My cousin and I were born a little under eight months apart. Growing up, our families were very close, and we grew to be, too. We spent weekends and holidays together, wrote each other little notes that were passed along through our grandmother during the week, talked endlessly about what our lives would look like when we grew up. All big events were celebrated with together: birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases. My aunt and uncle would even buy us the same gifts, but instead of giving them to us on our respective birthdays, they would give them to us on mine. Never on hers. Always on mine. Do I resent her for it? No. Am I angry at her parents for it? Not really, although I’m sure at one point I was.
The act in itself isn’t what’s important here. What’s important to understand is how it made me feel. The idea that on the anniversary of my birth, it wasn’t only me who was celebrated. That she pretty much had two birthdays a year, and I had only half. It made me feel less than. Insignificant. Maybe my aunt and uncle thought it would save my cousin from feeling left out, or maybe it was so that we had the same things. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that those feelings of insignificance bled into my teenage years, and then broke into my twenties. Here it still is, popping up once in a while like a whack-a-mole, reminding me that even my own family believe me to be less than.
I doubt my aunt or uncle ever thought about long-term consequences when they gifted us both jewellery sets that looked like smarties, but the fact remains that it made a difference to my future. For a long time after we stopped getting the families together for birthdays, my birthday was either forgotten or skipped over. Friends and I would organise all these parties and celebrations, but my birthday was never on the list. When someone did decide to celebrate, it was filled with drama and fights and ended with me in tears. The entire time, I thought it was because I was undeserving of a fun birthday. Because I wasn’t worth celebrating.
When I hit twenty-one, I decided that every bad birthday I’ve ever had (which, of the ones I remember before this point, was all of them) was terrible because someone else organised it. So, I split the celebrations for my twenty-first up across two days, celebrating with different sections of my friends and family on different days to prevent arguments while still doing what I wanted to do. It actually turned out to be a really good idea and worked like a charm. Unfortunately, my uncle died that year. Drama ensued for months afterwards. My birthdays became things I wanted to celebrate but couldn’t bring myself to. They started bad, had a few decent moments in the middle and ended in tears again.
Since seeking help with my mental illness, since opening up about the things that trigger me, I’ve found that my birthdays are actually getting better again. I’ve spent the past two years celebrating in Scotland: a trip to see the Kelpies in Falkirk one year, and a day in Fife at the Aquarium and exploring the ruins the next.
This year, I booked myself a ticket to Paris. A whole week of eating bread and drinking wine (maybe not wine, I really don’t like wine!), meandering through the streets and gazing lovingly at art in the Louvre, exploring the Pantheon, taking tours of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and even a day to trip to Giverny and Versailles! Perfection, right? And the way it happened was just as brilliant: I was joking about it one night, mentioned it to a friend the next afternoon, and less than five hours later we were booked!
There was, however, an incident a little later on that day that made me feel less than again. The situation itself isn’t important, but those feelings came flooding back. I was angry at first – resentful, even – but then I realised what the trigger was. I realised that it wasn’t the situation I was angry about, but the way it had been handled. It had sent me right back to being a child, watching my cousin opening presents on my birthday. Just as I knew it wasn’t intentional of my aunt and uncle all those years before, I knew it wasn’t intentional here, but the situation put me in the background of my own story. When I calmed down, I realised this link to my childhood. I confronted the person involved, explained what it was that had upset me, and why I had reacted so badly.
Often, the things we think least likely to hurt someone, play a bigger role than we can ever imagine. After all, it’s not about how deeply you think you’ve hurt someone, it’s about deeply they’ve felt it. And maybe that’s a lesson that we can all use a friendly reminder of sometimes.
Feature Image by Giftpundits