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5 Ways I'm Planning to Handle the Holidays Differently This Year With Chronic Illness

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It’s that time of year! So much to do! So much to buy! So much to bake! I want to do it all.

And I can’t.

I’ve been coping with chronic illness for nearly a decade, and every year I tell myself that the holidays won’t knock me down. This year I’ll say no when I have to. I’ll pace myself better. Sure, I’ll have fun, but I’ll remember to rest.

Then comes Thanksgiving—the first test of my resolve. I’ll bake a pie or two. And maybe there’ll be another hole in the Thanksgiving menu, so I’ll volunteer to fill that, as well. When turkey day arrives, I’ll throw off my T-shirt and overalls and dig out clothes that are more festive—and less comfortable.

Shoving down my symptoms with medication and adrenaline, I’ll seize this rare opportunity for socialization, and pretend to feel better than I do. In an effort to recapture “normal,” I’ll volunteer for dish duty, or play a game with my family, or stand in the kitchen talking with friends.

Whichever way I overspend my energy, by the time I go home, I’ll understand that I’ve blown it. I’ll be too sick to move for the rest of the day, and I’ll wake even sicker the next morning. I’ll continue to struggle in the days that follow . . .

. . . by which time, Christmas season will be well underway.

This year, though, I’m making a change. I can’t afford to spend all of January recovering from December, so I’ve come up with a few ideas to help me—and others like me—navigate this busy season as a sick person.

 It’s time to use assistance devices, whether or not I feel I need them.

This is the time of year to hang up my disabled parking pass, dust off my rarely used wheelchair, and use every other energy-saving method at my disposal.

My particular disease (ME/CFS) makes it hard to stand in lines, and this is the season for long lines. Whether I’m buying a week’s worth of food or a loaf of bread, I’ve learned to grab a cart. I can lean on it while shopping, and if the line moves slowly, at least I’ll have support.

I’m also going to stay off my feet at home. Rolling dough and mixing batter can be done at my kitchen table. Stringing popcorn, crocheting gifts, writing out holiday cards and shopping online can all be done from the sofa. Instead of standing at the stove, I’ll use my counter stool. Any energy I save can definitely be utilized elsewhere.

I’ll split big chores into smaller tasks.

I hate that I can’t do something as simple as wrapping presents without crashing, but that one chore has often sent my health spiraling. My pre-illness system—gathering my purchases and wrapping them all at once—simply doesn’t work for me anymore.

This year I’ll be wrapping gifts as they arrive, one or two at a time. I’ll also use bags instead of wrapping paper. That way, I won’t suffer the effects of a marathon wrapping session, and the presents will look pretty on Christmas morning, and not as if I ran out of steam halfway through.

I plan to approach my baking the same way. In the past I’ve waited until Christmas Eve to make cookies for neighbors. Alas, my disease no longer allows me big baking days. Instead, I’ll aim for a batch of cookies a week. I’ll give them away early—while they’re fresh—and make more only if I’m up to it.

I’m done stressing over appearancesmine or my home’s.

For me, it’s not really holiday season until the decorations go up. In past years, this was a monumental task. First I’d make sure the house was thoroughly clean, then I’d empty my storage closet and go to work. It was exhausting even before I grew ill.

This year I’m changing my system. Instead of detailing the house beforehand, I’ll let its normal level of “clean” suffice. I’ve replaced my eight-foot tree with a three-foot pre-lit variety, and I plan to decorate it simply, set out a half-dozen of my favorite Christmas knickknacks, and call it good.

And do you know what? It will look quite festive by the time I’m done—festive enough. What’s more, I won’t crash at the end of the task, and I won’t crash again when I put it away.

My appearance can be another stressor for me. Depending on the formality of the gathering, I can find myself exhausted by the time I’ve “put myself together.” Not this year. I’m going to be comfortable because I need to be comfortable. I can’t let high heels, a grueling hair and makeup routine or constricting clothes stand between me and my enjoyment of the season.

I’m simply going to show up as myself. I know that’s all my loved ones want anyway.

4. I’m going to accept help when it’s offered, and ask for help when it isn’t.

Those pies! My family loves them, and I love seeing their appreciation. But baking two pies in one day—in my current condition, that’s an Everest-sized chore. So I’m going to ask for help this year, and I’m going to swallow my perfectionism if the apples aren’t sliced quite as thin as I’d like.

When it comes time to prep dinner or do dishes, I’m going to be real about how I’m feeling—what my limitations are. If my family urges me to sit, I will. I really will. But I’ll sit nearby, where I can watch the action and laugh at the jokes.

I’m going to acknowledge my loss, and let myself feel something about it.

In spite of my determination to do things differently, I know that at some point this holiday season I’m going to experience a setback. Ill health doesn’t take a holiday, so I may miss a big dinner. I may miss a shopping trip. I may actually attend an event, only to spend the entire time smiling through pain. I probably won’t be able to check everything off my to-do list.

This will lead to disappointment, as it has before. But this year I’m going to cut myself a break. I’m going to remember that I’m doing the best I can, and that my life isn’t made up of special occasions, but of all the moments in between—365 days a year. I’ll do what I can when I can, and endeavor to be as present as possible.

If I can manage all this, I’m convinced that I’ll have a better overall holiday season, and—this is so important—a healthier, more hopeful start to the coming year.

Photo by Kelsey Weinkauf on Unsplash

Originally published: November 16, 2022
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