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How To Have Fun at Dinner Events Even If You Can't Eat

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It is that time of year again — people are decorating, singing, doing traditions and celebrating. It is officially the holiday season! Whether you celebrate with family/friends or you stay at home watching TV, one thing will remain the same: Food is always around. How can we possibly have good holidays when we cannot eat?! How do we answer all these questions about our health?! Do we pretend that we can eat anything knowing we will be nauseous and may vomit? Do we not eat, knowing we will have uncomfortable questions coming? Or do we skip the holidays, leading towards isolation? These are some personal tips I have learned over the years:

1. Decide if you are going to eat before going. (Skip this one if you use a feeding tube). If you chose to eat, bring your own “safe foods” you know will not upset your stomach. If you feel comfortable, call the host to let them know it is not to hurt their feelings. Make sure they understand this is what you have to do for your health. For Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I always tell my family I am going to eat before because I have a special diet. This way I am never pressured to eat anything or questioned about my diet.

2. Always be prepared! One huge lesson I have learned about gastroparesis is you can never be too sure you will not have a flare-up. Anything can set it off from food to stress, anger, smells, anxiety and lot of other things. Make sure you have any medicine you may need. Dress comfortable or bring extra clothes to change into in case of bloating. Side note: The maternity section in Target is wonderful for this — lots of “bloating friendly” cute clothes. Remember that no one but you will know it is maternity. Write a list of your symptoms down and your medicine so you can pack it fast. This way you are always prepared for the worst day, while hoping for the best.

3. Know beforehand that people will ask questions about your health. They also will base your appearance on how healthy you are. It really hurts to have anyone tell you, “You have gained weight, you must be feeling better!” Or “You are so skinny, you need to eat more!”  Try to understand they are not coming from a bad place; at least they are trying to understand by showing that they do care. I struggle with this still but my two best tips would be first, change subject onto them. I always say, “I am so bored talking about me, how is *whatever* (job, kids, boyfriend, girlfriend) — an easy subject they can talk about. The other option is explain (patiently) what an invisible illness is. Explain that just because you have gained weight or lost weight, but have makeup on, hair done, cute clothes and are smiling, does not mean you are healthier or cured. It simply means you are having or trying to have a good day. Every day is a different battle.

4. Always have an exit plan. This is why I always take my own car. I get very embarrassed vomiting at friends’ homes. I do not always want them worrying about me and everyone finding out. If you are like me, you can make an excuse if you have one ready. I make sure to tell a good friend or family member that I may need help and if you text them, they need to call you. I have had my mom call me and say she is having car trouble and needs help. Set up a taxi or Uber to pick you up if you cannot drive.

5. “Please take a bite!” “You have to try this.” “This is grandma’s special, you have to eat it.” We all know that one person who is pushy about eating. It can be family or it can be a good friend. I have three options. Take a piece and walk away, when they are not looking, chuck it to the dog! (Kidding. Ha!) If you know who this person is, try to call them or email them beforehand. Explain how you cannot have it, that you appreciate them including you, but would appreciate it if they did not ask. If it is your sweet great grandma who just does not understand and you just cannot say no, tell a friend/cousin/sibling to help you out. Blame it on being full, and that you will share with whomever. Grab a fork, push it around, and say how great it is.

6. Truly think if this event is worth it. Emotions can cause a gastroparesis flare-up, especially stress. You have to put yourself first when you are chronically ill so if this does stress you out or gives you anxiety, do not do it! However, try your hardest to not isolate during the holidays. It does take strength to leave the house but it also keeps your mind off of your chronic illness for a little bit.

7. Appreciate the days you can do things. Even if you cannot eat anything, try to find silver linings. If you know your family or friends do not truly understand, bring over board games or cards. Have things to do for others besides everyone just around food. I cannot tolerate smells so I one time brought a trivia card game to Thanksgiving. I made myself a small plate and read all the cards to my family as they ate, they completely forgot I was not eating.

8. Tell someone you can rely on, who knows/understands your illness the most, to keep their phone on vibrate. Let them know you may need their help and you will text them. One time I was vomiting in the bathroom, so I wrote a text to my “buddy” and they quietly left the table to bring me my purse, so it did not become a big deal.

9. Already have a website loaded up, or save a picture describing gastroparesis. There will be people who ask. You can ignore, or you can educate, and that will eventually make your holidays easier every year. Remember to keep it short and easy for someone to understand. I always compare it to something they can relate to, “It’s like having the stomach flu every day of your life.” Be prepared for questions, or even suggestions, that may offend you. I have been told so many diets, so many ideas, so many “cured” stories, I could scream! If you cannot handle those unexpected questions that become repetitive, email/text everyone who is going to the event, explaining it.

10. Do not compare yourself to anyone around you! This one is the hardest. You may be around friends or family who you have not seen. You listen all day to stories about pregnancy, newlyweds, engagement, their successful career or whatever it may be. It is natural to compare yourself but no one can understand your own personal journey. You need to be proud of yourself no matter where you are at in life because you are a survivor. You fight for your life every day; it is painful, exhausting, and not very rewarding and some days you want to give up, but look at yourself! You are amazing and at the end of the day it is the holidays, realize you have people who love and care for you. Be grateful for just being alive. You may be in pain, but put your hand over your heart — feel it beating? You are too blessed to be stressed.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: November 29, 2016
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