It’s 8PM in a clammy pub in North London. A group of friends have gathered and are cheersing with flutes of warming sweet prosecco and singing in lacklustre harmony. I should have been having the time of my life, enjoying the revelry, drinking in the merriment. Instead, I was contemplating at what point it might be acceptable to request an Uber and get the hell out of there.
You see, the night was my birthday. And I hate my birthdays.
This was the scene a few weeks ago on my 34th. But every year is pretty much the same. Leslie Gore’s 1963 hit ‘It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To’ reverberates in my head from breakfast until I can bury myself under the duvet again.
It’s not the ageing bit that worries me. In fact, with age really does come wisdom and a whole lot of confidence. I even think I look better than I did in the (whisper it - leather shorts and clogs) years of my 20s. Plus, my favourite people are all older – my 90-year-old granddad Barry, Debbie Harry, Baddie Winkle, Bernie Sanders… The list could go on.
And yet, there’s a sinking feeling that permeates that same day each year. Perhaps it's the consciousness of another year passing and my time running out. Add to that a huge amount of expectation vs. reality (I know I’m SUPPOSED to have a good day and yet here I am feeling rubbish, which only makes me feel more rubbish – and so goes on my vicious circle of sadness). Then there is the pressure to arrange something, which is basically unbearable. Plus, all the fuss when you do reluctantly do something that makes me incredible sweaty (which combined with a warm July birthday is never ideal).
In short – it’s a lot of over-thinking and minimal fun.
It turns out I’m not alone. It’s actually very normal to feel anxious or depressed on your birthday. There's a term for it: 'Birthday Blues'.
Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago explains that it can be normal for the day to trigger depression, because birthdays force people to examine their identity. 'Birthdays can be one of those events, particularly a milestone birthday. If I’m no longer in my 30s, now I’m 40 years old, what does that mean for who I am?'
Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to cope over the years with the birthday blues - incase you need them too:
Get off Social Media
I blame Facebook a great deal for my birthday blues. Beep! The notifications to all my friends prompts messages of well-wishing between a post about a grotty chest of drawers for sale and a note about a missing tabby cat. Beep! 'HBD xx' from an ex-lover (from said regrettable clog years) crawling out of the woodwork. Beep! Another 'Have a great day' from an old geography teacher from secondary school. You don't need these empty memos from people barely in your circle, so delete the app and have a digital detox for the day.
Book The Day Off Work
I once nearly accepted a job on the basis that, in the T&Cs of the contract, it stated that every employee would be given the day off work on their birthday. My colleague Becky agrees on giving the office a wide berth on your birthday, telling me; 'I cannot stand an office birthday. You get into work, start having conversations and the whole time you’re thinking "God, they don’t know it’s my birthday, when they find out this is going to be so awkward."
'You feel uncomfortable the whole day until someone asks what you’re doing that evening, so finally you have to admit what day it is and then everyone goes all weird. The second week of a job a few years ago, it was my birthday. There were only about 7 members of the team in the office that day and most people hardly had a clue who I was. They all quietly sang to me and we stood awkwardly around until we could go home. It was SO uncomfortable.'
Have A Plan (And Stick To It)
'What’s the BIG plan for the BIRTHDAY?' 'WHAT?! You’re not going toto anything?! That’s SO depressing!' – prepare for an onslaught of messages about what you could (and should) be doing. As a child of the summer, like the Duchess Of Sussex, I now try to be away for my birthdays as I know that is what makes me happy. But find something that you like – be it a pottery class or swimming in the Hampstead ponds. A friend recently told me she'd booked herself a podcast course for the day of her birthday as her present to herself and loved it. You do you. It's your day after all.
Remember You Are Not Alone
The one comforting thing about birthdays is that they come for everyone. Pamela Anderson, Missy Elliot and Malala Yousafzai all share July birthdays with me. I’ve come to realise a problem shared is always a good solution. So now if I have to arrange something I find a friend or two with a nearby birthday to share the revelry with.
If All Else Fails, Enjoy The Cake
Because all cake, no matter the day of the year, is great. As is, of course, all the love, kindness and generosity that all my family and many friends give me on my birthday. I try to remember all that. But mostly I just enjoy the cake.