Bad days aren’t ever fun, but they’re especially un-fun when it’s your birthday and you were picturing an evening filled with candles and cake and balloons and friends and gifts — or, at the very least, not crying. But it’s your party and you’ll damn well cry if you want to, especially if your birthday is as bad as our worst ones.
Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor
When I was 26, my sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had two surgeries to remove her thyroid and then one long hospital stay where she received a heck ton of radiation to destroy any lingering thyroid cells left in her body. The first surgery she had was on my 26th birthday. We didn’t tell a lot of people what was going on with her, so in addition to being at the hospital all day scared out of my wits about her operation and every unknown thing coming after it, I had to keep answering phone calls and text messages from well-wishers, pretending to be excited that they were excited that I had survived another year while my sister was getting her neck cut open. My sister hasn’t had any recurrences of malignant thyroid tissue since then, but even now, 14 years later, typing this makes me feel like there’s a belt around my chest.
Riese Bernard, CEO
Okay this requires some background, bear with me: Hayden (not his real name) (most of the names in this story have been changed) was my gay best friend with whom I developed a somewhat unconventional and often, I realize now, unhealthy relationship. But he was my whole world. We were obsessed with each other. I often said that he saved my life.
He was very critical and controlling of me — honestly he just had a lot going on psychologically that he hadn’t sorted through yet and I ended up bearing the brunt of a lot of those unexplored issues. He eventually decided that, despite his sexual orientation, he wanted me to lose my virginity to him, and I wanted to lose my virginity in general, so, that’s what we did and eventually we became low-key boyfriend/girlfriend. This situation was, especially after he graduated from our boarding school and went off to college and I remained there for my senior year — non-monogamous due to him being, you know, gay (I had no idea yet that I was gay) and me wanting to be open to experiences with people who might be, you know, slightly more consistently attracted to me than he was. By the time school started that fall, we definitely no longer referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, except maybe to his parents (he was in the closet). He would be dating boys at college, and I was expecting to do the same at school.
So, I’m back at Interlochen for senior year and within a few weeks, I hook up with this guy Joe, who Hayden had a grudge against because of a part Joe had gotten in a play the year before that Hayden wanted. (I’d actually forgotten about this grudge when I hooked up w/Joe b/c Hayden had a lot of grudges!!) My birthday is on September 23rd. I had a really great September 22nd — I went into town with a few girl friends and we did work at a coffee shop and had brunch and ran around downtown and I felt confident. I felt like I wasn’t dependent on Hayden anymore, that this year would be great and I’d make new friends and be my own person.
Then I told Hayden during our nightly phone call that I’d slept with Joe. He was… LIVID. He yelled at me and then he hung up. I had to call him back. He hung up again. I’d expected titillation. Instead I got, “I can never touch you again.” “I never want to speak with you again.” “Even if I ever forgave you, I could never sleep with you again, knowing you’ve had sex with Joe [lastname].” He called me a slut. He suggested I “get a cabin” for myself like apparently a promiscuous dancer had the year before (again, in retrospect I imagine this was one of those mythologies that swirl up around sexually confident young women!) for me to carry out my whoredom.
I kept thinking tomorrow is my birthday. At some point I switched from talking to him on the phone in the basement where everybody can see you to the private phone booth where I could sob more loudly. He told me he might never talk to me again.
I’m not sure that he knew why he was mad at me, either, to be honest.
The next morning — my birthday — I pulled myself out of bed, somehow, but couldn’t hold it together in the cafeteria, trying to be excited when Ingrid greeted me with HAPPY BIRTHDAY and trying to go over Spanish vocab with Gaia. “I can tell Senora that you’re sick,” she told me. Astrid said she’d walk me to Health Services, and I told her the story of the night before on our way there, sobbing, “And it’s my birthday!”
Astrid walked me through getting the day off, and then to my dorm. I told her I couldn’t be alone, that I’d never felt more alone in my life, and she promised my friends would take turns visiting me during their off hours. Everybody told me he was being an asshole.
“There’s no way Hayden can live without you,” Emma assured me. Everybody kept saying that. (They were wrong. He kept it up for six weeks, during which time Joe asked me to be his girlfriend and I said yes and it was really nice with him, it really was, and also I arranged my life in such a way that I was only ever alone while showering, b/c to be alone was to have to think my thoughts, and my thoughts were dark.)
That night, my friends dragged me to the cafeteria. They’d covered the tables in construction paper with messages for me in optimistic, generous crayons. They blared our favorite Puff Daddy song on Sheetal’s boom-box and sang to me until the boom-box was confiscated. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit they had for a girl with puffy red eyes who could barely say “thank you.” They hugged me and I felt like crying more, like I didn’t deserve it, or anything. But what angels they were for doing that! How blessed I was.
What I didn’t know yet and wouldn’t know until many months later was that Hayden also spent my birthday crying in his dorm room in Bronxville — but alone — not sure why he felt how he did or how he would live without me. He loved me so much and wanted to love me in a way that would save him from the homosexuality his church told him was a sin — but he knew ultimately that he could not, which meant one day I might have another man in my life who’d sometimes take priority over him. It’s odd to think of it now, that homophobia ruined my birthday, but not in quite the way you’d expect.
Erin , Writer
Oh, poor Erin on her 21st birthday. It involved a quick cry alone for no reason in an upstairs room of my friend’s house, which is pretty quirky romcom character of me. I think there was a Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” element to it, which is admittedly a very early age to be settling into that kind of truth! I do remember rallying, though. Back downstairs for champagne! Good for me!
Rachel , Interm Literature Editor
I am lucky to have not had any standout nightmare city birthdays, like where someone ended up in a holding cell or an emergency room, for which I am grateful! The birthday that it still makes me saddest to think about was the one where I was in a not-great relationship and I had really gotten into the habit of not ever asking to do what I wanted to do or insisting on my own priorities because my partner either flat out refused or would be so obviously bored and pouty at my thing that it wasn’t worth it anyway. For my actual literal birthday, I thought it would be okay to tentatively make some moderate asks: I wanted to to make a cute picnic dinner to eat by the lake and come home, make cute cocktails and watch a bad 80s horror movie (it was Witchboard, for those playing along from home). Instead, we… got ingredients for dinner and then my partner didn’t feel like driving all the way out to the lake and begged to go grab a beer instead; we ended up in a bar until it got dark. When we went home, I made dinner and then… watched the movie alone, because he was tired and didn’t think he’d like it. That was a sad birthday! Anyway, I’m single now.
Valerie Anne, Writer
I had a lot of shitty birthdays. A magician/clown traumatized me by making me think I broke his magic wand at my 6th birthday, and since my birthday was in January there were many over the years that no one came because of the snow. Including my 21st birthday, which ended up involving me and my little cousin going to Build-a-Bear with my mom. I also hate being put on the spot so a room full of people singing at me or watching me open presents was an anxiety nightmare. But definitely the worst birthday ever was my 19th birthday, which I mentioned in our 19 roundtable, because it was also the day my paternal grandfather died. Which I know technically has nothing to do with my birthday, it was just a coincidence of dates, but I didn’t feel much like celebrating that year. A close second worst birthday is when my friend Nic and I had a joint 30th birthday and about 80% of the people who attended got the flu.
KaeLyn Rich, Writer
This is very boring, as is fitting for my very boring worst birthday, which was kind of fine and not even worth writing a full paragraph about, honestly. For my 21st birthday, I was home on break from college (the unfortunate annual circumstance of an early January birthday). I didn’t maintain a lot of friendships back home, but my one best friend offered to take me out. Then there was this unanticipated horrific snowstorm and everything was literally closed or shutdown. We ended up driving very slowly and carefully to an empty, dismal Applebee’s where I had a very aggressively fine strawberry daiquiri to ring in my big 2-1 with my friend and her boyfriend. Bless her heart.
Ari , Writer
I was 12, my alcoholic grandfather had come to visit, and my mother bought Earth, Wind, and Fire tickets as a “gift.” Like, I’m 100% not sure why she thought 12-year-old me wanted EWF tickets (I should’ve but I was a 12-year-old shit), but when I did not express gratitude, she put me on punishment (I got grounded, for the white folks) for the night and they went without me! And because my grandfather was there, we’d gone to visit his cousins or something who also lived in CT that day — spending my entire birthday in Bridgeport at some apartment complex that smelled like cigarette smoke, beer, and mothballs. He was fucking wasted by the time we got back to my house, he fell asleep in front of the television in the family room, and I spent the night in my room, mad. I still can’t believe I got put on punishment on my birthday!
Reneice Charles, Writer
I had a masters degree in disassociation by the time I was four that I didn’t start unlearning until my early twenties, so remembering my worst birthday is hard work. I have managed to identify the birthday that I have the least memory of, so it was probably that one. My aunt Goldie died. I’m pretty sure the morning of my birthday. If not, it could’ve been the night before but I’m pretty sure it was day of. We had a whole party planned and paid for at Funscape, which I remember walking into but that’s where the memory ends. I’m not even sure how old I was, maybe 12 or 13. What a bummer.
Stef Schwartz, Vapid Fluff Editor
A couple of years ago, my ex girlfriend who had moved away (with whom I was still very close) came to visit for my birthday and we got in a huge fight! We decided to stop talking to each other altogether that very day and then I dragged my sorry, sobbing self to the shitty faux metal bar where my best friend was working the day shift. It was just about noon when she poured me a rye on the rocks and I swear on all that is holy, “Love Hurts” came on the fucking jukebox all by itself. I yelled “OH, FUCK YOU!” to nobody in particular.
Molly Priddy, Writer
Gotta say, my worst birthday was my 21st. I was working as a camp counselor in northern Minnesota, and I went out to party because I could legally drink alcohol, even though I’d been doing it pretty much religiously since I’d been 18. I went out and assumed all my practice up to that point could handle all the shots I’d taken, but no, noooooo. I ended up on the side of the road outside of Bemidji (curling capital of the world), wearing a yellow shirt with loons on it, puking my guts out in the light of the headlights while my buddies looked on.
Apparently I was upset, I was crying about how one person can hurt you more than anyone else, and suddenly everyone else was crying too, all of us on the side of the road outside of Bemidji because we couldn’t understand pain or loneliness. Anyway, the next morning just made it worse, because I woke up hungover and wanting to do anything other than camp counsel, and I had to sit serving scrambled eggs out of a huge bowl to the whole camp before someone kindly informed my bosses that I was hungover as shit and they relieved me of my egg duties.
A. Tony Jerome, Writer
My worst birthday ever was maybe two or three years ago? I went to a Christmas party at my best friend’s house and I just felt really shitty but assumed it was my usual anxiety at having to leave my house/be around people/not really be in control of how I move around. (I can’t drive yet. I mean like if the situation demands it I can, but the situation needs to demand it without checking for a license). But no! Turns out my inability to breathe was indeed an asthma attack and as we took the Lyft home, I was just really grateful to just lean my head back and try to grab air for the good ol’ lungs as my sister talked to the driver the whole way home.
I get home, and I have my shower turned up scalding hot, but I’m still freezing and I can’t stop shaking. I put on a lot of thick clothes so I can sweat out whatever I’ve got but it’s just getting a lot worse. So I text my dad and ask him to take me to the hospital. So, we’re in the hospital I’ve never been to which already gives me anxiety and I’m assuming it’s not the emergency room because they… kept asking me questions when I told them I couldn’t breathe. I’m sitting there with all my clothes on and it feels like years before they finally call me to see a nurse. He’s a white guy with a southern accent and he tells me, like we’re having Sunday tea while catching up on gossip, that if I had kept all my clothes on I probably would’ve had a seizure and that once you have one, you can’t come back from those, which, you know really helped my anxiety (did you know I have all types of asthma? Not just allergy and sports induced but ANXIETY INDUCED TOO).
He asks me if I was having any suicidal thoughts and obviously the answer is yes but thank God for two things: 1) The sudden reminder across my brain that doctors rarely treat black women right in medical settings ESPECIALLY in regards to mental health and 2) My dad was in there with me. So, I lied and said no. As I’m still trying to breathe while answering all these questions (DID I MENTION I CANNOT BREATHE, spots are flittering across my vision, I can’t feel my hands, etc. etc.). I try to hold it together when he says with a cheery smile, “Well, you know we’ve all got to go sometime” and then hands me an oxygen tank and tells me (WITH A SMILE, “Now don’t drop it or you’ll kill us all!” and I proceed to go to the bathroom and cry my eyes out while trying to get a urine sample.
After a treatment, they tell me to go to the back, and I just sit in another waiting room with my dad, tears pouring my down my face ’cause I just turned twenty-four and I guess I’m about to die and I don’t know if I can get into heaven yet; have I been good enough? If I have, will my granddad be there? Will that mean I’m gonna have to wait for everyone else to come before I don’t have to be near him again? And all kinds of other fun thoughts that not-on-the-right-mood-stabilizer me is chock full of.
The nurse sees me crying and asks my dad, “Is she okay?” and I wave him off angrily and they move me into the hospital room where thankfully the doctors are nicer but they are men and so I won’t register that until my fear at being in a room alone with men I don’t know when I can’t get my screaming to work (again) turns its volume down.
I have another treatment and a black nurse is very kind when wheeling me to get an X-ray and just lets me cry in peace. He makes me chuckle when he takes my X-ray and says, “I really hope you get better soon, Alexis” as he closes the door to my room to give me privacy.
I came home and tried to write about it but just cried for the majority of the break (most everyone in the house is in some kind of school or another) while I put whole lemons and oranges in ginger tea-filled thermoses, and accidentally fell asleep with Hulu playing The Runaways and Steven Universe on repeat. It’s really infuriating when I just want to enjoy y cartoons and my entire chest is like REMEMBER WHEN YOU HAD PNEUMONIA AND THOUGHT YOU WERE GONNA DIE and it like doesn’t go away. And as you can tell, I’m totally over it!
Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor
I have cried on my birthday only two times over thirty years, which is a pretty amazingly excellent statistic for which I am extremely grateful. One time was because my girlfriend really hurt my feelings and seemed like she didn’t even care, and one time was because I really hurt a friend and I was so mad at myself for not taking greater care with the emotional well being of a person I love.
Mika Albornoz, Writer
Mmm I’ve had some awful birthdays. I think the worst one was definitely the year I moved to America. I was in college and had a very abusive roommate who ended up trashing my dorm room and all my shit and I had to spend the evening before my birthday with all my stuff bagged up in trash bags in someone else’s dorm in their couch. It was December and cold, I had no friends, no apartment, I was away from home, had broken up with my then-girlfriend like a week prior — and to top it off, one of my abusers who is a family member decided to visit me as a surprise and complain that they didn’t have somewhere to sleep.