Tomorrow I will turn 43. Birthdays are a funny sort of thing for me, as I imagine they are for many people. A time to celebrate but also to take stock and look at all those years and what you have to show for yourself. My birthdays as a child were an exciting time. I was the youngest in my entire family and also the youngest in my year at school. I hated being young and wen I was five thought my primary school teachers were patronising and infantilising me!
When I was a child we rarely got new toys or clothes. My dad worked the land so the generosity of my gifts was usually determined by broader economic conditions and things like the spring weather or the price of tomatoes in France. All I knew was that when I was seven I got all these beautiful things which I treasured. I still have some of them now. Even when I was a young adult I liked receiving happy messages, cards and gifts to celebrate me. I didn’t get celebrated much in my youth, possibly due to my puzzling passionate interests and socialist politics.
My early adult years were a negation of any celebration of me, a fall to the depths of misery, poor choices and shameful actions. I spent my birthday in 1997,1998 and 1999 in prison. Family visited and people sent me cards. I remember wondering why my usually respectable brother had sent me a card with a design of marijuana leaves on it and then realised a criminal friend had very similar handwriting to my brother! I admit I was a little disappointed. Prisoners live on letters and cards and occasional phone calls with those who they love. For prisoners the confinement would be infinitely easier with their family around – their kids especially. I always thought the punishment element was mostly composed of that enforced absence from people who care for you and the shameful reason for it. Thankfully I have no children. My tenuous connection to my parents was the thing that meant I eventually changed life for the better and had no more birthdays in prison after 1999.
I don’t know how things happened the way they did. It seems worthy of a daily celebration that I changed my life so completely that I have now largely forgotten what i was like to be the person I was. Nine years after my 1999 birthday I had a professional job, a Masters degree, a mortgage and a published book. Now, nine years after that time I have a few more books and have become a role model, a mentor, someone people respect and seek out for assistance and advice, and for some reason, the recipient of a wide variety of awards, most of them for leadership.
Tomorrow I will be forty three. My birthdays in recent years have been big and impressive, My eight year old self would have been wide eyed at all the cards and presents – and things with a black cat motif – that I tend to be given. My home is my haven now – a little comfy cave of nice things and Mr Kitty and enjoyable, rewarding work and visitors and chaotic perfection. For the first time in my life I love my home. I understand what ‘home’ means and am so grateful to have one. Somehow I became a public figure. I am frequently sent emails inviting me to dinners with influential people, I speak to rooms full of medical professionals and they listen to what I say. How on Earth did I get to this? Are there other ex criminals who are nominated for Australian of the Year? I keep expecting it all to turn out to be a dream or for everything to fall apart and find myself homeless, poor and cold in the Canberra winter, hoping that wherever Mr Kitty went to they are looking after him.
I guess birthdays prompt thinking on another thing: something I fear greatly – the idea that out time here on Earth is limited and at some point we will all say goodbye and go wherever one goes. When I started on my Autism advocacy journey I had an amazing mentor who very very sadly is not here any more. She instilled in me a sense of pride in my Autistic-ness. She taught me that to stim is a fine thing and to be unusual and unlikely is a thing for pride and enjoyment, not ridicule or shame. My resplendent mentor Polly instilled in me the basis for my Autistic identity and I imagine that my Autistic identity is probably doing similar things for people I know and mentor. I know that Autistic people and those with mental illnesses like schizophrenia (which I have) tend to live shorter lives than those without and that I am overweight and unfit. I am constantly aware that there is some urgency in my life. I don’t do death or grief well. I find it hard to say goodbye and let the person free. I want a ‘telephone to heaven’ to be able to talk to those I care for who are not here. Gee, I got morbid this time didn’t I? But I think the meaning of my pondering on age and identity and marking your existence through time with an annual celebration. I think these refections get to the point of who we are. I feel I need to use every moment I can to support others. I got a chance – fifty or sixty chances – to stay around and get to to where I am now. I am grateful but I am driven. Life is a huge, great, wonderful, shining gift. I will keep this in mind tomorrow when people message me and call me and wish my all the best for being a year older, and a prime number year and similar things. And I will be eternally thankful to everyone sharing this amazing things that is my life. Happy Sunday, happy life, happy journey to everyone!
Me aged five