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Why I Don't Want a Gift Related to My Mental Health or Chronic Illness This Holiday Season

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With the winter holidays approaching, I can’t help but notice the proliferation of condition-specific gift guides on my favorite mental health and disability websites. While the writers come from a place of compassion, as a person with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder; along with asthma, visual disabilities and hypoventilation syndrome, I don’t want anything related to my medical maladies for Christmas.

The problem with these guides is they are reductive; they render me as merely the sufferer of chronic illnesses. I don’t want to be reduced to my disabilities, since I am so much more than my constituent conditions. I am a person with unique interests I share with my friends both in person and online, and I want others to shop for me with these passions in mind.

When I see these gift guides, I cannot help but conjure the casual ableism of those in the past who have given me presents with the goal of making me into a neurotypical person. I cringe when I recall the now former friend who gave me a book on happiness one year, because she assumed it would somehow “fix” the person she believed to be “broken.” Or the times when my well-intentioned but misguided mom bought me motivational books; they languished on the floor of our den, because facile inspiration won’t cure my depression. Presents need not be a means of rescue or even palliation; I don’t need to be saved from my mental health maladies, no matter how limiting they may be.

This problematic dynamic is exacerbated when the giver of a disability or mental health gift is abled and neurotypical. The last thing I want are the saviors I have described above, people whose mission it is to make me into a “normal” person through the vehicle of buying a Christmas gift. Since I am not any friend or family member’s pet project the other 11 months of the year, don’t treat me like one over the holiday season. Even if someone does provide me with regular support, don’t assume that’s what I’m looking for in a holiday gift. I desire to feel just like everyone else around at Christmastime, and no abled or neurotypical person should take that away from me.

How should one shop for that person in one’s life who has a chronic illness or mental health condition? The answer is just like one would shop for anyone else. Does the individual in question love talking about their favorite U.S. presidential candidate? Then, go on Etsy and find them a creative gift related to the impending elections. There are ornaments, dolls and other trinkets related to various candidates, so there should be no shortage of options online.

Does one’s friend have a predilection for a professional sports team? Then, go on that club’s website and pick out that special piece of paraphernalia they cannot live without. Not a fan of online shopping? There are a myriad of brick-and-mortar stores with items related to particular franchises. An internet search engine is a useful tool to get one started in picking out the perfect present for the holidays — whether in person or via the web.

Is one’s friend like me in that she loves bushy-tailed rodents? Find your favorite independent bookstore in person or online and buy them a work of photography with the most amazing pictures of the various squirrel species. Do they prefer text to pictures or illustrations? There have been volumes written on nearly every animal; a squirrel-specific one is only a search away.

Simply put, it is not necessary to think about what is “wrong” with a person to shop for them this holiday season; we should emphasize how unique and special that individual is by shopping with their passions in mind.

The best gifts I have ever been given have centered around what I love. The comrade who made me into a puppet because she knows how much I like them, the friend who decided I ought to have a foul ball from the Colorado Silver Bullets, a women’s professional team I watched as a kid who competed against male ball clubs. The organizer who felted me a Bernie Sanders-themed red beret, because of my steadfast involvement with the campaign.

All these presents have been a paean to my passions; they embrace the person I am today, not the individual that I need to be according to anyone’s abled or neurotypical standards.

The bottom line is we are more than our mental illnesses and chronic health conditions; we are passionate fans of politicians, sports teams or music bands. We love animals, movies or books. We have interests just like any “normal” individual. When someone in our life shops for us this holiday season, I would hope that person purchases gifts with the recognition we are human beings first, whose loves and interests should be elevated. Bring us a bit of joy; don’t save us through a disability or mental health-related present. Thank you to my friends and family in advance for shopping for me just as you would any abled or neurotypical person.

Unsplash image by Monika Stawowy

Originally published: December 10, 2019
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