Even if attending one holiday function is the only action you can take this year…it is enough. You are enough.
On this day and other holidays I become a near-literal personification of two poles. The North, to match Santa and his booming joy and largess. Early memories of Christmases past bring a film reel of history: sitting on my dad’s lap as he showed me how to work my new calculator with the face of an owl. My mother, opening her tennis racket, wrapped in the shape of… a tennis racket. The smells of mouthwatering and rare dishes wafting from the kitchen and the spirit that everyone in the whole world was celebrating and in a festive mood!
Rewind to two years ago and the arrival of an entirely different ilk: disease. Also the first appearance of the South Pole in my personality. Hanging on like a kid with his tongue stuck to a metal rod, South Pole invites his helpers into the fray: Guilt, Pity, Curiosity, Assessment, Woe and Frustration.
When you become chronically ill, one of the happenstances doctors gloss over is who you used to be. This prior you performs at a concentrated strength this time of year. At least in your memories. I would sit on the floor in my bedroom most of the day, wrapping everyone’s presents. Yes, it killed my back, but now? Now it would murder my body. Limbs would phase into numbness. I would stagger as if I were a couple of glasses into a bottle. Squirrelly, floaty paisleys that really aren’t there would materialize on the walls. In short, I can’t carry out the holidays the way I could before. And there are obligations and people who will surely be let down.
So let me tell you a couple of secrets about how to get through the rest of this year:
1. Know and respect your limits. If you cannot stand any longer, cannot make your hand cooperate to cut a wedge of pie, if you cannot carry dirty dishes back to the kitchen, whatever your boundary is, stay inside it without guilt. There is no shame in telling people you are not up for whatever task looms. Can you sit on the couch and fold napkins? Can you visit with Grandpa, who would love your company? A harsh reality check, but one you can hold onto: It is not your job to make people understand your condition. A harsher reality check: this holiday isn’t about you. It is about coming together… even when we have our differences.
2. Cancel the pity party. This is the day to throw your arms wide and welcome into your heart everything about this strange and wonderful holiday and about your strange and wonderful family. Does it matter you are disabled or chronically ill? Of course! But today… today is your day to feel joy and to get in touch with your gratitude. Not feeling so gracious? You are alive. You are in good and valuable company… even those of you without family this year. You matter.
3. Curiosity. Relatives are well-meaning and want to catch up, but this is not the day for the disease breakdown. Some of the guilt we feel may come from all of the freaking attention we receive at our difficulties in accomplishing tasks and in how people feel a need to take care of us. But we needn’t feel this way. People are naturally loving and nurturing. Let them inquire and then deftly, like a magic trick, deflect to a different topic. You might say you feel so cared for that they would ask after you, but you would prefer the focus to remain on family. Assure them you are okay, then ask about their lives. It is hard to hold the weight of attention brought by our diseases or disabilities when we know we are not a worthy diversion to a family holiday. So prevent it and feel better.
4. You get up from the table and everyone expects you to perform your trick. Will you wobble, will you fall, will you walk like a drunkard in captivating yet horrific fashion? Just stand up already and let the assessors do their thang. You do not need to justify or prove how you are feeling to anyone. There are so many symptoms I grapple with on a day-to-day basis, which are sadly beginning to feel normal, and I don’t broadcast them. You know when your eyeball feels like a mentholated crystal? When your lip feels as though a hair has perched on it for 15 hours? Whatever you’re dealing with, live your authentic life and health and don’t give in to negative energy. Do the best you can in each moment. Even when you are having a good day and a stranger tosses you a snarly glare because you parked in the handicapped area. Be thankful for your positive sunspot. Let the joyful release fill your soul and march straight ahead (if possible), blessed to be without use of a cane or other walking device. Good for you!
5. Sadness is different than frustration. After a holiday is over, I often hop in my emotional car and pay sadness a visit. Remembering as a younger mother how I would envision Christmases with older children, and wow(!) is it different than my imagination! Life is cruel. Things happen. People get crippled and sick. And our visions and hope are shifting all the time to match our reality. Well, sometimes, I don’t want to sit in that reality anymore…and neither do you. After everyone goes to bed and you have been strong all day, after your pride in your conduct and accomplishments fades, go ahead and feel sad. Mourn for what you have lost, and don’t forget the sprinkle of bittersweet recalling what you have gained, too. Sadness tinged with thankfulness is such a weird phenomenon. Feel your emotion, but limit your time and your visit. Be prepared to push it away after a few hours. When you overstay your welcome with sadness, it can turn into a pretty nasty host who wants to bring out all its rowdy friends — resentment, depression, anxiety. If those clowns show up, it’s time to go to bed, firmer in your clarity, but real. Restart the next day.
6. Frustration. A great saying birthed in a meme: “Your mood shouldn’t dictate how you treat people.” It is so irritating trying to get a wheelchair through a doorway, searching for the coordination to scoop into Aunt Zelda’s cement potatoes, fighting to just get up from the over-worn couch you’ve sunken into. Explaining over and over your new symptoms (see point three). Resist becoming the Grumpy Gus. No one wants to remember a day with you at the center making family and friends uncomfortable. Practice grace, even if you have to rehearse scenarios. Loop in your mind how you will respond when you drop that bottle of wine, when you take forever to get to the dining room table after everyone has been seated because the floor wouldn’t stop moving like a gangplank in high wind. Humor. Use it. Watch your family’s cheeks crinkle in wonderment at how resilient you are and with relief that you have anticipated the more uneasy moments that can occur. Your levity proves your consideration to them and it’s a damn sight easier to manage than a person so obviously confused about their own self worth.
You can get through this day. You don’t have to attend every party. You don’t have to do anything that wipes you out — it’s why they invented online shopping — or pushes your physical or mental being. So try and gather with your family. Attempt to show up and let them know by your presence that they matter to you. Even if attending the function is the only action you can take this year…it is enough. You are enough. No matter the physical stage you are in, you are always enough. Never forget, your value is not defined by what you can and cannot do.
One final note: Difficulty might personify you this year. Remember, every year is different. Some will be worse, some better. Next year, you might be in an unrecognizable place. That is the beauty of life, ever-changing. I am thankful for that aspect, constantly teaching me there is so much for which to feel thankful. I wish you the same.
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