I have no idea how long I’ll live, and though I doubt it I’ll make it to 100, turning 50 felt like the halfway point for me. As my birthday drew closer I was dreading it in a way that I never had before. It didn’t bother me when I turned thirty or even forty, but this birthday was going to be awful no matter what. The question was could I mitigate that at all, and the answer was no.
Early in March, I told my partner our relationship was untenable, and I would be leaving. We were both unhappy, and I thought that this would come as a relief. As with almost everything starting from that moment on I was mistaken. I thought that conversation would end the misery I’d been struggling with for almost two years. Though in one way it did—I was no longer carrying this secret, things were going to get much worse before they got better.
I wasn’t thinking at all about my upcoming birthday, or even that it was a big one. As the day drew closer my partner (for reasons I still can’t fathom) insisted we go out to celebrate, which sounded like a terrible idea. Speaking those words I’d been holding in for so long rather than opening the floodgates had the opposite effect; I surrendered my voice completely. A large part of the reason things had reached this point was because I’d almost completely stopped speaking up for myself or my daughter; I’d almost stopped speaking entirely.
If you know me at all, you know I’m a talker. I process everything verbally and love conversations of all sorts. I’m the person standing in line or sitting next to you on the plane who will invariably initiate a chat. It takes a lot to shut me up, and I’d taken about all I could. I had shut up and shut down. I was essentially closed for business and the price of my silence was that I’d be going out to an expensive restaurant with the last person I wanted to be alone with to celebrate my 50th birthday.
Over the years I’d been worn down by constant criticism and contempt; it felt like everything I did was deemed wrong, stupid, or selfish, and anything that went wrong was my fault. I was exhausted, wrung out and unhappy with who I’d become. My formerly sunny disposition replaced with a testy, anxious one. The change had been gradual but profound.
If you’ve never lived like this you can’t know how powerless I felt. The best way I can illustrate what life was like for me is this; imagine you’re swimming in the ocean and a wave comes and knocks you down. You fight your way back to the surface, and the moment you’ve caught your breath along comes another wave to knock you back down. The waves keep coming, over and over, gradually getting bigger. Week after week, year after year the waves get higher and more powerful, the time between them shorter. All your energy and attention becomes focused on those few seconds at the surface when you can suck in enough air to make it through the pounding of the next wave.
If I’d made it through the last few years, I could make it through this birthday dinner. We got a sitter, got dressed up and headed out. There wasn’t much to talk about. We were accustomed to shared, uncomfortable silence, so it wasn’t especially painful, more like a dull headache. I’d been wanting to go to this restaurant, I was finally there, and all I wanted was for the meal to end, for all of it to end. My one clear memory of that night are the words “This is your 50th birthday, if you can’t enjoy it there is something seriously wrong with you.” On this, we agreed, but I was going to change that.
This was the last birthday I would spend with someone I didn’t want to be with. Over the past year, I had muttered the same thing to myself numerous times, “This is the last ruined holiday, lousy vacation, miserable birthday …” I would ever endure, and the last time I would let myself be coerced into doing something I most emphatically did not want to do.
My 50th birthday would be the turning point, the day I would begin taking back my life and my agency. I would get through this birthday, the false celebration of it, and make the second half of my life happier than the first half.