Coping with the Festive Season with Chronic Illness
M.E. Support Ambassador Rochelle Hanslow writes, ‘It is almost that time of year again, the festive “hustle and bustle” is upon us and since the shops have been, once again, stocking (no pun intended) for Christmas since September, you could easily have become sick and tired of the notion of it already. You are by no means alone. Christmas doesn’t feel as magical as it used to and there is so much more stress and expectation that surrounds it these days in general but doubly for us “Spoonies”.’ Read her guide to Coping with the Festive Season with Chronic Illness in this month’s blog post.
Christmas at its core is all about family, whether it is blood or the family you have chosen. This comes with a lot of heavy expectations on us: worrying about letting people down if we can’t make it; worrying about if we do make it how long we will be able to stay; making sure you have cards and gifts for people; and of course there is always that one family member who will ask those dreaded questions and give their “advice”.
“Are you feeling better yet?”
“You’re too young to be this tired”
“We all get tired”
“My friend had that; she got this pill online and now feels so much better”
It can all be so overwhelming. To try and bring back some Christmas Cheer, I’m going to share some advice and tips with you in the hope of giving you a more bearable festive season.
1. It’s okay to say “No”
More than any other time of year, the festive season can make us feel obligated and this comes with a lot of anxiety in itself. It’s not easy saying “no” to people, especially those who we love and care about, but sometimes, especially at this time of year, we have to love ourselves just as much, if not more. If you don’t feel you are at a point where you are up to visiting family and friends, having visitors or attending any festive events, it is perfectly okay to be honest and decline the invitation. The guilt can be horrible when we have to do this, but it is better for your health in the long term. This rule also applies when dealing with the toxic people in your life: don’t allow anyone to pressure you or guilt you into being in a situation that will be detrimental to you and your health; this also goes for your mental health.
2. Use the internet to your advantage
In conjunction with the first point, video calling is always a great option for you. There are so many free apps for tablets and phones, for example Messenger, WhatsApp, or Duo, that will allow you to literally show your face without having to leave home. I know this option can be pretty draining too and it’s not for everyone, but it may be worth remembering to use as a compromise.
Shopping online is easier than ever: there are options for wish lists for yourself or for family members that allow you to buy something that they want without you having to stress about what to buy. If you want to shop online but are like me and love knowing there is thought behind your gift, consider small businesses; it will mean a lot to the owners and may even allow them to buy gifts and put dinner on the table for their own families while being a unique and personal gift for your loved one. Use the internet for your Christmas cards. Whether you make an online card and email it to people or make one social media post as an alternative card, it can save so much energy not having to go out and buy cards, write them and then post them. You may also want to consider donating money to a charity or organisation instead of buying and posting Christmas cards. Louise always welcomes Donations to keep M.E. Support up and running and supplies are always needed too. The M.E. Support Online Shop has a lot of great items that you can buy as stocking fillers or additional gifts and they also help spread awareness.
3. Do something lovely for yourself
We can spend so many days in the house or bedridden with chronic illness during the year that we get to a point where we are fed up with the way our lives are, we get frustrated being in the same four walls and it can be so difficult to separate one day from another.
What you can do is, of course, dependent on your current level of health, but try and do something that is within your means that will set your Christmas Day aside from the rest. Whether it be buying yourself some lovely Christmas flowers for a room in your home, lighting a lovely scented candle in your room, downloading a new audio book or album to listen to or, if you are at a level where you can, making yourself a lovely breakfast and having it in bed to set the tone of your day. Maybe even asking a family member to give you a head massage or, if you can tolerate it, a shoulder massage. If you are able to spend your day with friends and family, plan time within the day to have a mid-afternoon nap, or if you are at someone else’s house don’t be afraid to ask if this can be an option within the day, to just give you some time away in a different, quiet room to gather your thoughts. You will find more useful tips in A Self-Help Guide to Managing Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.
4. Preparation is key
If you decide you are able to attend festive events, put them all down in a calendar, diary or planner and plan around them, making sure to space events out according to your own needs and giving yourself enough rest time in between to try and counteract any “payback”. If you are going to a celebration that requires you to take a dish, make it as simple as you can, consider buying it instead of cooking it and of course, if you are the one hosting family, don’t be afraid to ask them to bring a dish or to ask for help with prep.
5 Stay within your means
Chronic illness can create daily money worries at the best of times, never mind at this time of year. As much as you may wish you could give lavish gifts to your loved ones it simply isn’t always a reality. It is so important to keep within your set budget as this will mean less financial stress in the days to come after. Stay within your means physically and emotionally too: allow yourself extra “me” time, do what you can when you can, and try not to be too hard on yourself on the days you can’t do as much. You know your body and your limits.
6. You are not alone
I know not everyone is lucky enough to have good relationships in their lives or a support network around them. Some of you may have recently lost someone who meant so much to you and you just don’t know how you will make it through the festive period. Sadly, some may even feel forgotten and alone due to friends and family not understanding properly and not including you any more. Whatever your situation, remember there are people you can reach out to. There are social media pages, such as the M.E. Support Facebook Page, where you can post or message any time and either the community or a member of the team will respond to you as soon as they can. There are other communities you can join online too which all have like-minded people with whom you may be able to spark conversation and friendship.
There are some amazing charities and helplines which have dedicated, trained staff to help and listen at any point over the festive period, no matter what level you may be at. If you just want to have a chat with someone or you are really struggling, the Samaritans are available 24 hours, 365 days a year.
7. Keep perspective
This is really one of the most important tips for the festive season as we can put so much pressure on ourselves to make sure it’s a “good Christmas”. Always keep in mind that it is one day, even though it is hard to remember as we hear about it for months before the day actually arrives; however, after it is done everything will go back to “business as usual” and there is no point whatsoever in getting yourself into a position that will impact your health and emotional wellbeing for just this one day. As hard as it may be, remember the true meaning of Christmas. It will have its own personal meaning for you; however, for many, it is a time to celebrate and show love to our families and those we care about. We can do this, regardless of how well we are feeling; no grand gestures are necessary.
If you are helping someone with a chronic illness over the festive period, here are some short tips for you that really will make a lot of difference:
- Ask them what they can and can’t have at social gatherings (food wise, as inflammatory problems with over-indulgence is not a good thing) and be as accommodating to their needs as possible
- Offer help with Christmas preparations (Help with carrying presents or shopping, wrapping presents to reduce fatigue and stress)
- Spend time with them when you can (Physical symptoms and depression can increase around these kinds of times)
- Offer to bring a dish or cook the meal at their house
- Check they have enough medication to cover pharmacy and doctor closures
- Offer help to make a “Festive Period Spoon Plan” so they can track their events and downtime days more efficiently
- Ask them how they are and LISTEN … Really, Listen!
It is not always easy but please remember that everyone has different needs and different levels and try to be as patient as you can; this time of year can heighten anxiety and stress levels, but they are really trying their best!
I hope these points help towards making your Christmas time the way you want and need it to be. I know it can be a very difficult period and sometimes can just exacerbate the feelings of frustration and loneliness that come along with chronic illness but if anything, please remember this: a brand new year is just around the corner and it comes with new hope and possibilities for us all.