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Why Holiday Gift-Giving Is Hard When You Live on Disability Benefits

As a person who struggles with panic disorder, chronic depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, nothing exacerbates my disabilities like the holiday season. The mere mention of the subject leaves a walnut-sized pit in my chest, as my head becomes heavy, my upper body tightens, and my breath becomes labored. In our consumer culture, gift-giving is seen as the sine qua non of the December holidays. For disabled people, who often struggle with poverty and live on meager SSDI or SSI checks, the holidays present a particular dilemma: Buy expensive gifts and demonstrate to the people in your life that you “really care” or maintain some modicum of financial solvency.

While I have always considered myself generous, the idea that our literal worth is measured by the value of presents we buy is a recipe for feelings of failure — and the flaring up of depression. Given to a chronically negative self-concept, during the holiday season, I often perceive that my inability to buy lavish gifts for friends or even acquaintances is a failure of myself as a person. In these instances, I inevitably dwell on the contrafactual; if only I hadn’t “succumbed” to disability, I would have reached my full potential and have been able to afford the gifts by which society measures our worth. In my ruminations, my disabilities morph into not only my weaknesses, but also personal failings for which I blame myself.

Although I tend toward resourcefulness, I struggle with the idea that the holiday gifts I give are enough, and by extension, that I am enough as well. As a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the ruminations about my Christmas gift for a dear friend — a framed photograph of a birthday surprise — are exhausting enough, and are representative of my gift-giving ideation. Firstly, there is the picture. Is it bright enough? My photo lab lightened the middle portion, but not the bottom. Will the final color scheme cohere with the special matting and framing I had already picked out for my friend? The lab assures me that it will look fine, as I call five times within a 10-day period to verify that the order is proceeding as it should. With each iteration of compulsive checking, I temporarily assuage my doubts. Then there is the framing process itself, which further triggers my OCD.

While the photographic print looks great, I can’t help but graduate to further doubt. For aesthetic reasons, I ended up having to change my original frame and mat, which leaves me wondering, waiting, counting down the days until November 1 when the piece will be ready for pickup. My mom assures me that my friend, having never seen my original design, won’t know the difference. I am temporarily heartened, but still I sense that angst, that pounding of my heart in my chest, that brooding. Will the gift ever be enough? Will I ever be enough? In a world where we are defined not only by our abilities, but also by how much money we have to purchase gifts, it is difficult to ever feel adequate, to recognize that I have inherent worth by virtue of being a person, disabled or able-bodied.

Since I have nearly completed Christmas shopping two months in advance, many may muse that my disability flare-ups are over. To the contrary, it is the anticipation, the crescendo of emotions, the moment when the gift is sent, to being received, to my being thanked — if I even hear back from the person — which magnifies my symptoms. That last part, the being thanked, is the hardest. While I almost invariably hear back from people to whom I send gifts, the times when I don’t are particularly grating. I find myself slipping into self-doubt, if not outright depression, wondering if I were even important enough for a thank you. While they weren’t holiday gifts, I recently gave a couple of presents that weren’t even acknowledged by the receivers. One of the individuals even sent me Facebook chain mail, but didn’t have 30 seconds to thank me. The end result was that I not only felt that she didn’t appreciate the gift; I had an abiding fear that she didn’t value me either.

What can we do if we are disabled with limited means in a culture that values abundance, inevitably having to confront our consumer culture head-on each holiday season? While entrenched values are difficult to change on a macroscale, any movement starts at the individual level. As people who value disability justice, each us ought to actively foster a culture where our value lies not in the material gifts we are able to give, but in the friendships we share, the generosity of our spirit, and the resiliency of our connections through our trials and tribulations. We must emphasize that we have intrinsic worth as human beings, regardless of the size of our pocketbooks, regardless of our ability to bring home a paycheck, regardless of what if anything we are able to give for Christmas or Hanukkah.

Just because we cannot give to the same degree materially as some of our more affluent peers doesn’t mean we can’t give creatively, emotionally or spiritually. The best presents I’ve received haven’t been bestowed on me by the super rich; they have been handmade, personally-crafted goods which probably aren’t terribly expensive. However, they have value because they were conferred upon me by a fellow artist, with their own sweat and self-concept on the line — and it is under this backdrop in which they express how much I matter to them. While not everyone is an artist, handmade items may be purchased via online marketplaces like Etsy or in select stores. After all, if I have to be a member of a consumer culture, my power comes in choosing ethically-sourced, handmade goods — some of which are even fabricated by disabled artists. It is these gifts which make the holidays unique and special.

Getty image by Photografeus.