I used to really dread making it through the winter holidays with chronic illness. And I do mean “making it through”—that was the best I could hope for, never mind actually enjoying them! It felt like I had to claw my way through them.
All the ways the holidays can go poorly
While it felt like everyone else breezed from party to party, I agonized about how to manage my limited diet when facing big, luscious buffets packed with things I knew would not feel good in my body. I watched in envy as friends wore cute, sparkly heels, while I crammed my pained feet into clunky boots that could accommodate the wool socks my Raynaud’s phenomenon-having tootsies demand. And I never felt like I had the energy I wanted as I socialized, and when I did, I would sometimes find myself without a lot to talk about. When you’ve gone through an extended period of illness, or fatigue, or depression, it can be hard to make witty small talk.
And when it came to gift-giving, I frequently felt stressed out by planning, shopping, and wrapping. But mostly shopping: The malls! The driving! The carrying heavy bags! All while wearing a heavy Chicago coat in Chicago winters! I would count every penny and have to take deep breaths as I processed each purchase.
Family was sometimes tough, too. While some family members are cool, some really don’t accept my health-related limitations, and that leads to a lot of awkward conversations and situations.
It wasn’t all bad…
I mean, I’ve also had some pretty great holidays. Decorating the trees, visiting my nieces, drinking hot cocoa by a toasty fire, sledding, goofing with friends.
But let’s be real: The holiday season brings a lot of pressure. It’s hard not to succumb to the pressure to be everybody’s everything. We sometimes feel like our illness should take a vacation so we can meet the expectations of others. But that’s not how bodies work, babe. I know you know that, but the holiday season is going to try to make you feel otherwise.
So let’s talk through a few changes I’ve made during recent years that have ensured my holiday season is much more enjoyable. These definitely have not removed all the stress, but they’ve minimized it, for sure. And it gets easier every year.
5 Strategies for making the most of the holidays with chronic illness:
- Stop sending holiday cards. Seriously, they cost a bunch of money, and most people barely glance at them. You spend hours shopping for them or designing them; you spend much moolah on printing or purchasing them, plus all that postage. And you wear yourself out putting together the mailings. Right? I used to spend something like $100 or more every year on them, and I would dread them so much. Why do we do this to ourselves? Some options to consider instead: Using a mailing service that sends the cards for you; here’s a list of vetted companies. Use a digital service instead, like one of these digital card services. I’ve opted to send a handful to my nearest and dearest some years; some years, I just don’t send cards. I look for other ways to connect with folks instead.
- Leave them wanting more. If you’re invited to a few holiday parties, either decline some of the invitations, or pop in to each one for 30 to 60 minutes. Say hi, have a drink and a snack, or don’t, even—but thank the host/hostess and appreciate their cute decor or whatever, then LEAVE when you start to feel tired. Or leave even before then, because you may not realize you’re getting tired until you’re in the car on the way home. Pace yourself. Socializing is no fun if it wipes you out. Personally, I don’t go to more than one event in a day/night, and I try not to do more than two in a week. That means I say no to people, but they’ll get over it. Each time I say no, I try to get a one-on-one on the calendar with them for January, if I can.
- Make your own traditions. For years, I visited my family in Texas for Christmas. And then for years, I visited my ex’s family in Maryland. And then I was single, and I finally realized I could decide my own tradition! That first year, I spent Christmas alone. I attended services with my best friend at her church; I had dinner at a friend’s house for hanukkah. But I had Christmas to myself, and it was so peaceful. That taught me a valuable lesson about the value of making my own new traditions. So now, my husband and I don’t host Thanksgiving dinner (which was mostly fun, but also expensive and exhausting); instead, we serve dinner at my father-in-law’s church, and share a meal with the people there. It feels good to be of service, the food is great, and we don’t have to clean up our house. We also host a tree decorating day at our house the day after Thanksgiving, and invite our friends and their kiddos over to do it up. We laugh, play games, eat fun snacks, and see the holidays through the eyes of children, who have boundless joy (and hilarious ideas about the holidays). Have some people criticized my choices, my new traditions? Yup. Do I care? Nope. They work for me.
- Hydrate. Seriously, one of the easiest things you can do during times of stress is drink enough water. Especially if you’re traveling, going to parties, eating rich foods, being more active. Glug glug, girl.
- Set a budget, and stick to it. In my immediate family, we accomplish this by doing a gift drawing: each person buys one gift for someone else, with a limit of $25. Easy peasy. (My nieces still get spoiled; that’s part of the fun of being Aunt Jenni!) For most other people in my life, I create handmade gifts throughout the year, like jars of dried herbs from my garden or canned jam. These are personal gifts, and I spread out the expense of the materials over months, instead of cramming it all onto my credit card in November and December. It helps me stay on budget and enjoy the gift-giving experience more.
I could go on and on, but these are my top 5 strategies. I hope one of these helps you!
Craving more ideas?
And if you’re craving more support during the holiday season, remember that this November and December, my membership program—the Secret Club—is all about rocking the holiday season. Yes!
What works for you?
I would LOVE to know what kinds of things help you make it through the holiday season with joy, peace, and hilarity. Fill me in below. Smooches!