It’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” we are told in verse, but for those of us living with digestive disorders, it can be the most challenging time of the year. Despite presumptions of holiday gatherings, stacks of presents beneath lavishly decorated trees, and carolers dressed in finery, spreading good tidings, Christmas is a season filled with physical, emotional, social, and financial hardships for many in our community. The dark winter days, overflowing with constant reminders of illness-free Christmases gone by, demands and expectations of excellence from ourselves and others, and social and financial pressures, lead to anxiety, depression, loneliness, and heartache for some.
Though we long to connect with family and friends this time of year, our illnesses often prevent us from doing so in the ways we prefer. Travel, though sometimes necessary, is cumbersome and fatiguing; shopping taxes our energy and gift exchanges stretch our already nearly-snapped budgets; physical symptoms produce anxiety over whether we will be able to make it to family gatherings and holiday parties; and the delectable confections which appear at work, in our homes, and throughout public venues tempt and torment us.
In addition, we are plagued by memories of healthier days past when we engaged in merrymaking and feasted upon sugary goodies until our little hearts were content. Many in our community find it challenging to cope with the countless demands placed upon them this time of year – mandates to join events in which they once participated; requests to prepare, attend, or host extravagant parties; long distance travel requirements; and anticipation that they will retain a cheerful mood throughout the whole affair. On the other hand, some desperate souls, those homebound or who have lost friends and loved ones, struggle to find ways to cope with the resulting isolation and loneliness – with the lack of such demands, if you will. Perhaps they were once included in festivities but have now been forgotten by those who have moved on with their “normal” lives. Or maybe they choose to hide from the hustle and bustle of the season because they believe they are unable to participate in meaningful ways. In any case, such circumstances can easily lead to discontent and distress. It is difficult to watch the jolly world turn around you when you are faced with the burdens of chronic illness.
But all hope is not lost. With a little planning, a bit of compromise, and a fresh, yet realistic outlook, we can perhaps minimize the ill effects of this arduous time and help each other to find new ways to enjoy this holiday season. I offer the following suggestions for your consideration:
*First and foremost, let go of your expectations of perfection. Easier said than done, I realize, but you are likely not physically capable of acting in the “ideal” ways you did prior to diagnosis. Though necessarily different now, holidays can still be enjoyable, even when details do not quite meet your exacting standards. Find joy in the little things – moments with family, quiet evenings in front of the fire, watching Christmas classics on video, or playing board games with friends while sipping hot beverages.
*Let go of others’ expectations for perfection as well. You are not obliged to live up to anyone else’s prescribed notions of how this holiday should unfold. You can hand-pick the events and gatherings you wish to (and feel able to) attend. You can limit your time at such affairs or cancel at the last minute. Likewise, you do not have to succumb to the pressure of participating in every gift or card exchange. It is perfectly polite and acceptable to say, “I am sorry, but I am too ill to make this event,” or “My apologies. I am afraid I will not be able to exchange gifts this year. It has been a rough spell for us financially.”
*If you are alone and do not wish to be, consider turning to social media sites, online events, support groups, or telephone calls for companionship. If you are physically able, think about volunteering at a local long-term care center or children’s home, joining a public tree-lighting or holiday party, or attending local church services, plays, or musicals. Though this may not rival family gatherings, it might help you feel a bit less lonely and isolated.
A few more practical, tangible tips:
*Simplify where you can. You are not required to decorate that 9-foot pine with tinsel, lights, and perfectly-placed ornaments, dangle garland from every banister, mantle, and doorway, or send cards to all those with whom you have ever come into contact. Buy a small pre-lit and/or pre-decorated tree, gaze at your neighbors’ holiday lights instead of stringing your own, and present close friends and family with “virtual” greeting cards rather than stuffing envelopes.
*Consider online shopping. This will save you loads of time and energy. You can easily search websites for the most affordable prices, and in many cases, you can have gifts pre-wrapped and shipped directly to the recipient. Alternatively, consider gift cards to loved ones’ favorite places.
*Set a budget and refuse to exceed it. You might have to sacrifice that “ultimate” gift you had your heart set on, but is the added budget strain really worth it? If you have children and cannot afford presents, contact charities like the Salvation Army, church groups, or clubs/organizations that operate assistance programs. Thrift stores such as Good Will offer inexpensive merchandise as well, and even homemade goods, crafts, or foods can become meaningful gifts.
*If traveling, budget plenty of extra time for rest stops; bring “safe” foods/nutrition along for the trip; pack extra clothing in case of accidents; and make certain you have ample supplies and doses of medication. If you will be separated from your luggage, keep your medications with you in their original prescription bottles or containers. You do not want to risk your medications being lost with your baggage. Check accommodations ahead of time when possible. You will want to make sure your needs will be met once you arrive at your destination.
*Rest, rest, rest. Find quiet places, allow down time, relax, and limit your engagement when necessary.
This Christmas season may not be a replica of pre-diagnosis Christmases past, but it can still hold delight, and you can create memories you and your loved ones will treasure. Acknowledge your feelings and grieve for times past if need be, but free yourself from the heavy burden of impractical demands and expectations. Set realistic goals, ignore unreasonable demands, and find joy in the few special moments spent with loved ones or even in the service and company of strangers.