On Wednesday, my 21st birthday, as we walked out of our seminar and on to Prospect Street, my friend asked me why I was in class. On her 21st, she explained, she started drinking at 11:00 a.m. and didn’t stop until hours after midnight, and her birthday had passed. I shrugged and said my parents were driving up to campus for dinner to see me on my actual birthday. That was true. It was also true that they were coming up to campus because I had no plans to drink that night. My friend quickly stated that my parents’ planned visit was nice, wished me another happy birthday and sped away to get to her class across campus on time. I smiled back at her. She unwittingly threw tinder on the embers of self-pity that settled in my chest when I woke up that morning.
Betterhelp.com diagnosed me with a mild case of “birthday depression” or “birthday blues,” a common affliction which the knockoff WebMD informed me causes feelings of sadness and malaise to bubble up on your birthday. Its causes include “societal expectations and pressures” (check), “expectations to have an epic birthday” (partially true, even though I’d probably settle for enjoyable, so still check), “a feeling of failure” (a delusion I share with many of the other six percent of former applicants who actually got into this school, so — again — check) and “not having many friends” (bingo! check).
A week into my first year, my FroCo marched our group of first years 10 minutes up Science Hill and sat us down in a circle on a small patch of grass that sits between the Sterling Chemistry Lab and the Sloane Physics Lab. He had us write a goal on a sheet of paper for what we wanted to accomplish by the semester’s end. I wrote that I wanted a solid group of friends to lean on, “go-to” people who I could always count on to grab dinner or go to a party with or who would plan an “epic” birthday for me.
My FroCo shared that he could split his friends into two groups: those who had formed deep, lasting connections with people on campus and those who had never felt their college relationships pierce below the surface level. I spent most of my first year fretting over the idea that I’d be one of those people in the latter camp, untethered to this community, microanalyzing every interaction to figure out if each person in front of me was someone I could grow close to. By the year’s end, I’d learned to accept the relationships I had for what they were and just start living. I might not have found a ride-or-die person, but I could still appreciate what I had.
But birthdays make it harder to feel less alone. It’s a day devoted to us, to celebrate us, to show appreciation for us. It’s a day when we can’t help but reflect on who we’ve become and how much time we have left, to take a good hard look and assess what we like and dislike about ourselves. And it’s a day when people are constantly telling us to be happy, and then walk away and forget about us unless we put our guards down and ask them to stay and celebrate.
It’s not in my nature to consider drinking when I should be in class, even if it was the day I was finally “legal.” My first night of college, I followed my roommate from our suite in Silliman entryway C to the suite of the kids in E he’d met on Facebook. I sat in the corner, watching fellow first years down shots of Svedka and plan which frat to visit first. I trailed that group all the way to Silliman’s College Street gate before turning back and shuffling home.
By junior year, I’ve sure grown. I now might have a couple of drinks one Friday a month. I still don’t have the guts, imagination or resolve to skip a (small) class for an occasion like my birthday. But the swirling thought that I was missing out on the hallowed 21st, that I was somehow neglecting to have a good experience, that people didn’t really care, that stung.
The most frustrating part about the “birthday blues” is that it’s mundane and common. It can be exacerbated by existing societal stressors; barriers to opportunity can inspire feelings of inadequacy around the special day. But, at its core, it’s plain old loneliness or lack of self-esteem or anxiety or regret. It’s whatever cuts at our fundamental feelings — feelings we all have, feelings we all wonder if we have control over, feelings we aren’t special for experiencing. It’s not the result of piles of work or daring exploits; it’s a product of who we see ourselves as. And it’s hard to share because it cuts close on a day when we’re expected to project happiness. It cuts close on birthdays.
So, to those who catch a round of the “birthday blues”: Sorry your day is hard. It’s okay if it’s not as happy as you hoped.
JACOB HUTT is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .