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How I'm Learning It's OK to Say 'No' During the Holidays With Chronic Illness

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When I started writing this article, it was 11:00 p.m. on November 30. I had just realized in one hour that date would change to December 1 and instant panic had set in. While some people would see this and shout, “Hurray Christmas Day is almost here!” I saw it and thought, “Holy freaking crap, Christmas Day is almost here!”

It’s not that I hate the holidays, it’s just that I find it all so overwhelming. Today is December 10 and Christmas is so much closer. The parties have started and the games have begun. December is full of work during the day, and steady activities in the evenings and on the weekends. I don’t know how so many people do it, and enjoy it no less, because I cannot. But more importantly, I have learned I don’t have to, because my well-being is more important than making every single event.

You see, I live with two mental illnesses (anxiety and depression), chronic illness (fibromyalgia), migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome and insomnia. The holidays for me are exhausting. I know there are many people out there who are in the same boat as I am and it can be hard to explain to family and friends why we are not full of holiday cheer and bouncing off the walls excited like children waiting for Santa. After all, from their perspective, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” However, being honest, for me it’s exhausting and overwhelming. You see my mood as gloomy and not at all what you expect on Christmas. I am the Grinch. However, I promise you I am doing my best and I am not trying to ruin your Christmas. I am just plain tired.

So many parties, get-togethers and meals are about to take place, and so many have already started. Oh, the anxiety! I don’t know about you, but small talk is not my forte. However, I am especially great at being socially awkward. I’m an introvert and I am shy. Being around people is exhausting. I worry about saying something stupid and having to talk to strangers. But most of all, I worry about what I am going to say to family and friends about how I am doing and what “great” things are happening in my life right now, because I am not always where I want to be in life. And you know what? With depression, sometimes I just don’t have it in me to be excited and joyful.

Having had years of practice hiding my emotions and struggles, I wake up each morning and put on a mask. I go to work and try my hardest to be a bubbly ball of excitement for the children in my class. And you know what? It is actually pretty easy to get swept up in their excitement, and sometimes I don’t have to try so hard. There is so much magic about Christmas and children are so carefree and happy that sometimes I truly do find myself getting lost in the moment and feeling joyful and excited. But then I come home, I take off the mask, put on my yoga pants and curl up in front of the TV and fall asleep out of pure exhaustion. For someone like me, having to be “on” all the time is hard, and by the time you get to go home and unwind, you have used up all your energy and you have nothing left to spare for a family cookie baking party.

Then there are all the physical symptoms that only get worse when I am extra stressed and tired. I live with chronic pain and I generally don’t have to do much to aggravate it on a good day. Throwing Christmas in the mix is an extra bit of fun. No one wants to go to a party when they are in pain. No one wants to go to a family get-together when they are exhausted. No one wants to be social when they are just feeling down. And if you were being honest, you would agree you don’t want someone exhausted and in pain around. You see me as a Scrooge who is only bringing your party down. And to be honest, I don’t blame you. After being “on” all day, I really don’t have the energy to even try to pretend, and I really would rather be home wrapped in a blanket, drinking tea and watching mindless television. But I showed up because I felt obligated to go to as many social gatherings as I possibly could, because I didn’t want to offend anyone.

But you know what I have learned in the past few years? Just because it is the holidays does not mean you have to go to that party, or that family dinner. I have learned I cannot and do not have to just go and go and go, until I drop. And I don’t have to be the epitome of holiday cheer. And you know what else I’ve learned? The people who truly love and care for you will be OK with it, and they will understand (or at least try to). I used to go to every gathering and activity and do all the baking and volunteering and organizing for all the community and church activities that I possibly could because it was Christmas. I would work so hard that by the time Christmas day actually arrived, I would be sick and in bed because my body hurt, I was exhausted and completely drained mentally.

If I skip a party or event because I don’t feel up to it, my legs and back are killing me and I have a monstrous migraine attack. I am not being a bad friend. I am allowing my body to rest and recharge. And maybe, just maybe, when the next party comes around and I want to try and go, I might just feel up to it. I might have just enough energy that I am not running on empty, and I might just enjoy it. I always felt too guilty to skip anything and my health suffered greatly for it. It took a very long time and was a hard lesson to learn, and admittedly I still struggle with those feelings sometimes. But when I take care of myself and I decline invitations to parties I am just not feeling up to, I actually do have a better Christmas.

Unsplash image by Brooke Cagle

Originally published: December 11, 2019
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