My birthday is on February 1st, or 1st February, depending on how to like to write your dates out. I myself prefer FEBRUARY 1ST, because saying it out loud makes me feel like an American lady who wears only dark purple and is really big on incense. I don’t know.
I like February, minus the grey weather. I like being the girl who kicks it off. I’m not a half-way-through-the-month-er or a finishing-things-off-on-the-31st-er. I’m a HELLO!-FEBRUARY-IS-HERE!-er (uh…) and I like knowing that despite being someone who will never be described as “a natural leader” by one of those personality test quiz things, I am essentially in charge of February.
But the trouble is, I’m a sensitive person at the best of times, and February 1st seems to bring out a side of me that I usually reserve for 3am existential crises or when I watch The Notebook. Birthdays remind me of Christmas and prom and romantic weekends away – fun, sure, but also weirdly anxiety-laden and never not dripping with the pressure to have THE BEST TIME EVER. And as a result, many of my own birthdays have involved tears. Tears, tissues and terrible levels of emotional stability, I guess. Allow me to talk you through some of my most memorable cry-fests…
I was turning five, which meant I was in the throes of an intense Disney obsession that never really went away. Although I’d screamed so loudly my dad had put me over his shoulder and walked out of the cinema during the stampede part of The Lion King (we spent the next hour in the car waiting for my mum and brother while I sniffed and he read the paper), I’d decided I was a big fan of the movie – that it was a new favourite of mine, even though I would never know what became of poor Simba and his dad. SPOILER: I know now. But I would just like to say that I did not even TRY to watch that film again until I was 23.
Childhood recollections are fuzzy – you’re helped by photographs and other people’s stories and you’re never quite sure if you REALLY remember the time you threw up all over the cat or just think you do. But there are some memories that you can recall perfectly, as if they happened a few days ago. I have a few of those, and one of them comes from my fifth birthday.
I remember sitting in my dad’s mum’s house (we called her ‘Hanny’ but that won’t mean anything to you) and enjoying the birthday girl fuss. I remember standing in the middle of the room because I liked attention a bit more at that age and I remember being given the last present of the day. As I ripped off the paper, I saw yellow fur and little paws and cartoon eyes and I realised it was SIMBA. A plush Simba, my OWN Simba, to hug and brush and protect from evil Uncle Scar.
I couldn’t get over it. I shrieked, burst into tears and then exclaimed “It’s… it’s what I’ve always wanted!” This was nothing short of a lie but I’d definitely had my eye on plush Simba for a few months, which is a lot of your life when you’re five, so I feel like I can be forgiven for the hyperbole. I continued to cry for a while, holding Simba in the air like I was a young, not-so-wise Rafiki. I kept thinking “This is, without doubt, the best day of my LIFE.”
And the moral of the story was: No matter how much a Disney movie makes your child cry, they will still want you to buy them all of the related merchandise. And, I guess: I was very dramatic even as a five year-old.
I was turning 10, and I kept pulling my hair out. I didn’t really know why I’d started doing it, but I had and I couldn’t stop. Because this was a pre-internet-in-my-house era I wasn’t able to Google “Why am I pulling my hair out?” and so instead pretended I wasn’t, opting for a combover hairstyle not dissimilar to a 70 year-old man’s and hoping my mum didn’t notice. Except she did, because my mum notices every time something’s not quite right with me, and it’s hard to remain oblivious when your daughter’s carpet is covered in hair that should be on her head.
One day we were in Tesco looking at the magazines and I noticed one of those OMG! EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE! MY DAUGHTER WAS KIDNAPPED BY A MAN I THOUGHT WAS MY FRIEND! front covers, which I stopped to look it in an ironic kind of a way. Then I saw it: “Trichotillomania: I can’t stop pulling my hair out!”
I told my mum I was reading about a woman whose husband had been abducted by aliens but REALLY I was reading about trichotillomania, which I was starting to realise I had. The word made my shoulders ache. The ‘trich’ part sounded like ‘tick’, like something nervous and jumpy, and the ‘mania’ part just made me feel crazy. I stuffed the magazine back on the shelf and focused all of my efforts on getting my mum as far away as possible from anything that might suggest to her that I was insane.
When it wasn’t really possible for me to hide my bald patch anymore, my mum decided we were 100% going to see a doctor, which we did. Five minutes before we left I drew a Christmas card for the GP, hoping we would all be distracted by my half-arsed art skills and forget to discuss the matter at hand. It didn’t work – instead, he spent 10 minutes ignoring me and saying things like “She probably just has an itchy scalp” to my mum.
On the evening of my 10th birthday, my grandma told me she’d arranged a surprise for me – it turned out she’d booked me in for a skincare and hair-styling session with her friend, who ran (and still runs) a beauty salon of sorts. It was a present which would have been perfect for 10 year-old me, had I not been so preoccupied by how little hair I had left at the front of my head and how desperate I was for my family and friends not to notice. I wanted to feel happy but instead I just felt like I was about to throw up.
As my nearest and dearest sang HAP-PY BIRTH-DAY DEAR SO-PHIIIIIE around the dining room table I started to cry. Amid excuses of “stomach ache” I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in and let myself bawl. Twenty minutes later I was persuaded to return, red-faced and snotty, to blow out my candles.
And the moral of the story was: Mental health diagnoses in 1999 weren’t always so hot, OR: if you can determine what ails ya via the front cover of a 20p magazine but your doctor remains clueless there’s probably something wrong. Bonus points if you read that like an old book title or a Fall Out Boy song.
I was turning 12, and I decided that Pizza Hut would be the best place to celebrate this fact. My friends from primary school and I had formed a sort-of tight-knit group with the other girls in our new class and we’d started an in-house trend of going to restaurants for each others’ birthdays and talking shit about whoever went to the toilet.
My parents asked if their supervision was required at my Grown Up Birthday Soiree and I thought long and hard, eventually deciding that no, I was old enough to deal on my own. “I don’t have any money, though,” I said, and my dad reassured me that he would be on-hand to pay the Hut for eight Hawaiians and several uneaten Ice-Cream Factory bowls. We agreed that he and my mum would go and wait in the car while we ate, and I felt kind of mean but also kind of aDuLt. Maybe I would have a mocktail. Maybe I would hit it off with another 12 year-old who happened to be celebrating his birthday at the table next to us. Maybe everyone in attendance would learn that there in fact was one party like an S-Club party, and that it was SOPHIE’S PARTY.
In the end none of those things happened, partly because expectations rarely live up to reality but mostly because groups of tween girls aren’t particularly nice and will go to extreme lengths to make you feel like life would be better for everyone if you moved to Russia and never returned. One friend told me my party sucked and refused to eat her pizza. Another girl commented on my t-shirt of choice and told me in a very sweet voice that I wore it FAR more often than was socially acceptable. There is no denying she was right but she was also a passive aggressive pain in the ass AND her dreams of becoming a Playboy Bunny never came true, so whatever.
When one of the other girls and I came back from the bathroom, we noticed that our friends went quiet and started to glance at each other in a way that screamed THERE ARE DRAWING PINS ON YOUR CHAIR IN THE NAME OF COMEDY!!! The seats turned out to be safe, so we awkwardly resumed our ice-cream eating, only to notice a weird flavour and be told there was a large helping of Pizza Hut’s finest chili powder stirred into it. I pretended to laugh along with everyone else, made a mental note of how many of my friends I would wish death upon if I ever met my fairy godmother, and then cried on the car ride home.
And the moral of the story was: Avoid insecure pre-teen girls that travel in packs and stick with the friends who are kind to you, even if there are only two of them.
I was turning 16, and it was 2006, which for some reason was the year that every single girl at my school decided they wanted to wear Escada perfume. Escada, for those who aren’t in the know, is in fact NOT the German dance music duo that sings Everytime We Touch. That’s Cascada. Escada is a brand, and back in the mid-noughties (maybe still to this day, who knows) it produced this really sickly-sweet perfume that smelled like teen-girl-angst, sticky dancefloors and alcopops. I don’t know if the popular girls at your secondary school had a scent, but ours did, and it was cigarette smoke they’d tried to mask with Escada. It didn’t work. I didn’t smoke and I don’t know why I wanted to smell like that.
It was my BIRTHDAY. Sweet 16, except minus the MTV show and the car and the acne-free face and the boyfriend and pretty much everything else. Breaktime rolled around, and my friends and I crowded around a pull-down table in the canteen, one of the ones with tiny mushroom-esque stools on each side that only really fit half a butt-cheek onto them. They’d all put their money together and bought me Escada for Women 2005 (2005! Why am I so old), perfume that smelled like winter and strawberry laces and came in a light green bottle. That evening I perched it on my dressing table and cried, in the best way. I kept it for years and years afterwards, until it got that slightly ‘off’ odour to it, the kind your mum says “That’s the difference between eau du toilette and proper perfume” about. Sniffing it transported me somewhere and I wish I still had it. I wonder if they still make one like it. Smell is one of the strongest memory-inducers I think I have.
And the moral of the story was: Your teenage years will one day have a certain happy whiff to them, in the same way your childhood smelled like plastic bracelets and Baby All-Gone’s cherry-scented jam. Well, mine did, anyway.
I was turning 22, and it was the first year of university I actually KNEW PEOPLE. I had spent the previous birthday in my bedroom watching Reservoir Dogs with an old and disgusting bottle of Cactus Jack’s and an ever-growing dislike for my flatmates, and I wanted this time to be different. I liked Reservoir Dogs, but I liked non-depressing birthdays more. So I MADE A FACEBOOK EVENT.
I don’t know if Facebook events are really a thing anymore, but in 2012 it felt like they were. I was anxious. I thought long and hard about where I wanted to go for my Big Birthday Do and how best to entice my uni acquaintances with an online invitation that didn’t reek of desperation. I bit my nails non-stop for the first 10 minutes after sending the event out, until one person said they were attending and I felt slightly more relaxed. A friend! A birthday friend! “I shall order the party poppers,” I thought.
As the day rolled around, I became even more nervous. I was 99.9% sure that someone else would host another party, a better party, and that it would be like that time in year six where Zach, the boy who had his birthday on the same day as me, brought in Haribo for the class BECAUSE HIS MUM WORKED FOR THEM and everybody forgot I was turning 11 too. I steeled myself for an evening spent crying into my wine while my boyfriend said “I’m sure they’re just busy with deadlines!” reassuringly and patted my back.
You know how there are all those quotes about worrying and why it’s a waste of time? The people who came up with them were probably referring to important occasions, like starting a new job or having a smear test, but their wise words totally apply to ‘Will my birthday be a disaster???’ wobbles, as well. By 10pm I had 40 pals with me (I counted three times and won’t pretend otherwise), all there for genuine reasons such as ‘I like Sophie’ and ‘I thought this would be fun’. Hoorah.
We went to a club and I danced on a stage and did my impersonation of the start of Up The Bracket, which is normally what happens when I’ve consumed a lot of alcohol. When I went to the bathroom at midnight and did that I-didn’t-realise-I-was-this-drunk-until-I-sat-on-the-toilet thing, I had a little happy cry all to myself. This birthday remains one of my all-time faves. And since then, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have the same nervous unease as I do when it comes to organising events like that. A bit like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ except ‘everyone hates me until they tell me in no uncertain terms that they absolutely don’t’.
And the moral of the story was: In both a literal sense AND a lame, metaphorical sense, there are probably a lot more people who’d like to attend your birthday party than you think, so don’t even worry about it.