Written by Ellen Sanders
Today is my 40th birthday. This can often cause many people to feel unsettled and anxious. And while all birthdays are a time of reflection, this milestone seems even more so. It may be societally-induced (in large part due to Hallmark), but it’s there nonetheless.
If you had asked me when I was 25 what my life would look like at 40, I would not have been able to tell you. At that time, turning 40 didn’t seem possible. And not because I thought I was invincible or I’d stay young forever, but because I didn’t think I’d live that long. I was in full self-destructive mode by 25. I was deep in my addictions and making the kinds of decisions that go with that: putting myself in dangerous situations, driving while drunk and high, and associating with unsafe people. There seemed to be no way out but death, and honestly at that point and for the next two years that’s all I wished for.
Then god, through my parents, intervened. It was March 16, 2003. There had been many discussions prior to this date about my problems, my drinking, getting my life together, etc., but this was the first time I was given an ultimatum. They said, “You are an alcoholic. We love you, but we are not going to watch you kill yourself. You need to get help or you need to leave.” I was 27 years old, I was unemployed, and I was living with my parents. I had destroyed most of my relationships so I had nowhere to go. There’s more to this story which perhaps I’ll write about another time, but the bottom line is I went to my first 12-step meeting that evening. I was angry and resentful and filled with hatred, mostly for myself, but I went. And because of that moment of grace where my parents showed enough faith and love to draw a line and stand by it, and because of each of the thousands of moments of grace that have occurred since, I have reached my 40th birthday.
Life is not perfect, it is not easy, and I don’t have everything I want. However, I do have everything I need, and then some. And I’m not talking about material things. I have over 12 years of continuous sobriety. I have been blessed with a husband who is my best friend. We have two beautiful children whose existence has truly taught me the meanings of the words gratitude, responsibility, and joy. I’ve also learned a bit about stress, exhaustion, and impatience.
Additionally, I’ve learned that, like any other human being walking around on this planet, I am susceptible to human frailties. One of those is cancer. Today I am 40 and I am preparing for my second treatment for cancer. And it’s ok. I am fortunate that my prognosis is very good and there is a viable treatment available. Perhaps I would feel differently if things looked less hopeful. I don’t know. I do know, however, that this is my path. I am not exempt from difficulty simply because I have already had difficulty. I can’t change circumstances just because they are sad or hurtful or hard. But I can choose how to conduct myself. I can choose who I ask to support me. I can choose to be vulnerable and share my fear so that I don’t have to be alone. I can choose to love instead of hide and I can choose to feel instead of avoid.
So, life at 40 looks like…life. It doesn’t look like life on social media where all you see and read about are the highlights. I imagine it looks a lot like anyone else’s real life. It vacillates between great joy and disappointment – sometimes within the span of 30 minutes. It contains weight gain and hair loss. It means heartache and forgiveness. It means having emotions so strong that sometimes I think I might just break, but I don’t. Twelve years ago I decided breaking wasn’t an option for me anymore. Feeling is a necessity, but giving up is not a choice I make anymore, even when I feel like it.
While it wasn’t exactly a Pinterest birthday, it was actually the best one I ever had. I have friends who have been wary of turning 40. I would never want to diminish their feelings by saying they shouldn’t feel that way. We all feel how we feel. But for me, I have never felt more blessed. I spent my birthday with some of the people I love most in this world. I woke up to my children’s excitement and hugs and kisses. I went to recovery yoga and shared my happiness of having a birthday and heartache of having to leave my family for my upcoming treatment. My husband went out of his way to make the day special for me and was very creative with the dinner and dessert he made despite the restrictive diet I have to currently be on. My kids had a great time with their surprises for me, including having my parents and brothers and their families come over our house.
In college, I had a professor who was one of the most interesting, brilliant people I have ever known. He was an existentialist and embraced life whole-heartedly. He used to say that he loved getting older because he preferred it to the alternative. While I’m not an existentialist, I now understand the sentiment in a way I couldn’t then. As long as I’m ok with how I’m living my life, I’ll be ok with living it another year.
(This essay was written in July, 2015)