It’s my birthday Thursday.
I’ll be celebrating 22 years of life.
Twenty-two years with a disability.
Twenty-two years with an ostomy.
Twenty-two years of being sick.
Let me be honest: I am not a birthday person.
It’s not that my birthdays have been particularly terrible. Some of them, that I remember, were actually really fun, such as the time my boyfriend took me to Half Price Books and let me pick out my own gifts. This was after we’d been to The Royal Cafe for lunch and gone thrifting, two of my favorite activities.
Ever since my boyfriend came into my life, he has lovingly made it his mission to make every birthday of mine special. From allowing us to eat sushi for every meal without complaint to surprising me with heartfelt gifts, the unspectacular birthdays stopped after I turned 18.
Nevertheless, I actively avoid talking about my birthday up to a month before its arrival — if not solely to escape the memories of a disabled childhood. I now grapple with this new “adult” obligation I feel to throw some kind of party for myself.
Sure, I’ve never really minded that my birthday is routinely lumped together with the Fourth of July in celebration, or that it also seems to be the one weekend of the month that everyone is out of town. I never minded that my family couldn’t afford a bouncy castle or a magician or a pony, or that I wasn’t healthy enough for trampoline parks, go-karting or amusement parks.
I know for a fact that I have spent at least one — but probably more — birthdays in the hospital or the emergency room, and I look forward to recovering the memories of these birthdays with my therapist someday soon. For now, I just see them in glimpses at the corners of my memory, threatening to replay themselves piece by piece.
My fourth birthday, I was too anxious to come down from our apartment to the party my parents had put together with other kids in the building. I felt so self-conscious with everyone paying attention to me. My dad absolutely begged for me to come down and enjoy my party; the poor man had probably been barbecuing all day.
I was no doubt feeling especially sick that day. I remember because my aunt had gotten me a Strawberry Shortcake doll that smelled particularly pungent. The three girls my age who lived in the building were there because of the cake or because their parents had made them attend. It made me even more self-conscious, knowing that they weren’t actually there for me.
On my seventh birthday, my mother thought it would be a good idea to invite everyone from my first grade class. I didn’t have any friends, and she thought that a great way to make some would be by taking the whole class to a park to eat cake together on a July afternoon. The party was interrupted by the grandmother of a boy in my class announcing to everyone that another boy’s father had died the day before and that that was why he hadn’t shown up. It really put a damper on the rest of the party.
I remember being sick on my 10th birthday. I never had a singular “group” of friends, so I invited a hodgepodge of other 10-year-olds as well as our neighbors to go and see “WALL-E” on its opening weekend. I woke up feeling particularly awful that day, and by the time everyone was gathered around our patio picnic table for a Technicolor cake, I wasn’t able to keep anything down.
My 13th birthday was an attempt to have a beach party,” like I assumed every teenager did in the summer. Inviting a few friends to the Berkeley Marina with a few craft store kites in tow, I envisioned a day spent splashing around in swimsuits and flying kites on the sand. Instead, no one brought a swimsuit due to the cold East Bay climate, and it was way too windy for the water to be safe. My mother had to use rocks to weigh down the napkins and the pizza box. My cake, topped with sickeningly thick frosting, was melting quickly and was not enjoyed by anyone in attendance.
For my 14th through 17th birthdays, I didn’t do much of anything. I celebrated with a few friends here and there, and always with my Nana, who had lived with us for most of my life. That seemed to be enough for me.
I finally dared to invite a couple of close friends over for my 18th, only for them to cancel at the last minute. I ended up watching “Sex and” the City with my mother until late into the night, wondering how I had reached such a point.
This birthday blues was a side effect of my disabled childhood, my birthday a casualty of my own internalized ableism, its voice ever-present: Nobody will want to come; you don’t have any friends anyway; and you don’t have anything in common with people your age.
Although my ostomy is the most defining characteristic of my identity — and I am proud of it — it can sometimes fuel the voice of my internal disabled girl. The girl with no friends who can talk about nothing but ostomies and doctors. The girl who knows that she possesses only a small fraction of the energy her abled friends possess.
Whenever I start to plan my birthday, she comes back, reminding me: Nobody will want to come[; you don’t have any friends anyway; and you don’t have anything in common with people your age.
As I write this, I still have no plans for my fast-approaching birthday. I wish I could tell you that I am going to a bar, or that I have actually been to a bar before, or that I am going dancing with my friends. (That’s a thing young people do, right?) Maybe someday I will become a birthday person, and I will have friends I will enjoy celebrating it with.
But for now, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be disabled and chronically ill in my 20’s.