In the last 6 weeks I had a birthday. For birthdays I usually write and reflect, and this year I was especially thoughtful. While I won’t share all the intimate details of my thoughts, I felt compelled to write, because this birthday is a bit of a milestone. So here we are. 🤓️

The Best Year of my Life

I looked back on this last year, and to put it simply, it was the best year of my life. The last time I had that thought was when I was 17 and going on 18. I felt strong that year, and ready for the future. My running and academic achievement made me feel like I was worth something, and it (finally) felt like I was growing out of my awkward self into a full-fledged person. I watch old running videos from this time, and I see this quiet confidence, yet still a lot of naivete about the world. On my 18th birthday I didn’t know that barely a few weeks later I’d be forced to leave school for an emergency surgery, and that would only be the start. I didn’t know that the upcoming decade and a bit longer I would have continued stuggle with my health, many more surgeries that felt like rolling dice, a heartbreak that took 15 years to stop hurting, and an enduring feeling of being alone, feeling different, and not understood. The worst part in all of that was losing myself. The spirit that filled me previously, as a child and older teenager, had just left, and I was a shell that on the best days, hid my pain and tried to cover my face with my hair and push through work, school and just surviving.

The Darkness

But I never gave up on myself, and maybe that is what saved me. I recognized early on that nobody was going to come and save me. Nobody was responsible for me except for me, for everything from my mental health to what I decided to do for work to how I treated myself and others. The one quality that has endured in me is a relentless desire to not give in to darkness. When I was 21 and found myself on the floor, I would make myself get up. I would push myself through summer internships with 3 hour commutes by my own driving, bus, and train, each way because I was determined to not give up on myself. The bus rides were peaceful, and I could tuck into my headphones in a private seat and quietly cry. Outside of work and school, when I felt nothing, I moved to feel something. It meant one day walking out the door at 4:30am and going over 1000 miles on foot (and bike) with no destination, and canvassing mountains, trekking over abandon bridges, sleeping wherever I wound up at the end of the day, and watching the state names pass like in a moving window. The one piece of insight I had was that if I didn’t know what made me happy, I’d just keep trying things and eliminating those that didn’t make me happy. And in that experience I started to see small bits of joy and freedom. If I stayed in a motel, I’d buy a pint of ice cream for dinner, take a hot bath, wash my bleeding feet and feel a sense of comraderie with my bike, parked at the end of the bed. I remember speeding down a steep hill in the pouring rain and feeling alive, maybe for the first time in a long time. I’d wake up with the sunrise, and forget about everything else in life because all I had to do that day was pedal. People talk about learning to appreciate moments and find joy in small things, but I think sometimes you have to lose everything to learn to appreciate something again.

When I graduated, and was determined to have financial and otherwise total independence, I stumbled into my first job and found a missing piece of my heart. It was programming. I grabbed that helm with every ounce of my strength and I programmed night and day. Those first two years in my first job were beautiful - I started to have fun again with my lab, and feel like I was worth something. I managed a small string of years with no major surgeries or health issues, and still find joy in my early morning runs on the roads or in the forest. That was also when a tiny piece of me started to dream again. I’d be on an early morning run, and imagine a system that I wanted to build. I’d pause, and know I didn’t know how to do it. I was hungry again to learn, and work harder to be larger than myself.

But the darkness returned, and ironically with a very positive event of being accepted to a great graduate school. This time it was my immune system, which decided to become an asshole with the change of environment in Calfornia. At first I could hide it, and I went back to immersing in beauty to distract from reality. In my mid 20s given the variety of the Bay Area I would just run mountains - 10, 18 miles, until the beauty and quiet filled me to the brim and gave me calm. But good things don’t happen when your body stops functioning normally, and I had to eventually stop running, and despite going to every specialist at a great medical center, nobody could help. It again became very dark as I watched myself waste away, and had to deal with the judgmental eyes of anyone that saw me. But I continued to find reasons. If it meant driving through the night to see somewhere beautiful on my 26th birthday where I knew I’d be alone, that’s what I did. If successful determination meant living an hour away from campus to save money and commuting by bike on an emaciated ~100 pound frame in the rain when I was 28, that’s what I did. I knew that as long as I was capable and could move one leg in front of the other, that’s what I would do. In retrospect, I realize that it is only after living through this darkness that I have been able to not just appreciate, but emit light. And for the first time, this year one of my family members validated that experience - “Your success at getting better was all your doing.” Akin to how my Dad candidly said he was proud of me when I graduated, it was something that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

The Transition

Perseverance doesn’t always pay off, but I think it did for me. I immersed my head in music, and even when times were dark, I was able to escape into a world where things made sense, and there was beauty in what I heard and could build. I worked hard. I beat every odd thrown at me, and despite it all, graduated with a degree from an impressive institution. But that wasn’t the point. The point is that I survived. I did it on my own, and I did it for myself. But this isn’t entirely true - much of my healing I owe to my best friend, who adopted me as (his terms) “his pet dinosaur” in graduate school, and became the supportive family that I needed but didn’t realize it. It was the first time I didn’t feel shame for making faces, bodily noises, or just being relaxed in front of another human. There was no judgment in working on my computer all day, or chowing down on six avocados in front of my computer and preferring to laugh at internet cats in pajamas over participating in more “acceptable” social events. There were no conditions around him wanting to hang out with me besides just enjoying my company. He didn’t need me to validate him, or follow some large list of rules for behavior or living space that I’d never live up to. With this psychological safety I started to realize that I could learn to live again, and on my own terms. Although I didn’t understand my reactions to things, if I could avoid them, I might heal. And I did. It meant placing huge limitations on my daily life, limitations that I’m aware most people wouldn’t tolerate and couldn’t imagine. There was an entire year that I didn’t even set a foot outside. I wore not only a mask, but a respirator, long before we had a pandemic. But 5 years later, my immune system, as mysteriously as it had flared up, started to calm down. I could not only hold on weight, but I could also build muscle. Not only did I start to run again, I started to run fast. I started to feel alive.

The Light

It’s now almost 8 years later, and I am even happier. It’s ironic that we can emerge from such darkness and be much stronger than we might have been if we never touched adversity. Especially in this last year, the predominant emotion has been joy. When I work? I feel joy. When I run? It’s more joy. I can be tired after a long day, and still be moved with the desire to dance, and I have only what I can describe as an overwhelming joy that I want to share with others. I sometimes wish I could Vulcan mind meld the people that I care about and transmit the feeling inside me to them. The world is funny, and people are funny. There is a lot of real darkness, but also just a lot of bullshit. I find it all funny. I laugh about it a lot, and often just in my head. I’ve worked hard enough so I have immense freedom and can avoid a lot of it, and although I want to add positivity to the lives of people that I care about, if someone is an asshole, malicious, or otherwise toxic, I don’t want to waste my time. Don’t get me wrong - I have a lot of empathy and forgiveness. We are all human and make mistakes. The insight is that when you are someone that can be a positive force in others’ lives, you also have limited bandwidth and should direct it appropriately.

So this is 37.

The crap on the mirror is hair conditioner that get splashed from the brush post shower - sorry, I don’t care enough to clean it every time. I am covered in scars, physically and deep down. But I’m damn proud of what I’ve overcome, and I’m foregoing modesty this year because I am only alive once, and dammit, I just had the best year of my life. People came into my life this last year that gave my heart an unexpected level of joy that I didn’t think possible. I have been on several runs after days with so many moments of small joy that I have to stop because I am moved to tears. I am somehow supposed to be (quasi) middle-aged and serious, but my spirit feels like it’s getting younger. I’ve had more days of immersive, focused, delightful and super-productive programming than I can count. I’ve been immersed in work that I am passionate about, and supported by people when I’m not there, and that feels amazing. Despite the limits and challenges of the pandemic, I am patient, and know the future will be OK, and that I need to maximally take care of myself today and now. There is no compromise to good health, and you often don’t appreciate you had it until it is gone. I’d rather thrive and be cautious than lose everything, and thriving I am. So screw modesty this year. I will only be alive once, and will only be this age once, and want to be authentically myself, forget about makeup or people pleasing or hiding my scars - what you see is what you get. I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’m going to keep trying to become better - a better person for myself, and for the people that I care about. It’s been a heck of an adventure, and honestly, if this were nearing the end of my life, it would be enough because I feel that I have lived.

If you are going through hard times, don’t give up on yourself. Reflecting back, there was a good long period of my life when I looked forward to nothing, and often when I felt nothing, and now I’m so excited for the future - for what I might learn, who I might get to hug and tell them that I value them, and for the beautiful places I might go. Be joyful, friends! Remember, he or she who has the most fun, wins :)




Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "Birthday Reflections." @vsoch (blog), 30 Sep 2023, https://vsoch.github.io/2023/birthday-reflections/ (accessed 04 Feb 24).