• By: Emily Doyon

Find Your Joy Among the Holidays

There are many people who struggle around the holidays. As human beings we have experienced loss. Perhaps someone we loved has passed away or friends (or even family) have parted ways meaning things are no longer the way they used to be. Something is missing. Those of us with chronic illnesses tend to struggle a little more as we have more losses in our lives. Not just the loss(es) of loved ones, but we may no longer be able to do the things we were once able to do. Baking cookies for ourselves and friends/family, hosting large family meals, all of the cleaning and decorating to prepare for the holidays, the shopping for gifts and wrapping of them, and perhaps there are all kinds of foods that you miss but can no longer enjoy due to allergies or food intolerances. Then there are those awkward conversations when you are able to go to a holiday party where people want to know how you are, what you’ve been up to and you really don’t have the answers. Well, not answers that will leave the listener not wishing to make a beeline to “get refreshments.” The holiday season can be an emotional battlefield as well as a physical one.

In terms of holiday preparation to decorate. I’d like to think that my craftiness has given me an artistic eye that allowed me to create a wonderful scene. I certainly won’t be knocking Martha Stewart off of her pedestal any time soon but I did alright. Now, I can help with decorating the tree and the house as well as the dusting, but it takes me a long time (with many breaks) and I can’t vacuum. I also used to make specialty cookies for friends and family members who also had issues with dairy, soy and/or gluten as those are issues that I had. I would make dozens of cookies for everyone, but Baking (and the clean-up) requires more energy than I have to spare. Once upon a time I would be ecstatic to jump in the car and drive around to small local stores or the mall to find the perfect gifts for my favorite people. Money wasn’t much of an issue. Now, I do the majority of my shopping online, what I don’t make anyway. Now, the amount I spend very much matters. Throughout my life I was very close with both sets of my grandparents. We celebrate Christmas on both sides. On Christmas Eve we would go to my Memere’s and Pepere’s house after church, Christmas morning at home after Santa had come. Then we would have a large breakfast with my Mimi (and whatever relatives who could/wished to come). Later in the morning, we would go to my Mimi’s where my Mom and I would help to prepare for the day ahead. My mom is from a big family and as the matriarch everyone would come together at my Mimi’s house for a late lunch/dinner to exchange gifts and catch up. It was loud, overwhelming, and hot! But those days were the best of times.

Now all of my grandparents have passed away and once my Mimi died many of my Mom’s siblings have moved to warmer climes. It makes getting together for the holidays expensive and usually impossible. I have also lost many friends to this illness. Not everyone understands and in all honesty I wasn’t always a good friend myself. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of our all-consuming “health stuff” and forget to reach out, even when we should. I always think of these friends around the holidays because while we don’t have contact at one time we meant a lot to one another.

Now that I have (helpfully) highlighted all of the ways that things are hard I’m hoping I can help you see that there are good things to not look over. The most vital skill that human beings have is the ability to adapt to any environment. I don’t just mean the rainforest or the desert, I mean the environment that you live in. As chronic illnesses warriors we forever are adapting to new (and oh so fun!) symptoms. We are professionals, so how can we adapt the holidays to be less “I can get through the holidays” and more “I can enjoy the holiday season but at my own pace”?

My immediate family gets together on Christmas Day. As my brother and I have gotten older it has lost some of it’s magic but it is still fun to buy/make gifts and see my family member’s happiness. We have a small holiday party with the family that’s still in the area so that it isn’t as much work for my parents (and I can help). Having it at our house means that when and if I need to rest etc. I can, and when I am able to, I can rejoin the festivities. Our extended family usually joins us via video and we show off holiday decorations, Christmas gifts, outfits, and exchange news as always. It’s not quite the same as meeting in person, but it is far better than not getting together at all. While this low-key Christmas is not the one my heart aches for, it is the one that my body can tolerate. The truth is that in many ways I am thankful that our Christmas is quiet because we can relax. There is a freedom in our adapted Christmas as well as room for my always-adapting body. I can both enjoy myself *and* take care of myself. I think the larger Christmases of the past would have made me push myself, because I would have been more consumed with missing out than I would have been about my health. We have been able to improvise, adapt, and overcome the difficulties of the holiday.

I don’t attend many holiday parties or events, not nearly as much as I wish I could. Fortunately there are always other options. DSN’s Divas, Dudes & Zebras group throws a virtual holiday party every year. I can hang out in bed, in my pjs, and chit chat with people I know and people that are new to me. There are always a variety of fun games and activities which keeps our minds focused on the positive, and on what is important. It helps to remind me that we are people. Individuals with various personalities and strengths, not just sick people with “sad” little lives (which is how I tend to feel at regular holiday parties). We can openly talk about what we do, who we are, what our hopes are, and how much we actually decorated for the holidays. It’s an event worth doing.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about the family members and friends who are no longer with us. They are gone, but I like to remember. I like to talk about things that happened on various Christmases. Gifts that were bought that were magical when they were unwrapped. Baking and cooking things that have special meaning for this time of year. My father makes pork pies like his mother used to make and mom and I make a Shoo-Fly Pie coffee cake that my Mimi used to make for Christmas morning. They are delicious and special and bring back happy memories for me. Memories that involve these people. Memories that keep them alive in my mind and in my heart because that is where they live.

I don’t want people to think that I don’t think that things stink sometimes around the holidays for those of us with chronic illnesses. What I am saying is that sometimes you have to shift your perspective. Maybe your bright spot is that you get to spend the holidays relaxing like I do, surrounded by friends and family who have stayed by you through thick and thin. Maybe it’s your furry friend who you get to snuggle with because you don’t have to travel for the holidays. There is joy in your life during the holidays, but you may need a reminder to look for it.

Happy Holidays!

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