Surviving Holiday Party Small Talk When You Have a Chronic Illness


The holiday season is well and truly here — a joyful time full of many festivities, parties, catch-ups, events and family reunions.

It can be the worst nightmare for a person with a chronic illness!

Not only is this season a physical challenge for managing energy levels, stress, health and dietary constraints, but it is also a season when you are bombarded with countless occurrences of the dreaded small talk: the painful, superficial conversations you have with new acquaintances and people you only see once a year.

There are a number of practical ways to make these conversations and events somewhat manageable.

1. Find a quiet place to sit, so you can conserve some energy and not have your cognitive function battling the additional noise.

2. Avoid alcohol which can exacerbate symptoms or react with medications.

3. Eating beforehand, so your stomach isn’t grumbling as plate after plate of food that isn’t on your specific diet pass by.

4. Go to the event with a good friend or partner, who is happy to help you escape when the evening or conversation becomes too much.

These are all useful, practical ideas. However, it is the content of these conversations that are the real challenge.

Distant relatives, partner’s colleagues and long lost “friends” all want to know the same two basic questions: “How are you?” and “What do you do?” These are both perfectly reasonable questions in themselves, but when your days, weeks and months are primarily spent in bed, at medical appointments or sometimes in the hospital and you feel like you have been running a marathon while having the flu, how do you respond? Yes, you have made it out of the house and to the event, and yes, you have made an effort with your makeup, your outfit and your plastered-on smile, but the reality of how you are and what your year has been like is a far cry from pleasant, superficial small talk.

So, how can you respond to these questions?

Let’s start with the first one: “How are you?” is pretty much guaranteed to start most conversations. There are a few of possible responses:

1. “I’m well.” 

This could be interpreted that you are a healthy individual without any cause for concern. However, what you probably mean is that in the scheme of things you are actually doing pretty well, you are out of bed today, the pain is manageable and things could really be a lot worse.

2. “I’m doing OK.”

This could be taken that you have had your ups and downs (like most people) and are generally just cruising along. What’s really going through your head is that you actually feel OK at this moment. If they were to ask you again 20 minutes after enduring standing at this party and making small talk, your answer may be the same; yet, by this stage you are holding yourself up against the wall, missing every second sentence spoken to you and really by now just want to be home in bed.

3. “Actually, I feel like I have been hit by a truck!”

Here you have chosen to lay all your cards on the table. You do feel like you have been hit by a truck. Everything hurts and you are struggling to function. Just be prepared for the person you are speaking with to think you are a hypochondriac and watch them try to escape the conversation as fast as possible.

Sadly, there appears to be no middle ground. However, if the conversation has survived the first stage of “How are you?” and has moved on to “What do you do?” how do you respond?

1. “I am a (insert your profession).”

Hope the follow-up questions don’t require you to disclose your omission that you haven’t worked in over a year due to your health. Redirect to talking about the other person as soon as possible!

2. “I am currently taking a period of leave from ____, to focus on other things.”

Again, redirect as soon as possible — people love talking about themselves!

3. “I do nothing! I am sitting around milking my government disability pension for all it’s worth.”

Please note that this answer may result in funny looks and a quick exit from the conversation.

4. “I am a lady of leisure.”

Leave it at that and the air of mystery that surrounds you.

5. “I am a professional patient. I have ____ (insert chronic illness) and I spend my time looking after myself, managing multiple appointments and specialists and navigating the mess that is our health care system and government support services.”

This is my preferred answer. However, once the chronic illness has been revealed, be prepared for the barrage of “advice:”

  • “My great aunt had that. She was healed by ____ (insert drug/food/exercise/specialist of choice!)”
  • “Have you tried ____ diet. I hear that is good for tiredness.”
  • “I know a great alternative ____ (insert health care practitioner of choice)”
  • “I get tired all the time, too!”

And with that, you smile sweetly, grit your teeth and make a choice: either exert your remaining energy for the evening on educating that individual about your illness with as much grace as you can muster, or excuse yourself and head to the bar knowing this is going to be one very long night!

Follow this journey at Make It Bake It Fake It.

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