The Sick Person’s Guide to Surviving Holiday Hooplah

on 01 2, 2011

Holiday Lights(I originally wrote this post for the Pituitary Network Association‘s monthly newsletter January 2011 edition.)

No matter how important the holidays are to you, it’s hard not to feel heightened emotions during the season. In response to a welling of holiday spirit among our family, friends, community and world, caring become the focus of our energies, and our hearts open wider as we take time to connect with and honor the people that mean the most to us. At the same time, we may be reminded of painful relationships, those we’ve lost, or financial hardship.

Being sick can magnify these feelings even more as we compare the quality of our lives to those of others, or struggle to keep up with the holiday pace.

Life under a microscope

The season is sometimes more “up close and personal” than we’d like it to be. Many of us spend more time out of the house running errands, going out for meals, attending or planning parties, participating in worship services and church activities, cooking and baking, getting decorations and supplies for fixing up the house, and helping the needy. We have family and friends who expect to come out of town to stay in our homes, or that we may travel to stay at theirs. More time is spent on the phone, online or in person, catching up on the year’s events, or renewing old ties.

Spending more time than usual with others, it’s hard to hide it when we don’t feel well. Because we want everyone to have a happy holiday, we may try to hide our symptoms so that others won’t make a fuss, think we’re trying to get attention, complain that we’re being a downer, or worry about how sick we are.

We may not be able to comfortably sit and watch a show, or eat our favorite traditional dishes. We might be absent-minded, or spend a lot of time lying in bed. Children may be confused by why we can’t get down on the floor to play with them, or why we have to leave the movie earlier than planned.

Other adults may be offended or impatient when we can’t do what they want to do, or can’t participate in the way we always have before. If family politics weren’t already difficult enough, being ill can make things even rockier. It may have been alright for us to beg off of activities during the rest of the year, but comments like “but this is Christmas” can make us feel guilty… as if we could simply flip a switch to feel better when it suits us.

Well-intended advice from those who want to fix us, have grown impatient, think they have an easy solution to a complex problem, or don’t get what it’s like to be in our shoes can make it easy for us feel misunderstood, lonely and excluded.

A secret sadness

There are certain aspects of illness that can make this time even more difficult – when our symptoms are hidden, when we don’t know what causes them, or when we become more aware of the severity of our symptoms, realizing anew the negative impact that our condition is having on our lives.

Although we feel scared or embarrassed, we may try not to talk about how we’re feeling, even though it’s the first thing on our mind and what we most feel we would like help with. Pushing these feelings away just makes them stronger, and we feel even more alienated. It’s easy to feel vulnerable, and therefore defensive.

Combined with the anticlimax that comes once the presents are opened, the food is put away, and the guests have gone home, facing a new year can be bring with it mixed emotions. The unknown looms large. There’s hope for new opportunities to improve our quality of life wherever we can, but also the discouragement that can come from realizing our goals may be very different from people living their lives in full health.

Keeping illness in its place

The following tips can help keep illness in its place, allowing you to enjoy the best parts of this holiday season:
• Start new, more manageable traditions – Take some time to think about the kind of holiday celebration that you feel up to. Keep things simple and sweet. Do what you can to manage the expectations of others in advance.
• Set some personal rules – You may feel the need to apologize for or explain away your health status, especially if you feel like you somehow contributed to it, but we all do the best we can, given what we have, in each moment. There’s no need to justify your actions in taking care of yourself. So consider setting a personal rule of “no apologies”.
When it comes to your activity level, you may be tempted to push past your pain limit for the sake of the fun or because time with family is short, so set a personal rule early on to “listen to what your body is telling you”.
• Simply be – Look for areas where you are comparing your life now to the past, to the lives of others, or to the expectations of others – then give yourself permission to be just who you are in the moment – each moment.
• Give yourself the most important gift of all – the inner strength that comes from love, understanding, compassion, kindness, and encouragement.
• Share with care – Resist the temptation to talk about your health situation with those who tend to run short on empathy or compassion. Allow your discomfort to give you the strength to not care what others think. Prepare yourself in advance with affirmative thoughts that will counteract reactions from people who may behave differently because they feel awkward, bad for you, or scared for you.
• Open your heart to help – Listen carefully to the people around you who are telling you they love you and genuinely want to help in some way. Allow yourself to be taken care of. Emphasize cooperation and togetherness with friends and family in taking care of the house or fixing meals to relieve some pressure on you to take care of the guests.
• Keep your sense of humor – Others will always have their misconceptions of you – and so will you – so take it easy on yourself and try to have a sense of humor about your situation. Consciously seek out opportunities to laugh.
• Remember you are more than your illness – Take time to treasure those things within you that are untouchable by illness, and those people in your life whose beauty of soul and resilience in times of crisis remind you that you are more than what you can do, what you look like, or how you feel.

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