Birthdays can be overwhelming and exhausting (even if you’re in sensory control)
Content warning: this article contains content about eating disorders
My birthday was a little more than a month ago. It was daunting, but nevertheless was a lovely day. Due to the time difference and my mum wanting to greet me at midnight on the dot, I first opened her presents over FaceTime after watching her give the cats a special treat. I then went to see my neighbours, one of whom turned 73 on that very day. Later, I had a slightly naughty birthday tea party in my flat with my friend Hannah, who also lives alone.
From a sensory point of view, I was in complete control: the place smelled right and there wasn’t any noise coming from outside, choosing instead to play an entire concert by my favourite band. It was a special occasion in more than one sense (other than it being another solar return from me): I was with a friend who genuinely wanted to see me. I can’t remember how long it has been since I celebrated my birthday with a real friend; someone who didn’t fake their enthusiasm. I was truly overjoyed.
But not long after she left, I was hit by the most severe exhaustion. It was like a shutdown, but rather than growing progressively tired over the course of a few hours it happened within seconds. I went from thinking “wow, I did pretty well!” to having to nap for three hours, and only being able to pick up the used mugs and remains of cake at 2am.
When I posted about my birthday on Instagram, I was surprised by the number of people who only then were struck by how, in their own lives, there was a connection between birthdays and feeling out-of-this-world exhausted. So, I’ve asked around to see how others felt on their birthdays, along with giving a little history of how my own feelings about my birthday have changed over time.
For most people I spoke to after #AskingAutistics on Twitter, birthdays felt like a chore. Many of them felt like they had to put on their social mask and pretend they were enjoying the parties or small gatherings that their family forced upon them, fearing disappointment and conflict if they didn’t express that they had a good day. Rarely would there be the chance to hide and recharge their social batteries, as on your birthday you’re meant to be the centre of attention. Again, there’s enormous pressure to mask the discomfort, and if neurotypicals find it hard to think of what to do whilst people sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’, for us it’s certainly worse. How are we supposed to move or to show the right expression on our faces?
I can’t say I relate too much to these feelings brought up by the others who shared their experiences with birthdays, because I’ve never been a huge masker. As a child I would enjoy pretending to be a puppy and ate my portion of the cake without cutlery, and as I got older I would dress in the most ‘me’ way possible, which most of the time meant lolita fashion (nothing to do with the book! It’s a Japanese alternative fashion!). Because it was ‘my’ day, I took the chance to fully be myself.
But this didn’t mean that I couldn’t tell how other people felt about my making the occasion very ‘me.’ I couldn’t tell what exact kind of ‘Bad Feeling’ they were expressing, but I knew there was something wrong. When I turned 11, for example, I had a movie night at home - and looking back it seems like I invited anyone I could. Examining pictures from that particular birthday, I think “there’s no way I would have invited this vaguely unfriendly person!” And it wasn’t just this vaguely unfriendly classmate, but all the others as well, that looked dreadfully bored by my film of choice (in this case, one about Siberian huskies learning how to sled). It didn’t even cross my mind that if you’re hosting a movie night, you’re supposed to agree on a film with your guests. My logic was probably “it’s my birthday, so I get to choose what people watch!”
Now that I think about it, social rules always complicated not only my own birthdays, but those of other people that I went to, whether voluntarily or by force (if you ask my mum, my ultimate telltale autistic trait as a child was that I HATED being dragged to birthday parties for younger kids!). When I was little, I couldn’t tolerate people getting gifts that appealed more to my special interests than theirs—my sister got an inflatable floater and a cuddly toy from the 101 Dalmatians film and I seethed with rage at the thought that they weren’t mine. I also had a really, really hard time accepting that my best friends could hang out with other people, even to the point where I would skip birthdays or go hide away somewhere if I saw it happening. In my mind, it wasn’t acceptable that my best friends had other friends, and saying it—or typing it—out loud makes it sound rightly awful, but like many other autistic people I spent much of my childhood ‘winging’ social rules but not realising when or why I’d get them wrong.
As I grew older, I couldn’t wait to get out of my own birthday celebrations and be back in my room by myself. I appreciated having my family around for my birthday, but often it has exacerbated the sadness I’ve felt by not having any friends to celebrate it with and, at the time, thinking that my birthdays were always going to be like that. When my eating disorder has been particularly difficult to deal with, I've also dreaded the anticipation of eating in front of others, especially doing so in a way that wouldn’t seem too weird. And because I’m a staunch routine follower I did want to have a cake since otherwise it would break tradition and I couldn’t fathom having to face something different. I also worried about seeming ungrateful if I didn’t eat. A consistent theme in my life is wanting my mum to be as happy as possible, and I dreaded the possibility of making her feel sad. It just seemed complicated, whichever way you’d look at it.
In recent years, something I’ve really struggled with is dealing with loved ones forgetting my birthday, especially when my long-term memory makes it so easy to remember other people’s. Whereas many people only remember the good feelings of childhood moments I actually remember events very precisely. I remember how kind my friends were, and the kind things I’d do when it was their turn to be celebrated—so it’s very hard not to take it personally when people who’ve drifted away from me for various reasons forget my birthday, because most of them remain equally as important to me as they were back then. I am, however, working with my therapist to accept that, one, most people don’t mean to accidentally hurt me, and two, most people’s memories don’t work like mine. My long-term memory is arguably my only autistic ‘superpower,’ but most of the times I’d say it’s a curse.
When I dug the internet looking for themes to inspire this piece, I found some complaints by parents lamenting that their children didn’t enjoy their birthdays anymore, or wishing they felt similarly to neurotypical kids. It’s important for parents of autistic children and young people to remember that we aren’t sob stories, but I think it’s also something that even we tend to forget. Sure, some recent birthdays have been difficult, but ever since I discovered my autism I’ve enjoyed myself much more: I understand what my sensory needs are and I’m not afraid to show interest in the things that I like, even if other people may think they’re weird or childish. For my 20th, my dad gave me a set of Sailor Moon figurines that I proudly displayed in my uni bedroom; for my 21st—my first birthday ‘out’ as autistic—I spent the evening at a vampire-themed cafe in Japan, and for my 25th, my mum gifted me a rabbit-shaped bedroom light that only cost around £3, but I squealed when I saw it. As it was my first lockdown birthday nobody could’ve paid me a visit, and I was in fact delighted that I didn’t have to see anyone but my mum.
My birthday this year exhausted me, but at the same time I couldn’t believe that this exhaustion came not from having to cope with noise or confusing social interactions but from having a friend around, something that until not long ago was categorically unbelievable. I took my time to count my blessings: a FaceTime call with my best friend in Japan, the carousel my mum gave me, wearing whatever I liked without the fear of criticism, watching something I enjoyed that made my friend feel curious rather than bored out of her mind because she accepts me and enjoys exchanging interests with me… and that was all before we had an unexpected snowfall as the metaphorical cherry on my birthday cake. ❄️🥳