Monday, December 21, 2015

How to Genuinely Enjoy the Holidays- (Even When You're Chronically Sick.)

I was very close to posting a recipe for Chocolaty Chex Mix tonight.  I even took meticulous pictures as I moved through each step of the recipe.  I gathered the ingredients and positioned them on the counter...(camera click.)  I melted the sugar and butter in a saucepan...(click.)  I slowly poured the caramel mixture over the cereal...(  And then I created a festive representation of the Chex Mix in a white bowl with a plaid kitchen towel underneath it...(click, click, click.)  Then I had to sit for a minute, as I often need to, because my body was hurting and I felt dizzy.  It was in that moment, as I sat quietly in my family room, by only the light of my Christmas tree, that I accepted the reality that I just didn't have the energy to write about chex mix.  I barely had it in me to keep my eyes open.  I had officially reached the point where the only thing I cared about was surviving the holidays.

"Surviving the Holidays?"  Since when is "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" something to just survive?  I'm pretty sure every frazzled mom, and every exhausted retail employee, and every underpaid teacher can relate to this to some degree.  But I'll tell you what takes holiday stress to the next, sometimes unbearable, level.  

Chronic Physical, Emotional, and/or Mental Pain

If you're a generally healthy person, I'd like to encourage you to try and remember a time that you felt truly rotten. Imagine your last bout with a stomach virus, the flu, a kidney stone, a migraine headache, or a toothache that hurt so badly you were completely incapacitated.  Now I want you to imagine that while you're suffering, the entire world suddenly says to you, "You still have to get out of bed!  It's the Holidays!  It's time for shopping, presents, baking and cooking, parties, and socializing.  There's no time for you to be sick.  You have to get up now and be happy, and pretend that you don't hurt. You have school parties to get to. You have company coming- you better start cleaning your house. Oh, and by the way, you need to make 57 Pinterest-worthy treats to take to your neighbors, friends, and teachers." For people that are chronically sick or in pain, the holidays present the problem of trying to find energy resources that may just not exist.  Often the month of December is a painful reminder of all the things we desperately want to do, but can't.

After years of forcing myself to do it all, and working hard to make everything so magical that I literally made myself sick, I gained some wisdom and realized it doesn't have to be this way.  As much as it feels like it, there really isn't a gun to my head, requiring that I do more than I can handle during the holidays.  I have put a list together of suggestions that will hopefully ease your burdens a bit and remind you that Christmas really is something to look forward to, and enjoy.

Talk About It

Patricia Fennell, MSW, LCSW-R hits the nail on the head when saying, "Holidays act like a lightning rod where all the physical and social concerns around chronic illness get really highlighted.  The demands and expectations around holidays can "out" people whose conditions were hardly noticeable. During the year, they spend so much of their energy working and handling the daily chores of living that they have little time left for socializing.  Come the holidays, they're expected to show up and contribute.  Many chronic illnesses are 'invisible.'  People go to work or volunteer or shuttle kids to school.  Most of the time, they don't look sick.  When illness flares up, their pain is invisible.  Or they have bone-numbing fatigue, so bad that they can't take a shower and go to the store in the same day."  Unfortunately there's a cultural misconception that says you're not sick unless you look sick. This perception isn't going to change unless we speak up.  I have found that most people would do anything to ease your burdens- but they can't help if they aren't aware that there is an issue. 

Plan Ahead

I can't stress this one enough.  Since unpredictability is the nature of the invisible illness beast, planning in advance and preparing for all contingencies is imperative. When preparing for parties or traveling, we may need to bring medication, mobility aids, fluids, and special foods.  Don't be afraid to discuss your needs with the host or your family members.  We all want to participate in the holidays the way we always have- including cooking, decorating, and hosting gatherings.  To do these things, we will just need to prepare over the span of a few days or weeks.  If we rush around and try to do it all in one day, we are less likely to enjoy ourselves and we could even end up bedridden.  

Ditch Unrealistic Expectations

In fact, get rid of all your expectations.  I once had a friend tell me that expectations are the root of all evil because they encourage you to pine over things that aren't real, and ignore all the beautiful things in your life that actually do exist.  Of course it's fun to create a beautiful table for Christmas dinner, or trim a picture-perfect tree- but only do these things if you truly enjoy them, and certainly not at the cost of your own health and sanity.  If you can't do what you once did, you can still make new traditions that accommodate your limitations.  Whatever your idea of how Christmas is supposed to be, just remember that it doesn't have to be like that for you to enjoy it and be truly happy. 

Ignore Other's Insensitive Comments

Louise, from the blog "Diseased, Divorced, & Dangerous says it best, "People often have their own ideas about what you should be doing with your life and this is none so evident as it is during the high stress month of December.  It's when people's opinions that should probably be kept to themselves come streaming out with a little shove from one too many drinks.   Whatever the unfortunate comment, it's a good idea to remember their opinions are a reflection of them and not you.  When you're sick you can't win no matter what you do, whether you're working and so you're 'not that sick really' or not working and so you're 'exaggerating and not even trying to get better.'  As you can't win, you may as well just do what makes you happy, and what you need to do for your health, even if it means missing a party or bringing your own 'free-from' food.  Embrace being the weirdo that leaves early, only drinks sparkling water, and has a handbag full of medication.

Respect Yourself

Respect your limitations.  Respect your right to enjoy the holidays.  Respect the fact that you are enough today, simply because you are a living, breathing person.

Serve Others

I can't think of a better way to embrace the holiday spirit than to jump beyond ourselves to help others.  Just because we're sick doesn't mean there aren't things we can do.  Get on the internet and order flowers for someone that is struggling.  If you're having a particularly healthy day, offer to help with childcare, or housecleaning.  Spencer W. Kimball reminds us that, "Service to others deepens and sweetens this life while we are preparing to live in a better world.  It is by serving that we learn to serve.  When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen, not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective.  When we concern ourselves with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves."  Talk about warm fuzzies!

Above all, let us remember what this time of year really means to us, and let's focus on that.

I wish you warm, happy, and healthy holidays!

By Janet Schlosser at

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