Today is my thirty-first birthday.
I will spend it alone.
I don’t say this to elicit sympathy; simply to highlight an all too common reality for those who are housebound through old age or illness.
The only person I will see today is an agency carer, who won’t know it is my birthday unless I tell them. They will wish me a happy day if I do, but I probably won’t, because a prompted happy birthday is hardly better than no happy birthday at all.
The meal that I eat will be the same as I always eat: the carers’ cooking skills aren’t up to much and they simply don’t have the time, inclination or skill to make something special. In the past I would buy cake or chocolates, but these things are only special with someone to share them with.
Of course my birthday will not pass completely unnoticed: my parents will phone up later, Facebook will remind friends to message me and the postman may bring me a couple of cards. Some housebound people, the elderly in particular, will not even have this much contact.
I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It is the sole means by which I learn of the lives of most friends, but seeing photos of friends on their own special days – birthdays and holidays and nights on the town – makes being alone substantially harder. I see empty spaces in photos where I ought to be and wonder if friends still feel the hole as keenly as I do. I suspect that after all these years they probably don’t. I compare their crowded albums with the emptiness of mine and dream of a day when my own Facebook page will be full of smiling faces too.
I tell myself that today is just another day like any other – wash face, brush teeth, change clothes, eat meals and survive until bedtime – but somehow today the usual pep-talk just doesn’t cut it. I cope from day to day by not dwelling on the life that I’m missing out on, but on days of celebration it is hard not to compare my current life with the lives of other people. Sometimes I worry that I look at the world through rose-tinted glasses and have unrealistic expectations of what a ‘normal’ life would be. It is not the presents and parties that I miss however, but the sight of precious friends with hugs, and smiles.
I am lucky that of twenty-one birthdays and Christmases that have past since the start of my illness, only five of those days have been spent alone. My mum often travels hundreds of miles to make sure that I won’t spend my birthday alone. I am grateful that she is willing to do this but embarrassed and ashamed that (at my lofty age) she should still be having to.
Every year on this day the Mask of Wellness slips for a couple of hours and I can no longer pretend that I am okay with what my life has become. Another birthday means another year lost to this illness, a year spent alone, unable to do things that I once took for granted.
But when I finally stop comparing my life with the life that I wanted, and look back at my darkest times instead I realise how far I’ve come since the days of life-threatening relapse.
Today I will sit out of bed, eat solid food and watch television; things that were impossible dreams just a few years ago. With that in mind, it seems that today I have a lot to be thankful for, as well as the hope of many happy and healthier returns to come.