By Donna Gregory Burch
I’m counting down the days to Christmas – not because I love the holiday season, but because I’m ready for it to be over. There, I said it. If there’s anything that will turn a human into a scrooge, it’s living with a chronic illness. It’s hard enough to get through an average day with fibromyalgia and Lyme (or insert your own illness here) without adding glitter, crowded stores and never-gonna-thaw-by-the-time-I-need-to-bake-it turkeys to the mix.
But, the holidays are upon us, like it or not, so in the spirit of the season, I’m sharing my top tips for surviving – yes, survive is the right word for a lot of us – the holiday season with chronic illness.
- Start early – Since I’m publishing this article in mid-December, I obviously missed the Christmas ball on this one! But if I had written this sooner, here’s what I would have said: Take a cue from the retail stores, and start your holiday preparations early. I think I saw my first Santa this year in September, and while that might be too early to put up your tree, it’s not too early to get a head start on gift shopping, holiday meal planning, filling out Christmas cards, etc. Since this article will live for infinity online, hopefully tip #1 will help someone when they read it in April 2053.
- Downsize everything – The most wonderful time of the year won’t be so wonderful if you’re flat on your back because you overdid it! Now is the time to reevaluate your holiday plans and traditions and make adjustments so that you’re still standing (and at a modest pain level) on Dec. 26. Maybe that means skipping some holiday events this year. Maybe you need to graciously bow out of volunteering obligations you were guilted into a few months ago. Maybe it’s time for your daughter-in-law to finally take over the reins as host for the main Christmas meal. Whatever you need to downsize, do it for your sanity and health.
- Simplify everything – When I was healthy, I used to go WWWAAAYYYY overboard with the Christmas decorations. I put up multiple trees and shoved tinsel and lights into every crevice of my main living area. It took me about three days to put everything up and another day or two to take it all down. It was beautiful, but boy, was it hard work! Now that I’m chronically ill, my decorations are much more subdued. I have one tree (and I admit there have been a couple of years where I didn’t even put that one up), and I’ve drastically downsized my Christmas collection. This year’s decorations were put up in one afternoon. When living with chronic illness, I think it’s important for us to reevaluate pretty much everything in our lives, including how we celebrate the holidays. Maybe it’s time to simplify your annual Christmas feast. After all, do you reallyneed eight side dishes? Maybe you could forgo the fancy centerpieces this year and just buy a few inexpensive poinsettias for the table instead. Maybe it’s time to streamline gift giving by drawing names and just buying a gift for one person. Think about your traditions, and keep the ones that mean the most to you, but try to simplify everything else.
- Only schedule one thing each day – It’s easy to throw ourselves into a major symptom flare because we overschedule ourselves during the holiday season. One way to avoid this is to only schedule one major activity per day (or every couple of days or once a week – whatever you’re able to safely do without increasing your symptoms). I learned this tip from a fellow fibro sufferer a couple of years ago. Whenever she had a special event, she would deliberately rest all day in order to conserve her energy.
- Be realistic – This is really a continuation of tip #4. I know some people don’t like to acknowledge their limitations (including myself), but the reality is most of us aren’t physically able to do all of the things we used to do, and we need to plan our activities accordingly. Here’s a real life example: This weekend, my friend and I are supposed to go to a craft show. I’ll be on my feet for two to three hours, and I know that’s the upper end of my energy envelope. When I was healthy, I would’ve gone to the craft show and filled the rest of the day with other activities: going out to lunch, shopping, fixing dinner, cleaning house, etc. But that’s not feasible anymore. The reality is I will go to the craft show, grateful for the time I will spend with my friend, and then I will spend the rest of the day on the couch, recuperating. I may even spend Sunday on the couch, too, depending on how exhausted I am. Because I know my limits, I won’t make any die-hard plans for late Saturday afternoon or Sunday. And thinking ahead, I’ll probably prep something to eat before I leave for the craft show because I know I won’t feel like cooking when I arrive home. Yeah, it sucks to have limitations, but we can still have a life; we just have to be more diligent about planning and scheduling it.
- Delegate – Delegate anything you can. Enlist your kids’ help with cleaning the house; pay them if you have to! (Or if you’re financially able, consider hiring a service or the teen who lives down the street to help with cleaning.) Send your spouse to do errands for you. Ask your teenage son to get the holiday decorations from the attic or basement. Ask your kids to decorate the tree while you supervise from a comfy chair. Whatever you can push off on someone else, do it and do it frequently!
- Go potluck – Before my mom passed away, I had inherited the duty of cooking the annual holiday meal. I enjoyed playing host, but it was tough standing on my feet for hours as I prepped food that my family would polish off in less than 15 minutes. I don’t think I could do it now because it would just be too physically demanding. But if you’re one of those people who is still cooking your family’s holiday meal, and you don’t want to delegate it to another family member (see tip #2), then at least consider asking each guest to bring a dish in order to minimize your workload.
- Opt for convenience – Consider cutting corners and using some premade items for holiday meals. Do you really need to make your own pie crusts when a store-bought one would do? Instead of making your own green bean casserole this year, maybe you could just buy it from the grocery store deli. In fact, maybe you could outsource the entire meal! Some grocery stores and restaurants now offer complete holiday dinners. All you have to do is just warm them up!
- Pace yourself – A lot of holiday dishes can be prepared ahead of time, kept in the fridge/freezer and then warmed up right before mealtime.
- Forgo the good china – Oh boy, I know some of you are going to cringe at what I’m about to say, but maybe, just maybe, consider using disposable plates and cups this year for your holiday gatherings. You can also purchase disposable roasting and baking pans at pretty much any big-box store (including for just $1 each at Dollar Tree). I know going disposable isn’t good for the environment, and it’s not as elegant as using the good china, but it will save you so much time and aggravation! If the thought of paper plates makes you wince, then at least refer to tip #6 and have someone else serve as dishwasher.
- Toss the wrapping paper – I hate wrapping presents because I’m always losing the tape or cutting the paper too short! Because I wasn’t born with the gift-wrapping gene, I use gift bags whenever possible. I shove my present in the bag, add a piece or two of coordinating tissue paper if I’m feeling fancy and I’m done. I know gift bags aren’t as pretty as a perfectly wrap gift box with lots of ribbons and bows, but it gets the job done and all of that gorgeous wrapping paper is just going to end up in the trash anyway!
- Stop making “homemade” gifts – If you’re one of those people who loves canning jam to give away to friends and neighbors, then you can skip this tip because it’s not for you. But if you’re someone who’s been giving homemade gifts for years to save on expense or because it’s expected, you may want to reevaluate. Maybe youdon’t need to make the sugar cookies with sprinkles or the elderberry pancake syrup. Maybe you could find a farmers market or other source in your neighborhood and buy homemade goodies from them to give to others instead. After all, it’s the thought that counts, right?
- Shop online as much as possible – Save yourself the ordeal of the crowds and lights and noise and having to be on your feet for hours and buy as many presents as you can online. Some sites even offer gift wrapping, which can save you even more time and effort. Another tip is to have online purchases delivered directly to the gift recipient. I’m doing that this year for my mother-in-law who lives out of state. It will save me a trip to the post office!
- Get a prelit artificial tree – Yeah, I know that a live tree smells nice, but it’s also super dirty and constantly dropping needles everywhere. Who needs the extra housework? Or the struggle of putting the lights on? I invested in a prelit artificial tree years ago, and I’ve never regretted my purchase. Mine comes in three pieces and is assembled and ready to decorate in less than a minute!
- Be good to yourself (and every other holiday cliché you’ve ever encountered) – I’ve read plenty of these holiday tips article over the years, and most of them always include the same tips, so in order to make sure my article is as thorough as possible, here are a few holiday clichés for you: Rest, rest, rest! Practice self-care! Schedule lots of downtime! Don’t eat too much sugar! If you have food allergies, make and take your own food to your holiday events! Focus on creating memories! It’s not about the gifts! Plan ahead! Is that enough? Bah humbug, and happy holidays, everyone!
Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained pain, fatigue and other symptoms. She covers news, treatments, research and practical tips for living better with fibromyalgia on her blog, FedUpwithFatigue.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter. Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.