When I turned 12, I had to be carried from my school bus to the inside of my house — our street was flooded with water up to our waists and I didn't want my uniform to get ruined. When I turned 14, my mom drove each of my friends home because of the downpour that never seemed to end, and it was getting very late.
When I turned 18, I was soaked to the bone as I slid into a booth at a pizza place on Katipunan Avenue, having walked from campus without an umbrella to meet my friends for dinner. The weather on the day I grow a year older comes as no surprise to me — the sky is always overcast, the streets are always wet, and the distant rumblings of a faraway storm always looms ahead. The rain has been a constant companion to most of my Septembers for the past 20 or so years, but it’s not the only thing I’ve come to associate with my birthday.
There’s sadness, too.
I don’t remember when it started — whether it began when I was 10 or when I was in my last year of high school or some other time I can’t quite place, but it’s always felt like one of those things I’ve learned to live with, like being left-handed or having curly hair. I used to wonder if it was because I secretly craved attention and was jealous that my friends got surprise parties and balloons they didn’t ask for while I opened Facebook to a grand total of zero people greeting me. I once had a passing thought that it was because I shared my birthday with a dictator, or with a tragedy that killed almost 3,000 people, and that I’d subconsciously been carrying the weight and the burden of those events.
In a journal entry from 2016, I wrote: “I say I’m always sad on my birthday, but the truth is I’m always sad, birthday or otherwise.”
Beginning in college, I came to dread my birthday so deeply that I confided with my nonfiction professor just how much I hated it. It wasn’t because I was scared of growing older — it was because the quality of sadness that greeted me the moment I wake up was always so intense and unbearable, and most of all, new, as though I was always experiencing it for the first time. She did what she could: she penciled in my birthday in her office calendar, and in our classes leading up to it, she would always call me “birthday girl,” waiting for me to smile. On the day itself, she sent me an email: “Each day is a chance to be reborn, so take it,” she said, referencing an essay I had crafted in her class. I cried on my favorite stone bench in school, reading and re-reading her email over and over and over. It rained that evening, of course. The next day, I still woke up sad.
I thought nothing of my unhappiness for years. Again: it was something I’d learned to live with; something I became deeply familiar with; something that, to a certain degree, I even became comfortable with. I lived life with a cloud of sadness around me, relishing the moments when sunlight would peek through, but never actively chasing after it. Distractions would come, of course, and I would feel like I’m on top of the world — good grades, new seasons of my favorite shows, plays and musicals I’d experience live, spending time with my friends. In 2015, I started keeping a note on my phone of “reasons to stay,” because with my sadness came thoughts of not wanting to be in the world anymore, of course. Each month, I would outline what I looked forward to, whether that was a new book from my favorite writer or a casting announcement I just needed to see.
No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I was existing harmoniously with the sadness I’d long been holding, it became clear that my body was getting tired of it. In my last year of college, two of my friends were diagnosed with depression. Their news surprised me — they were two of the happiest people I’d known, and still they carried something heavy within themselves. That evening, after a long day in school, I thought of nothing else but the acute familiarity of carrying something so heavy within yourself, especially when you can’t explain or understand why. On my phone, I opened a new tab and looked up the symptoms of depression. What I saw moved me, because I knew these feelings. I knew them intimately. I knew emptiness and helplessness; I knew irritability and being quick to anger, the lethargy, the trouble sleeping, the self-hatred. These accompanied my sadness; they were something I’d long felt and simply accepted as part of me.
Even after that moment, it took me another year before I finally saw a psychiatrist. I didn’t tell my mom for a long time, because I thought I could deal with it on my own. I thought I could heal myself. I’d been incredibly stubborn — I didn’t need anyone’s help, I said to myself and my friends, even as I grew weaker and weaker, angrier and angrier. I was miserable in my first job after college, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t like it. But when I got into a screaming match with my mom on my way home after picking a fight with my girlfriend, I yelled at the top of my lungs: “I MIGHT HAVE DEPRESSION,” before collapsing into a rib-breaking sob. My mom pulled the car over, and hugged me until I calmed down. “We’ll look for a psychiatrist in the morning,” she told me.
In January 2018, I sat in my doctor’s nondescript clinic, telling her why I was there to see her. “I’m always sad,” I said, “and I’m tired of it.” I didn’t cry that first session, even though I wanted to so badly. She sent me out for tests, wanting to rule out anything physical. A week later, I was back in her clinic, sitting perpendicular to her as a draft from the airconditioning hit my back. That day, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder and prescribed 50 mg of sertraline, my serotonin booster, and 5 mg of aripiprazole, my pink anti-psychotic pill. These would work together, along with therapy, to help me get better. When my doctor confirmed what I’d been suspecting for a while, I felt like I could breathe again. When I received my diagnosis the word ‘depressed,’ rather than something to be feared, was something that gave me hope and clarity.
For someone who had been been so staunchly against seeing a doctor in the beginning, I embraced my diagnosis with the most open of arms. Even as I resisted medical attention, the fact of the matter was that I just couldn’t live with myself anymore. I could no longer live with the voices inside my head — the ones that say I’m broken, I’m worthless, I’m a liability. I wanted, plainly and simply, to heal. In the process of doing so, I’ve come to find that it does get better. I’ve learned not to let my mental illness take control of me. My medication certainly helps. Therapy, even more. In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve learned to be softer towards myself and towards others — something I’d always had difficulty doing, especially the first one. But it’s not always so linear; it’s not always so easy.
There are days when I still fall into bed crying, hating myself, hating the world, wanting to do something about the growing ache inside my heart that never seems to truly go away. I have to remind myself that this process isn’t as cleancut as I would like it to be. It’s a lot of back-and-forth and thinking I can do without my meds, because I’m strong enough without them, which results to falling off the deep end again when I don’t take them. It’s a lot of tears and heartache, but it’s also choosing kindness and love, more than anything else, and toward myself, most of all. It’s actively chasing after the sunlight, no matter how little would peek through, because that warmth is always, always worth it.
On my birthday that same year, I was still sad, but I didn’t feel dread anymore. I woke up that morning knowing that if I felt what I felt, it’ll be alright, because it’s not anything to be afraid of. It’s not anything to hate myself for. 2018 was the year I started to become braver. By 2019, I finally learned how to give in to feeling loved — something I’d long resisted, too. That was the year my heart became lighter, the year I felt sunlight on my skin and basked in it for as long as I could. Two things about my birthday had always been constant: one, that it always rained, and two, that I was always sad. That year was no exception — the sky was overcast almost the entire day until it finally gave in during the evening. But this time, I was happy.
Written by Renee Nuevo