Birthdays & Breathwork.
Her name was Chloe and it felt a bit too cute and too wholesome given the situation. It was the night of my 33rd birthday and I wanted to die. It was the first birthday after moving to Los Angeles the year before and I was worried that I had made a mistake. I worried that I had selfishly and abruptly left a good life behind convinced that 2,000 miles was the distance I needed to save myself.
Chloe was the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline chat specialist who was assigned to me early the next morning.
When your birthday falls during the first week in June you grow up with it feeling additionally celebratory because school is either over or almost over and it signifies the beginning of summer and freedom. You hope that people associate this time with you. The very first birthday I remember is the McDonalds birthday. There’s a picture of me sitting in one of those 80s orangey red leather booths with the Ronald McDonald crown on my head surrounded by my little friends as we watched a teenaged employee tend to our tiny needs. It’s comforting to think that we were all happy. That there was a time when it didn’t take much.
On the afternoon of my 32nd birthday I was sitting on a deck in an Airbnb in Echo Park, hours away from a flight back to Boston knowing that I was going to quit my job upon my return. The city was suffocating me and the only way I knew how to loosen the grip it held around my throat was to leave. On that deck the decision felt easy, or it least it felt easier than staying.
There is a very particular feeling of free as your arm hangs out your car window while going 80 miles per hour down a West Texas highway with all of your possessions stuffed behind you in your Civic. It was two and a half months after my private declaration on that deck and I had done it. I had quit the job I’d had for eight years. I had looked my boss in the eye and said quite simply, “No,” when she asked if there was anything she could do to get me to stay. I was leaving with nothing but uncertainty ahead of me and I felt fine. For the first time in my life I felt light. I could breathe.
My hopes for the move were enormous and vague at the same time. I wanted to take better care of myself. I wanted to be a better friend and I wanted to be more more careful about the people I chose to surround myself with. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to feel like I belonged. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to learn how to exist and be happy at the same time. I wanted to start over. And I thought that by making the move I had done that. I was sure that the distance and the sunshine was the greatest gift I could give myself.
It’s easy to convince yourself you’ve changed when there’s no one in your life to tell you that you haven’t.
Thirty-two ended just as manic as it had begun. The freedom and the growth that I had manifested in my head had been superficial because I refused to acknowledge the work that comes with progress. I allowed the year to build me up and then bring me to my knees. I let it bring me to Chloe.
I had initially fallen asleep waiting to be connected to someone. When I woke up next to a knife, but somehow less sad, I tried again. The wait was shorter or maybe it just felt that way. Chloe spoke in a tone that was more casual than urgent, like I had called to say, “Hey,” and she was genuine in her eagerness to know what was going on with me. It was hard to articulate why I was so sad.
I was paranoid and convinced that everyone was laughing at me behind my back. I was a game to them, I was sure. I was afraid that I was destined to always be searching for happiness, always letting it get one step ahead of me, always terrified and apprehensive about what good in my life looked like, always startled by everything and nothing all at once. I feared that I would always be looking for happiness only to find that it did not exist for me.
But I was also worried that all of this sounded crazy so I didn’t say any of it to Chloe. Even at the depths of my sadness I am worried about what a stranger thinks of me.
What I actually told her was that I had simply had a bad night, but also that I had had other bad nights and I knew that this one, just like all the other ones, would end. Chloe said that I seemed very self aware, that I seemed to already know what I needed.
Birthday number thirty-three was the peak of my hurried decisions. There was an embarrassment attached to my depression but also something about this defeat that felt less like a loss and more like an opportunity to get it right. I decided to slow things down a bit, to be more conscious and thoughtful with my decisions. I wanted to feel the freedom and weightlessness that I felt on that road trip but I wanted it to be rooted in something real.
I took my desire to breathe again quite literally and signed up for a breathwork workshop. On the breathwork teacher’s website it’s described as “an active meditation that moves stuck energy, uprooting deep traumas, emotions, and limiting beliefs so you can access your deepest truths.” It was like a trap set specifically for me.
It had everything you’ve made fun of about wellness. One breath through your belly, one through your heart, and out through your mouth. We sat in a circle at the beginning of the workshop and at least four people said that they were there to “surrender.” There were blankets and essential oils and questions like, “How is your body feeling?” in a smooth calming voice. I left feeling somewhat silly, like I had become a parody of myself.
Over the next few days I sold my coffee table to create more space in my living room. I started writing down goals for myself. I burned sage in my apartment. I began re-evaluating my relationships, my drinking habits, my soy intake. I cleaned out my closet and donated two bags to Goodwill. I texted a friend in all caps, “I NEED TO RID MYSELF OF EVERYTHING THAT DOESN’T SERVE ME.”
Something had happened.
I settled into myself a little bit during the second session, because of course there was a second session. The woman laying down next to me was going through it and started crying almost immediately. I felt distracted by her energy and at first it annoyed me. I laughed after the teacher allowed us to have a group scream, something about a room full of mostly privileged mostly white people needing to extend this energy in order to feel better was funny to me. I chose not to scream because I didn’t think I needed to. What did I have to scream about? What did any of us?
I lied there thinking about so many things that are so much bigger than myself. The world is on fire and here we are paying some woman to sit here and breathe. It made me angry and it made me sad. As the numbness and the tingles made their way to my fingers and my face I started to cry. How lucky we are to be here. How lucky am I.
I turned thirty-four two weeks ago and this time I woke up in an Airbnb in New Orleans. Getting away on my birthday still works for me. But this one felt different. I don’t believe that breathwork saved me or that any one thing can do that, really. But I do know that it has served as a catalyst for me learning how to sketch out a better and more fulfilling life for myself. What felt selfish now feels necessary. Showing up for yourself isn’t silly if it’s the only thing keeping you alive.
Some birthdays you’ll wish for money or love or that one material thing that you know won’t mean much next year but you want it anyways.
And sometimes you have to be your own gift.