Tips for Getting Through the Holidays With Chronic Illness


Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia (FM), as well as other chronic illnesses, make the holiday season especially stressful for some people. The fear of being isolated and not being able to take part in the festivities can cause us to insulate ourselves in the perverse drive to make it to the big day.

The past few months have been difficult for me, as my pattern of CFS and fibro symptoms changed radically over the summer. Now, as we wind up for the holidays, I find myself doing what many of us with chronic pain do: pull back into hibernation mode. What this means is that, in an attempt to ensure I have enough energy and a low enough pain level to enjoy my family for the holidays, I give up all activities in favor of storing up energy.

My husband has been doing all of the grocery shopping for several months now. He cleans the house and does most of the cooking. Last year, we did nearly all of our Christmas shopping online, and we didn’t attend a single Christmas party or event. All this in the hopes that when my family gathered from far and wide on that one special day, I’d be upright and actually able to have a good time.

From experience I know that a crash resulting from overextending myself will last at least a few days – often even weeks. I have family coming from hundreds of miles away – grown children, siblings, elderly parents, in-laws, and step-parents will be here together for the first, and likely last time ever. I’m prepared for the crash that will likely follow…but the fear that I may not even be able to fully take part and enjoy the event weighs me down.

I can’t imagine trying to get through this with children. So much energy goes into making Christmas and other holidays a magical time of year, and people who are chronically ill or who are in constant pain want no less for their own children. I am at least thankful that, when my son was young, I was in a remission of sorts, and able to enjoy the holidays and all of his activities with him.

Having had some practice at this, I’ve put together some tips to help you get through the holidays on the right side of the mattress:

1. Start Early

Rushing through those final weeks takes a serious toll on even a healthy body. Although we all hate to see Christmas decorations go up in the stores in October, those of us who live with a chronic illness should definitely get started early.

This means you’ll need to make a list of all the things you’ll need to get done.

2. Make a List

Your list can begin with whether you will be attending or hosting your holiday parties. If you are hosting, you’ll need to write down each thing you want to buy and prepare. We all know this is much more than a holiday dinner shopping list. There are decorations, special table décor, candies and cookies, and gifts for your guests. Dividing your lists into organized sections, both of things to buy and things to do, will help. You might want to start with these:

  1. Foods (further divided into the special meal, treats, and the other food items)
  2. Gifts (further divided by each recipient)
  3. Cards and Invitations
  4. Cleaning and Decorating

3. Schedule Tasks

The point of making a list early is to allow you to get things done a little at a time. Divide out the things that can be done very early (like late summer, early fall), then do a couple of them a week. These include things like ordering Christmas cards, buying gifts, and even buying staples for your pantry that you know you’ll need for the occasion. Such staples often include flour, sugar, nuts, cans of pumpkin, and even aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and Ziploc baggies.

As the season progresses, try scheduling one task each day. If you can get an extra one done, great – because there will surely be days when you can’t do even one. I have learned to avoid the temptation to grind out a whole bunch in one day. Although I very occasionally have enough energy to do this, I suffer for it in terms of days or even weeks of forced inactivity, rather than hours.

Spare your spoons by:

  1. Buying items a few at a time in the months leading up to the holidays.
  2. Stick to doing one or two tasks a day.

4. Simplify

Most of us have a tendency to go overboard when planning the holidays – especially when we host the festivities at our homes. We plan to make two kinds of fudge and six types of holiday cookies, and to set them out in several rooms in cute little dishes. We plan to bake a turkey and a ham, bake our own rolls, have stuffing and mashed potatoes and yams, and hand-whipped cream for the homemade pies.

Two Christmas trees are better than one, lights need to be strung – not only outdoors, but throughout the house. Buy or make centerpieces and a stunning holiday wreath for the front door, reprogram the doorbell to play “White Christmas” – the list goes on.

The true wonder of the holiday season is the time we spend with our loved ones. That holds true even if you put up a single, small tree, order pies from a local bakery, choose between a ham and a turkey, and greet guests to your everyday doorbell.

We now use disposable plates and dinnerware, as well as disposable glasses. Modern technology produces some truly attractive disposables if you’re not into the standard paper plates and plastic knives, and these are things you can buy way ahead of time – during one of your regular grocery shopping trips.

Another option for everything from dinnerware to decorations is online shopping. I must admit I have become somewhat of an “Amazon-phile,” ordering just about everything to be delivered to my door.

Spare your spoons by:

  1. Using a pre-lit tree, rather than stringing lights.
  2. Guiding the children or your spouse in putting up decorations.
  3. Having others haul decorations from the basement, attic, or garage.
  4. Simplifying your menu.
  5. Opting for disposable cookware and dinnerware.
5. Simplifying Gifts

Buying gifts for everyone in the family, at the office, and in the neighborhood is not only expensive, it’s exhausting. While you can alleviate some of the stress by shopping online, consider an alternative plan for your Christmas holiday. In our family, we buy gifts for the children, then we handle the adults differently.

We either draw names among the adults, so each person brings only one gift, or we play a game, where each person brings one anonymous and unassigned gift and places it in the pile. We take numbers for who opens the first gift, which they choose from the pile. The next person gets to either take another gift, or steal one of the previously-opened gifts. This is a really fun game guaranteed to generate a lot of laughs. I have one tip if you plan to play this game – make sure everyone knows that at least some of the gifts should be gag gifts.

Wrapping gifts is fun for many of us, but it also uses a great deal of energy we could devote to something else. Having someone else wrap for you is an option. If you prefer to do it yourself, try stockpiling some gift bags and tissue paper. This eliminates a lot of the reaching, holding, and dexterity required to cut paper, wrap, tape, and create a beautiful bow.

Spare your spoons by:

  1. Saying goodbye to handmade gifts.
  2. Enlisting the post office, UPS, and FedEx to bring gifts to your door.
  3. Opting for gift bags rather than gift-wrapping.

6. Enlist Help

Decorating and cooking together are activities that make some of the best memories. Don’t deprive your children – or yourself – of them. Better yet, sit in a comfortable chair while the kids hang the decorations. You’ll be right there to answer questions and direct traffic. Just remember that none of the decorations in your home truly have to be perfect. It’s more important that they invoke a feeling of love.

Make assignments for food items. Perhaps have Aunt Margaret bring her special cranberry sauce and some dinner rolls, assign your siblings a side dish each, and ask people to bring Christmas cookies and other treats.

My mother has a reputation for making the most amazing pies. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that gene. While she would have rolled her eyes at the thought of buying pies for any special occasion, her 73-year old energies are better spent in other ways. If you want to get the good pies, I recommend ordering early – then don’t forget to show up to pick them up!

Even if you don’t have kids at home to help with the yard and home cleanup and decorating, you can hire someone to help you. In fact, you might find some youths in your neighborhood who could use a little holiday spending money, and they’re often great with a rake!

Spare your spoons by:

  1. Enlisting the kids and other family members to clean and decorate.
  2. Hiring help for outdoor cleanup and decorating.
  3. Having others bring holiday treats and dinner items.

7. Other Holiday Activities

Part of the charm of the holiday season is all of the activities leading up to getting the family together on that special day… the office parties, the party at your church, school parties, dinners and cocktail parties with friends – they all take a toll. When you’re working on a very limited storage of spoons or energy to begin with, it’s important to realize early you’ll have to ration.

Try anticipating these activities and adding them to your pre-season list. Go through them several times as the season progresses, and weed out those that you don’t truly need to attend. Saving your energy for the activities you enjoy the most will make for a much happier holiday season.

Spare your spoons by:

  1. Choosing the activities you most want to take part in, foregoing the others.

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