How to Prepare for the Holidays when you Have a Chronic Illness

I don't know about you but I always feel about 5 years behind on my to-do list. I've had to simplify my life a lot to accommodate life with a chronic illness and the holidays are no exception. Next week I have final exams and then I have a week before Christmas. Christmas is by far my favourite season- everything about it has always been absolutely magical to me. However, with multiple family get-togethers condensed into a couple of days, I have to save energy wherever I can. Thankfully I've already completed all of my Christmas shopping to avoid any lines, but the Christmas to-do list keeps scrolling through my mind when I'm at rest.

Since this is the most prepared I've ever been for Christmas, I thought I'd share how I've finally learned to approach a busy season with minimal stress.

1. Start your Christmas shopping early. It should be an obvious tip but it wasn't one that I adapted until this year and my goodness did it make a huge difference! I would usually start shopping in the beginning of December and anxiously await to see if my package would arrive on time only to find myself in a busy mall later on. I'd be so disorganized that I'd have to do a lot of last-minute shopping the week before Christmas because I'd forget to buy part of the gift, or I wouldn't have the right size bag, etc. This year I started in early October which may sound insane to you but they're all wrapped and I can enter final exam season with a clear mind (or at least a less brain-foggy one).

2. Always have extra cards/gift bags/random generic gifts at home. I've always had a box in my closet filled with gift bags to reuse, but every time I opened it I felt like I had every size available but the one I needed. More often than not, over the last couple years, I've found myself spending extra spoons driving to a store just to spend extra spoons walking through a store to find a gift bag. Now whenever I'm running low I make a trip to Home Sense to get a lot of cheap gift bags and random chocolate or small gifts that can be thrown in to a secret santa gift. That last point has been an absolute lifesaver to me. Whether it's Christmas cards, birthday cards, a couple journals, a mug, or some chocolate, I now always have generic gifts at my home just in case. I started doing this when I worked as a Kids Church Coordinator at my old Church (my first and only job since being sick). At my job I'd often find myself thinking "oh yeah it's ____ (kid)'s birthday today! I should have some birthday stickers to give to them!" or "oh yeah ____ hasn't been doing well lately, I should write a card for them and give them a little gift" (encouraging/gifting the volunteers was part of my duties) so it trained me to be prepared to have 10+ gifts and cards on me at all times to avoid parking outside a store at 8AM before Church waiting for them to open. At my old Church I also often had a lot of events and parties to go to that involved bringing appetizers, or a secret santa gift, or an engagement present so these generic gifts definitely came in handy for that.

3. Your health is more important than tradition. Let me say that again, your health is more important than tradition. Traditions are supposed to be enjoyable, not obligatory. If you're burning yourself out over keeping up with tradition then that tradition is no longer serving you. Whether it's hanging up a ton of decorations, doing a ton of things on Christmas day, or baking a specific dessert, you do not need to do it anymore. I'm giving you permission to make new traditions that more realistically accommodate your chronic illness.

Every year my family goes to Mass on Christmas Eve at 7:00pm (one of our many traditions over the 2 days). I didn't go to Mass with them for the first few years after I got sick because I desperately needed to save my energy to get through all the other traditions. However last year I decided to go. I now attend a nondenominational Church so I completely forgot about the incense involved in Catholic masses on Christmas Eve. As soon as the incense hit (just like it did at my friend's funeral) I became extremely symptomatic and had to leave. My brother (who's an Atheist and respectfully attends but was probably happy to accompany me out haha) and I left to go to a cafe where my family met us after. This year, despite wanting to go to see my family and keep up with tradition, I will just be meeting my family at the cafe after Mass is done.

4. Remember what you love about Christmas season and focus on doing more of that. Go get out that trusted journal and pen and make a list of all the things you love about Christmas. Make a point of slowly starting to take part in these things to keep your spirits high during this holiday season. For me, I love going to different Christmas light events in my city so I started doing that already this year. Usually I think of doing this the week before Christmas when my schedule is already jam-packed so it's the first thing to get pushed aside. I've honestly noticed myself being more excited for Christmas now that I've prioritized going out of my way to take part in what I enjoy about it.

5. Get ready to use the word "no." If you spend the holidays with a lot of extended family members that don't see you much, or don't understand much about your illness, get ready for a lot of people to try to stretch you in a lot of different directions. As an ex-people pleaser, I've had to learn this lesson the hard way since developing a chronic illness. "No" isn't rude or disrespectful, it's a boundary. Boundaries are essential and respectful for both you and the other person involved. If you're doing something that burns you out because you feel obligated to do so, you'll feel resentful and that'll weaken your relationship. If you're giving with a bitter heart then you're no longer giving genuinely anyway. If someone gets upset about your boundary, that's for them to deal with and not you.

I had to be firm with my boundaries just the other day when my dad asked me to come over early on before lunch on Christmas to help cook Christmas dinner. I told him that just like every other year I was going to be at my mom's come Christmas morning and that I have to save my energy over those days. At fist, he resisted when I tried to set this boundary by saying that grandma can't cook the dinner all alone. I replied by saying I said that I'll help out by making a quinoa salad on Christmas Eve morning and bring it over on Christmas day after I'm done at my mom's.

Give yourself the freedom to enjoy Christmas without chaining yourself to the expectations of others. No you're not a bad mom if you don't bake goodies for your kid's Christmas bake-sale. If the other moms want to roll their eyes at you then let them. Do what you can, when you can, where you can, and how you can. If you have the energy, time, and heart to bake those goodies then great! If not, you have my permission to tell the mom who seems to have everything together (she doesn't by the way, none of us do) no.

6. Simplify. Ever since I've stated my minimalism journey, I've started to truly understand the statement less is more. You don't need to have the brightest lights on the block, you don't even have to have lights at all. Stick within your financial and energy budget and your body, mind, and loved ones will be happy when you don't push yourself into a flare.

7. Adjust how you spend your energy the week before Christmas. When I know that I have a big event coming up, I won't risk making any adjustments to medication (I'm hypersensitive to medications) if I can avoid it. I also won't increase how much exercise I do that week, or decide it's the week to try some new cleanse. This ties back to my previous points about preparing far in advance for the Christmas season. Christmas eve and Christmas day will most likely be busy no matter what you do, so you know you'll push yourself into a flare if you also have a super busy week beforehand.

8. Avoid the temptation to isolate yourself during this holiday season. When it feels like no one understands what you're going through, and you're dealing with multiple physical and/or psychological symptoms, it's really tempting to avoid the outside world. When I moved back into my apartment after living with my mom for 2 years (after getting sick), I isolated myself a lot. I had PTSD from trauma associated with my illnesses and had a lot to work through, some of which was best done alone. I also live up on a mountain that was 45 minutes away from my closest friends and family (now I have some friends who live closer). I wouldn't invite anyone over because my place was always a mess (thanks to no energy and owning too many things) and didn't have the energy to go see them frequently.

Although I did need some space to decompress, and do not regret healing in this way, I have since realized that my mental health plummets when I give into isolation. I once read a study about how the holidays can be the most depressing time for some people. I think the holidays can remind a lot of us of what we don't have, or what we have lost (a loved one or our own health). However, I beg you to lean into your community. If you don't have many friends, join a church or reach out to old friends, even volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas day to be around people. I used to struggle with loneliness (that I caused) and had a pastor tell our church "the best way to cure loneliness is by making others feel less lonely." I have applied that to my life every single day since and I've found it incredibly effective.

9. Use programs provided by your local grocery store to get your groceries delivered. I use a program called "SuperStore's Click and Collect" which doesn't deliver groceries to my door but for only $3 extra you choose all your groceries online, drive your car up to the store, and they'll bring all your groceries to your car. Saving 1 hour of walking through a florescent-lit grocery store is definitely worth $3 to me! During the holiday season there are a lot of potluck parties so food prep can take up a lot of our energy. Don't feel bad about buying a pre-packaged appetizer to bring to these parties! Food is food is food is food. You're not a worse guest for buying, instead of making, an appetizer. I once attended a Thanksgiving lunch in which the woman paid $60 to have all the food for over 16 people catered- what a brilliant idea! She just went and picked it up (granted it was a lunch and not a dinner so maybe that's why it was so cheap), brought it over, and had the time and energy to talk with each and every guest there. I've never seen a hostess in a better mood!

10. Take a second look at that to-do list and scratch off at least 30%. It sounds frightening, doesn't it? Like somehow the world will implode if we don't clean every centimeter of our house before our judgey relatives come over. What truly needs to be done? What do you truly want to get done? That's what you'll do, when you can, without burning yourself out. Everything else can wait. I have this poem called "Dust if You Must" framed in my kitchen because I'm naturally terrible at this (I'll attach the poem above).

I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to prepare yourself physically and mentally for the approaching holiday season!

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