I still remember the knots that formed in my stomach as my 16th birthday approached.
To me, it felt high stakes. I wanted to invite everyone—guys and girls, my crush and his friends, favorite teachers, friends in college and beyond it. I wanted to throw a party people showed up to. I wanted to be a girl who people found it fun to celebrate.
And, I was very nervous I was not that girl.
Growing up, we had moved a lot, which made friendships feel transient.
I had walked into plenty of classrooms as the new student wearing the wrong thing—sometimes it was overalls, sometimes it was stretchy shorts and an oversized 90s T. Always it was different than what the girls at that table wore.
All that to say, growing up I knew a bit about my pecking order in the social strata.
I knew about not getting picked first and not quite last at kickball.
I knew about long tables in the lunch room and where to find an appropriate spot on the bench.
I knew good grades were a good way to gain some respect points on the worthiness yard stick of elementary school.
I knew all that, but also, I was turning 16, and I really wanted a blow-the-doors-off party.
The last four years at the same school had brought a lot of stability to my life. I’d learned I was pretty funny and I didn’t have to be good at sports to make good friends. I’d learned I loved to sing and laugh and try new things, and other people liked to do those things with me.
But it didn’t lessen the knots of anxiety in my stomach. My mom and I had decided waiting till summer made sense. I could throw an end of the year pool party. It would be good. So as April progressed and my birthday drew near, I tried to bury all thoughts of the party, still a couple months away.
So, on a Sunday midway through April, as I went to the movies with my friend Kelsi, I’d successfully pushed that anxiety to a far corner of my mind.
Kelsi’s mom was the one who picked us up from the theater. Down the street a bit from my house, Kelsi asked, “Hey, do you mind if I run into your house real quick to use the restroom?”
I didn’t think anything of the request—“Yeah, sure.”
Walking up to my front door, she lingered just a bit behind me. I sauntered ahead, grasped the handle with confidence, swung the door open, then froze in a stunned daze as what seemed to be my entire high school shouted boldly “SURPRISE!”
In the photographic evidence preserved from that moment, my face registers with shock, verging on horror: “What are you all doing here?!?!”
What ensued was undeniably my most epic birthday party, complete with mandated 80s attire and music, food, laughter, and words given by friends and mentors.
It was everything I wanted. And everything I had been afraid to hope for.
Multiple times throughout the evening as I danced and smiled in a shoulder-padded jumpsuit selected by my friends and family, I felt so light, even giddy.
People had shown up for me, without my planning, perfection, or accommodation.
All those things I feel tempted to believe make me valuable—I didn’t have to manufacture any of that. I was enough. Just me.
Nearly 15 years later, parties are still an ambivalent space for me. Maybe that’s a little bit true for all of us.
I mean there are the easy things: celebrating people I love, planning the events, and attending parties for others.
But— trusting people to celebrate me still feels totally scary. What if they forget? What if I get disappointed?
“Better to just plan it all myself,” I think.
And sure, of course that is a great way to bring good people together, but it’s not the same.
This year, I planned my own birthday party, and this year, someone whom I love wondered out loud, “how would you know that we celebrate you unless you let someone else take control and do it?”
It was a fantastic question.
What if I don’t have to bring the whole party?
What if I can just bring myself and know it’s enough?
Because sometimes, you gotta risk letting the party happen.
Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 28 year old seminary student, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.