t put God in a box. Then when I ask where God’s goodness is in my life, those same people tell me to stop expecting big things and look harder for the little things. And I’m left feeling perplexed, resentful, unloved. Like other people get feasts and I have to scrounge for crumbs. Like God can’t be bothered to move in my life in a big way, a way I can recognize, a way that doesn’t depend on my attitude or interpretation or observation to be real.
A way that I can’t mistake for anything but fierce, divine love.
So I woke into today hoping for the best and feeling unusually optimistic, thinking that maybe instead of marking yet another year of unfulfilled goals and failures and unachieved dreams, this birthday could signal a new beginning. The start of something. The seeds that have been germinating finally poking their heads above ground.
And I also woke into the epiphany that so much of my pain and woundedness is about feeling invisible and silenced. That’s the root of my birthday angst: thinking if I don’t make a fuss about my own birthday, no one else will notice. Making sure no one can notice, so I’m not disappointed when they don’t. Feeling like if people don’t see me, don’t desire me, I don’t exist. (Yes, I’m such a Goth cliche that there’s literally a song about this.) It’s why I used to push myself to extremes, take every dare, force myself into an idiotic level of acting like a badass. Why I always had to be the most vivid person in the room, because if I didn’t have a teal Mohawk, people might not see me at all, and then I’d be nothing.
As a teenager I shrieked for help in every way I knew how to shriek. I didn’t have the words so I acted out the anguish: temper tantrums, screaming, storms of sobbing that left my face so swollen I could barely see the next mornings. Furrows that I raked into my scalp, beneath my hair. I gouged skin from my head to give myself so much dandruff that classmates said I had lice. On freezing winter nights I’d open my bedroom window as wide as it would go, strip the blankets off my bed, and sleep in my underwear, hoping to catch a fever so I wouldn’t have to go to school.
My parents noticed, sort of. They were terrified to send me to a real counselor. They talked to my teachers, who said things like “She’s just a drama queen” and “She won’t be happy anywhere, so don’t even try another school.” They told me, “God wants you here for a reason. There’s a lesson you need to learn.”
The lesson I learned was that I was trapped. Invisible. That even if I shredded my vocal cords, my screams were silent. That the more I was contorted and maddened with agony, the less seriously people took me. It’s easy to dismiss teenage girls as being melodramatic and self-obsessed and overly emotional and unstable. It’s a convenient way of silencing them, of gaslighting them, of preemptively discrediting anything they might say. And it’s the explanation of the Salem witchcraft trials that, to me, has always rung the most true: teenage girls in a repressive patriarchal society, who had no voice and no power, suddenly finding a way to make themselves heard and seen and validated. Yes, it came at the expense of others’ lives — many of them. But maybe some of those girls were screaming for their own lives in the only way they could.
I’ve walked through my own life feeling invisible, or visible by only the most precarious of threads. Visibility is so tenuous and so easily lost. I could sacrifice it if I do something normal with my hair, if I stop wearing all black all the time, if I don’t have the flashiest collection of footwear. Friends might forget about me if I don’t text them regularly to remind them I exist, or if I don’t need them enough, or if I need them too much. Men might not see me if I develop more wrinkles or gain ten pounds. If I ever stop screaming, God might mistake my quietness for complacency and ignore me.
The paradox, of course, is that you can’t scream loudly enough to make people hear when they’ve decided what you have to say isn’t worth listening to, or, more definitively, that you aren’t worth the time or effort. The paradox of asking for help is that it gives people the chance to say no, and some of them do say that, and sometimes they say it in damaging and ugly ways. You’re never going to strike the perfect balance between strength and vulnerability, neediness and independence. There’s always someone who won’t see you, who won’t hear you, and you can’t make them listen.
I have been reading and hearing about God being enough. God meeting all our needs. I know that’s in the Bible, but it feels simplistic to me. If God met all our needs, people — or at least people who love and believe in God — would never go hungry. They would never fight losing battles with addiction. They would never commit suicide. And people who love God struggle with all of those things. How is God meeting their needs?
I can’t answer this question. I can say that I’ve been terrified of even wanting God to be enough for me, because I’m so scared that “enough for me” is going to look like a lot more loneliness and deprivation and isolation, and the only thing that will change is I’m somehow not bothered by it, or I’ll believe I’m not supposed or allowed to be bothered by it.
But what I’ve been thinking today is that maybe enough means I approach life with the basic knowledge that I am always seen, always heard, always valued. That I don’t need to rely on other humans for those things, even though I long for and appreciate those who provide them. That I don’t need to keep jumping up and down and shouting, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” and punishing those who refuse.
Because I am guilty of that, too. I have used invisibility as a weapon. I have done it sometimes out of ignorance — truly not seeing someone I should have seen, or not noticing their spoken or unspoken requests to be visible and audible. And I have done it out of deep pain, when I’ve been wounded in ways I can’t begin to articulate or acknowledge to the person who did the wounding, and pretending not to see them feels like a necessary defense. But it’s also cruel. And I realize now that when people have wounded me that deeply, it’s because I have been too dependent on them to see and hear and validate me. I have been looking to them to confirm my very existence. And, in that sense, I have elevated them to the status of God in my life. When they don’t see or hear or acknowledge me, the stakes are intolerably high, and the only way I have known to react is to nullify them as definitively and cruelly as they have nullified me.
In fairness, sometimes when I have tried to acknowledge what they did, they have still refused to see and hear me. That roommate? “It’s none of your business,” was her response when I told her how hurt I was. How I had introduced her to this male friend in good faith; how she had even promised, without me asking her to, that she’d never make a move on him because she knew how I felt. “This has nothing to do with you,” she said as I struggled to understand how I could trust someone who had broken a promise she knew was very important to me. And that made it harder, the next time, to admit when I was hurt. To expose my bleeding hands, my bleeding soul. To not just turn my face away and pretend like I didn’t see the person anymore, to not rationalize that it was the only way to guard myself from further pain and invalidation and maybe even gaslighting.
I hadn’t even put that into words until this morning. I try to consciously act out of love, but sometimes I forget, and sometimes I don’t know what love looks like in a given situation. I have fought to balance love with accountability, and love for others with nurture of myself. And I have sometimes gotten it wrong. So wrong. I expect that I will keep getting it wrong, because I am, after all, human.
But if I approach the world from a posture not of defensiveness, not of waiting for the other shoe to drop, not of fearing invisibility and needing to make my mark just to confirm that I’m real and I matter, then maybe I can be more loving toward others. More understanding of their shortcomings. More willing to supply the benefit of the doubt. More able to acknowledge and confront wounds without placing my entire identity, the whole of my existence, on the line.
Because God sees me. God hears me. God created me, as flawed and imperfect, restless and creative, loving and striving, kind and cruel, brilliant and stupid, extreme and boring, messy and contradictory and occasionally even awesome, as I am. And maybe if I can remember that, if I can know it at a visceral, marrow-deep level, if I can approach other people not with a deficit (of love, of attention, of existence), I can be more free to show them all those facets of myself. And to embrace all the facets of themselves, in return.
Happy birthday to me.