The first day of the month my birthday falls in always plays out the same way. First, I drink a bunch of Bloody Marys because I was born in January. Then, I suddenly remember that I’ll want to organize some sort of birthday celebration. My initial reaction is one of unfettered excitement. I love birthdays—the creativity that goes into planning a party, the chance to see people who bring you joy, the opportunity to let your loved ones totally spoil you, when, as women, and humans, it can feel like we spend a lot of time looking after other people’s needs. Not to mention: Presents! Music! Cake!
That part of me—the part that genuinely enjoys wearing pastel party hats—gets the mic for about thirty seconds before a doomsday believer takes over, demanding answers: Is all this attention on me even deserved? What if I invite the guy I’m kind of dating to my party, but actually I misunderstood the entire situation and he brings his girlfriend? What if the only people who show up are that chic couple I met at a networking event, and they think I have no friends? Do I have friends?
“I don’t know who decided that birthdays are great opportunities to take stock of where we stand—with our careers, our relationships, our friends, ourselves.”
That these things (a) have never happened before and (b) are not real problems does little to slow my escalating heart rate. And it was in this irrationally frenzied state earlier this year that I received a very generous escape route—a last-minute invitation to join a press trip in the French Alps that conveniently conflicted with my birthday. I couldn’t have said yes fast enough.
On the plane to Valmorel, the small French valley town where I would spend the next four days eating cheese, skiing with obnoxiously handsome snowsport instructors, and feeling like Eloise while soaking for hours in the cavernous bathtub in my Club Med hotel room, I thought about my perfect plan—and whether it was really so perfect.
I wasn’t questioning the French Alps bit. That was objectively a great decision. (It should be noted, in the spirit of journalistic integrity, that Club Med sponsored my all-inclusive French adventure. Happy birthday to me!) But was I foolish to think that I could outrun anxiety?
On second thought, running away seemed smart. I don’t know who decided that birthdays are great opportunities to take stock of where we stand—with our careers, our relationships, our friends, ourselves. It’s a case study in disappointment. But therein lies the genius of birthday getaways. While at home it would be easy for me to form unrealistic expectations for everyone and everything around me, outside of my natural habitat (say, zooming down a mountain, among total strangers, in a foreign country) I’d have no idea what to expect. Brilliant!
I put on my Delta-provided eye mask and slept like a baby who doesn’t even know what a birthday is.
My first morning in Valmorel, which was also my birthday, I woke up to a snowy glow pouring in through my window. I shot out of bed and hit the slopes without even checking my phone. (No one in the States was awake yet anyway.)
Whooshing down the mountain with my ski group, I beamed as the cold air collided with the few inches of skin peeking through my gear. I felt exhilarated, emboldened, present. 28, nice to f*cking meet you. (I know, I know. Birthday anxiety might not be sensible at this age. But let’s be real: it’s not sensible at any age. It’s about fear and insecurity, not reality, which is why I’ve been getting those palpitations since teen-dom.)
“Whooshing down the mountain I felt exhilarated, emboldened, present. 28, nice to f*cking meet you.”
I liked that no one around me knew, or at least realized, that it was my birthday. It was solitary refinement at its greatest: Après-ski, I got a massage and sipped tea in the spa’s relaxation room while watching the steady, rhythmic to-and-fro of skiers traversing the mountain in the distance. I went for a schvitz in the Hammam, where I met friendly tourists, then drew myself a hot bath, as Edith Piaf crooned chansons. I floated through the family-filled hallways of the resort looking like the picture of Zen, and any time a kernel of panic emerged, I’d shoo it away.
That evening, the hotel had arranged balloons on my bed along with flowers that my sister sent. I was overwhelmed—I felt so celebrated, so unexpectedly. At dinner at the in-house fondue restaurant, my group toasted to my birthday, trading stories about travel and romance and the kind of secrets you only tell total strangers. The night wasn’t about me, which was okay. And the accents that were in my honor (like a sparkler-topped birthday cake!) felt embarrassingly lavish in a wonderful way.
Still, as I climbed into bed, I couldn’t stop that negativity I’d been suppressing from coagulating in my sternum. Which was embarrassing in a just-embarrassing way. I’d had an amazing birthday. My skin looked Cover Girl good post-Hammam. I met lovely people. I WAS IN FRANCE.
Of course, it wasn’t my surroundings. It wasn’t anything other than the fact that for 24 hours every year—and in this special getaway edition just two!—I was at peak combustibility, and any bummer thought ballooned into an existential self-interrogation: Am I surrounding myself with positivity? (Translation: Why haven’t certain friends called me?) Do I have the balls to ask for what I want, and need, in a relationship? (I’m underwhelmed by the one-liner from my maybe-boyfriend.) Am I achieving my potential? (Standard AHHHH.)
The next morning, and the one following, I woke up fine. Better than fine. I walked around town; ate heavy, cheesy meals; bought charming souvenirs. The thing about birthdays—great, bad, good—they last one day.
I got back to New York feeling refreshed, and the next time I saw my friends, I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I wondered what might be different if I had just called this my birthday party. Probably, I would’ve expended too much energy on the guest list and the way I looked and memorializing with pictures to actually be in the moment.
Or maybe it would have been even more special. I’ve loved birthday parties past. And as much as I don’t want to admit it, err, I kind of still wanted one with my family and friends around me. With the calendar date far behind me, maybe it would mean all of the excitement and none of the stress. But even if the two were inextricably linked, I was still in. Home or 3,000 miles due west, maybe birthdays are just destined to be as exciting and wrenching and fun and confusing as getting older itself.
In conclusion, birthdays don’t actually matter. But that realization hasn’t once kept me from cycling through the contradictory reactions of enthusiasm and dread, joy and breaking out in hives, wanting all the attention and wanting to be, like, totally whatever about the whole thing. Because you can’t talk sense into a panic attack, even if you’re a grown-ass woman (or something close to it). Birthday anxiety, it appears, is my longest-held birthday tradition.