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Handling the Holidays After a Traumatic Brain Injury

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Can I be honest with you guys today…I mean, extra honest? Cool beans: I hate holidays. Hate them with a passion. They became an inconvenience after my parents divorced because I always have to try fitting in both sides of my family and if I can’t, I used to get the guilt trip for it. It’s even harder now with the new addition of my traumatic brain injury. Tack on being on medical leave without a steady income. Oh yeah, it’s been great fun (extreme sarcasm alert).

I’ve read tons of articles on how those with anxiety and other health problems handle holiday seasons and I’ve got to admit… some of them are quite funny. Of course, it’s not funny that they are forced to maneuver due to health reasons but at least they are doing it with a sense of humor and that’s always something to look highly on. For example, on one of the support pages I’m on for TBI survivors, we had a lovely discussion on this very topic. How to cope with the overwhelming holiday season. If I may share, one young lady responded with this answer to the question:

Q: So what do you do when you feel overwhelmed at a family function?

A: “I hide in the bathroom. I just sit there and play on my phone or text people until the coast is clear.”

I thought her answer was absolutely perfect. Why is that? Probably because I’ve done the very same thing. I made things even more humorous by adding, “Yeah hide in the bathroom, they’ll just think you’re taking a while to do your business.” I mean, it works! If you don’t want to deal with anyone, the one place you can be alone would be the restroom.

But in all seriousness, I’d like to list some things that have worked for me during these stressful times of the year. That sounds horrible, it really does, but for those of you who understand the overwhelming stress the holidays can bring if you have a chronic illness or disability, you’ll come to see the validity of these methods.

On a budget? No problem. I believe holidays, especially Christmas, are a time where families should not have to break the bank just because they feel obligated to give everyone a gift. To be honest, no person should go through with any action if they feel it’s obligated. It takes away the positive feelings and emotions from giving for doing for another person. So my solution to this would be to make your gift with your hands, because it means you personally put your time and effort into making that gift for them instead of running out and simply buying something. This proves love went into making the gift. Last year for the holidays, I baked everyone their favorite snack.

2. Limit your stay.
I realize this might seem rude to some, however, your health is more important and should come first. If your family doesn’t understand this, they don’t need to be in your company anyway because that would be disrespectful to you. Those of you who have a chronic illness already know any type of stress can make your illness or your symptoms 10 times worse. It sucks but it’s true. So an easy solution to this problem would be to limit the amount of time you are in a group of people or are in stressful situations.

3. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
 Going back to what I said earlier, if your family doesn’t understand your illness and what it does to you, don’t be afraid to tell them why you are acting the way you are. Now please don’t confuse this with having to defend yourself. None of us should have to defend ourselves. But if someone asks you why you need to perform a certain action for yourself, don’t be afraid to tell them. The difference lies in their reaction and their attitude while asking you questions. If they have a poor attitude about it, don’t waste your time with them. If they disagree with whatever action you choose to take, don’t waste your time with them. Simply go about your business without anyone being the wiser.

4. Don’t allow obligations.
As I mentioned earlier, don’t do anything that feels like an obligation; not only does it take away from the action, but it’ll put you in a bad mood. That would be like the Grinch showing up for Christmas dinner. And I’m not just referring to Christmas in this post; I’m referring to any major holiday when families typically gather. My favorite holiday is Valentine’s Day, but my family does not get together for that holiday, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much — it’s not stressful. I’m a romantic, so this day of the year is my kind of day. It’s important to not only ensure you feel well, but that you are in a right state of mind, as in attitude, in order to attempt being around others.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for a ride.
Driving is hit or miss for me; I’m on some strong medications. I feel guilty asking others to pick me up, but it keeps me safe and it keeps everyone else on the road safe. One of my medications has a side effect of drowsiness, and the last thing I would need is to be drowsy and delirious behind the wheel. That just wouldn’t be smart.

6. Wear ear plugs and/or sunglasses/welding glasses.
I swear by this rule. I have both earplugs and welding glasses, level 5 and level 8, that I wear almost on a daily basis. These bad boys have helped manage my migraines countless times. Earplugs can help with being overwhelmed with noise. I strongly recommend you do not allow yourself to push your own limits, because the last thing you need on a holiday is to add more symptoms to the ones you’re already dealing with. Please refer to the Grinch analogy mentioned above.

7. There’s no shame in staying home
. Now, I get it… family may expect a lot from you, and they would probably consider you to be rude if you completely skipped out on going to a holiday gathering. But this goes back to what I was saying earlier about obligations. If your family is making you feel like you must attend every gathering, it might be time to think of some other important questions such as: is risking my health worth it? If they are unwilling to understand me, should I even be around them to begin with? Is it worth being over-stimulated? What are the pros and cons to attending? If there are more cons than there are pros, your answer should come easily for you.

8. Reward yourself.
If you do decide to tackle the family gathering and make it out alive, feel free to reward yourself for putting in the effort and ensuring your health remains a top priority. Don’t spend a bunch of money you don’t have on stuff you really don’t need, but go out and get yourself an affordable treat such as ice cream, a candy bar, your favorite movie, etc. Spend the rest of the day doing what you like to do best.

9. Pray about it.
When you’re faced with a decision as to whether or not you should attend the family gathering or not, I feel in addition to considering your health and how you feel at the present, praying about it can help. If you’re  trying to push through it, you can pray your symptoms will be managed and you won’t feel worse because of any stress that might occur.

10. Utilize your support system.
This also goes back with #5 and asking for a ride. if you’re unable to attend the family gathering, ask a trusted loved one to be your advocate during the event. There have been times I haven’t been able to attend a holiday meeting and my mother had to be my voice when she met with the family. My family doesn’t like coming to me directly for answers regarding my life. Instead, they like to go to my mother… for some odd and rude reason. I’ve complained about this before, but this is why #10 can actually be a catch-22. You want to utilize your support system / caregivers to help with your health, transportation, and to serve as an advocate. However, you don’t want others getting used to going to them to ask questions about you personally. You would rather them come directly to you since their questions pertain to… well, you. It only makes sense.

This is my list of actions I take when the holidays come rolling around. Some of them may work for you, and others may not; that’s fine. It’s important that you do what works for you. However, don’t feel bad and don’t feel guilty because you have to put your health first. Don’t let others give you a guilt trip either. That’s the last thing you need.

Enjoy the holidays as best you can. Take care and God bless!

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Getty image by Maridov.

Originally published: December 14, 2017
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