Finding Joy During the Holidays With a Chronic Illness


If you’re living with a chronic illness, the holidays may be just as exhausting as they are enjoyable, and sometimes more so. Whether managing the added physical demands the holidays place upon us, or battling the emotional strain of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, the winter holiday months can be draining in every regard. Here are a few quick tips to keep you balanced and help you find joy while you juggle parties, presents and religious and family obligations.

Recognize and Focus on What Matters to You

One of the hardest things about managing the holidays with a chronic illness is trying to stretch your spoons as far as possible. Even people of able body and mind feel strained and drained during the holidays; tenfold for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. One of the ways you can combat this holiday fatigue is by knowing what is most important about the holidays to you, and focusing your mental and physical energy there. Maybe you love holiday parties, or maybe you really could do without them.

Don’t let anyone guilt you into fitting their mold for what they think is most important during the holidays. If you hate having to make small-talk at the office holiday party, then don’t go! If you’d rather do an intimate Thanksgiving with friends than travel halfway across the country to celebrate with family, then do it. These are your holidays just as much as they are anyone else’s, and you can only live for yourself. It may feel difficult, even selfish at first, but it’s not selfish, it’s self-care. At the end of the day, you have to find what brings you joy during the holidays, and focus your efforts and spoons there. You have finite resources; use them wisely.

Make Your Peace With Compromise

You may not have the mental or physical energy to do everything you want to do during the holidays, and you’re going to have to make your peace with that. I know it can be really disappointing to have to flake on a party or event you really wanted to be a part of; that is, unfortunately, part of life with a chronic illness. Two years ago, I was recovering from major surgery during the holidays. I missed every single Christmas event I wanted to take part in, save for one. It was really disappointing, but I had to give myself a break – I was recovering from a bone-breaking surgery and a week and a half in the ICU!

You may not be recovering from surgery, but you’re still coping with a mentally and physically demanding illness that requires you to make sacrifices and compromises. Maybe you don’t get to go to every holiday party that interests you this year; maybe you pick your top two, or just the one you really want to go to most, and truly enjoy your attendance there. Once you accept you can’t do everything, you give yourself the freedom to truly enjoy and relish the experiences you do have during the holidays. When you stop beating yourself up about not being able to do everything, you start to realize just how good the stuff you are able to do is.

Enjoy the Little Things That Make the Holidays Special

It sounds like badly worn-out advice, but it’s true; the holidays aren’t about how many church services or parties you can attend, or how many decorations you can put up, or how many presents you can give. Find your purpose and meaning in the little things this year, and they will become the big things, the things that matter most.

Immerse yourself in the hopeful melody of the carols on Christmas Eve. Bask in the glow and purpose of the Hanukkah candles. Let the bells of Midnight Mass transport you to a place and time not our own. Sit up late one night sipping hot cocoa and watching the multicolored lights of the tree twinkle. Stand outside in the snow for a few minutes, and watch it fall like silent magic around you. Put down your phone and really, truly take in the wonder of a child’s face as they look up at the tree towering before them. Take in the sights and sounds that only this special time of year brings.

There’s no “right” way to celebrate the season – and truth be told, you don’t even have to celebrate at all if you don’t want to. But if you do, give yourself permission to determine what matters most to you, and how you’re going to celebrate it, and what the real meaning of the holidays is in your life. Once you determine how you want to celebrate, on your own terms, the holiday season will become much more manageable, even with your illness in tow.

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Thinkstock photo via Sasha_Suzi.

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