Birthdays have never meant much to me. I grew up with a sister whose birthday was two days before mine. Ours was a childhood of shared birthday parties and identical cakes. Then when I got older they never seemed very special. Maybe that’s because I was born at the end of the January when the bills for Christmas presents have just started coming in. No matter the cause I always felt like celebrating a birthday was celebrating something I had nothing to do with.
Here in California they celebrate birthdays in the 12-step rooms. A 45-year old man blows out a cake with a fifteen on top of it. A woman in her sixties turns twenty. The room is filled with people of all ages, races and sexes. They sing, a little off key and sometimes out of sync, “Happy Birthday”. Then ask, also a little out of sync, “How’d you do it?” There are tears and laughter in the responses. They all have one thing in common. They have spent the year sober.
These are the birthdays that make sense to me. They are earned. The people celebrating fought for them. They showed up on the first day of at least 365. They sat down, shaky and sweating. They are depressed and anxious. More than anything they are scared. Everything is about to change. Everything.
Then they come back. Day after day. The sweats and shakes disappear. The depression and anxiety lessens. They know what to expect and are no longer scared to walk in the rooms. They begin to celebrate milestones. First comes 30 days, then 60, then 90, and 6 months. Finally a year.
With the passage of time the world gets less hazy. Emotions come back. Relationships begin to be repaired. I heard someone say in a meeting once “It’s called recovery because you are getting something you lost back, and that something is you.” I love that. To me it’s the core of the 12-step program.
The other thing I always hated about being “belly-button” birthdays is being the center of attention. I hated being singled out. Cards, flowers, balloons: No thank you. In the rooms celebrating birthdays isn’t about you, it’s about the other people. It’s about showing the person with less time it can be done. It’s hard but it can be done.
So next year on January 31st I turn 36. I don’t think I’m going to celebrate much. Then on April 30th I turn 1, god willing. That’s the birthday I will have earned.