This is the time of the year when we find ourselves surrounded, if not bombarded, by a multitude of media messages suggesting what we should be doing for the holidays and how we should be doing it. These messages are designed to conjure up sugarplum visions of beautiful, festive, picture perfect, storybook holidays with smiling families and all the trimmings that will surely bring us all peace and joy and incredible holiday happiness. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Hollywood movie, or even our own romanticized memories of tradition-soaked holidays past, these images are seductively appealing—but the problem is that they aren’t real. They are fictionalized, idealized versions of the holidays.
Consider for a moment the expectations we have placed on ourselves to make our own holidays fit these perfect, but imaginary and unattainable images in our heads. Way beyond our genuine and heartfelt desires for the Season’s Greetings, Merry Christmases, and Happy Hanukahs, we enter the season believing we are somehow obligated to follow a set of unwritten rules prescribing just what and how much we should be cramming into a few short weeks: "Deck the Halls!" (Inside and outside, upstairs and down until everything glows, sparkles, or twinkles, and smells like pinecones and spice.) Or, "It’s the season to open your hearts and be generous" (meaning shop till you drop, wrap it all up, and defer payment until January when you open the bills and go into stress overload). It is also the season to "Gather your family" (whether you want to be with them or not,)to be the perfect hostess, to set a beautiful table and serve up at least one feast (dust off those cookbooks, shine up the silver, polish the crystal), and of course, to dress up, put a smile on your face, and attend all the parties, functions and festivities within a 250 mile radius.
Somewhere deep in our own heads is a list longer than Santa’s—of all the things we believe we need to or should do to make the season merry and bright. But the fact is that in order to do so we would each have to be a Martha Stewart clone with a staff of forty and the stamina of the Energizer bunny.
Wow. It is a recipe for exhaustion for nearly anyone, but for those of us with chronic illnesses like FM, it can be a recipe for a holiday disaster that results in unrelenting pain, brain fogs, and that deeply rooted, energy leeching fatigue that leaves us incapable of functioning; feeling isolated and depressed.
Somehow, that result doesn’t sound like much of anyone’s idea of a Happy Holiday! It sounds miserable. But that’s really the whole issue here, isn’t it? Would you choose to be miserable? Living with Fibromyalgia on a daily basis is challenging enough. How can you cope when the holidays arrive and everything around you gets put on fast forward? How can you deal with the heightened expectations? The idealized sugarplum picture you keep in your head and the wonderful intentions in your heart of what the holidays "should" look like? How can you possibly cope with a holiday frenzy that you know will exacerbate your FM symptoms so critically?
The answer is actually quite simple, and yet not so easy to grasp at first, because it involves you making a major attitude shift and a serious commitment to look at the holidays from a new, and more realistic perspective. Only then will you be able to create a plan of action that will allow you to take care of yourself while still celebrating and taking part in the season’s celebration with those you love. It is possible for you to have a festive and fulfilling holiday! Are you ready to make a change? Are you willing?
So how do you create this new improved version of the holidays for yourself? The secret answer to coping during the holidays is to simplify.
If you are willing to take a new look at how you have spent your holidays in the past, and you are willing to revise unrealistic expectations and reevaluate your priorities, you cancreate a plan that will afford you control over your own schedule and activities while still celebrating and enjoying the season with those you love. It is possible for you to create this for yourself.
The first thing you will need to do is to decide that taking care of your health is a genuine priority. Because without taking care of yourself, it is unlikely that it will be possible for you to have a happy holiday, and this will affect those who love and care for you as well. So even if you don’t care about giving yourself a holiday gift….give them one that is really from your heart: your healthy presence. (No pun intended.)
Ask yourself: What have holidays been like since you have had FM? What lessons have you learned for them? What changes have you already made to improve things for yourself? Have you repeated the same mistakes year after year, and resigned yourself to believing that’s "just the way it is?" Or have you taken responsibility for what didn’t work and made positive changes? What might you do differently this year? Are you willing to simplify? How can simplifying your holiday plans benefit you?
Those are important questions, so please take a moment now to consider your answers. When you have, read on.
Making the holidays easier for yourself really is something you can do! FM has not taken away your ability to make your own choices! Once you have decided to make some improvements, it is important to begin with some realistic expectations. For example: If you are dreaming of a White Christmas with a loving family out of a Norman Rockwell painting and you live in an arid desert with something along the lines of the Ozzie Osborne clan….. it’s time to do a reality check. Know what you are really dealing with so you know what you need to take into consideration. Get rid of all the unrealistic pictures and ideas in your head of everything you think you should be doing or including in your holiday. Pare it down to the traditions, people and activity level that will be feasible for your own specific situation. Be honest with yourself about everything, including what your financial limitations are. Clarify and communicate your situation fully with whomever you will be spending the holidays, about what having FM means and how it will impact your ability to participate. You need to have an accurate picture of the holiday ingredients you have on hand before you can figure out what recipe to use!
Throw out all the "shoulds." Take a sheet of paper and make four columns on it. In the first column make a list of your holiday expectations. This will be a detailed list of everything you think you "should" be doing or including in your holiday plans. Everything! Now, in the next column, next to each item, write down why doing or including that activity is important. In the third column assign each item a number 1 3, with one being "this is a keeper and has to stay on the list," two being "undecided if it should be included," and three meaning "delete it because it is not necessary." In the fourth column, (dealing now only with the number ones and twos) write down whether each item can be delegated, shared with someone else, diluted (reduced or pared down in some way) or absolutely has to be done only by you. Keep repeating this exercise until you’re satisfied that you have a very manageable list, and then repeat it twice again for good measure.
This is the first step to helping yourself cope with the holidays, because the less you have to do, or to worry about, the more rested and relaxed you will be, which in turn means the more energy you will have for those activities and events that mean the most to you.
Organization: It is vital to your health and wellbeing that you organize your holiday time. Being able to see the big picture relieves the stress and anxiety of the unknown, and it puts you in control. This is not a plan you want to keep in your head. Write it down, draw it out, or do whatever it takes to make and keep it visible to you.
Plan each day and include frequent and regular rest periods that are actually scheduled. Yes,SCHEDULED. These are appointments, and they must be honored, just as if you had a paid appointment to go to the doctor. The rest periods are sacred. No excuses. Also schedule in one 10-15 minute walk or stretching period each day and no more than one physically strenuous or stressful activity if at all possible. Pace yourself. You know how important this is!
As you make your schedule or plan, here is your mantra and here is your daily mission: KEEP IT SIMPLE!
Be brutally honest with yourself and your loved ones about this schedule so that you all understand why you have chosen to structure your time this way. Remember, the more others are educated about fibromyalgia, the better they can understand and support you. In fact, if they don’t understand, have them read this article, or arrange for them to meet with your physician or support group. It is sometimes very difficult for those who are healthy to get a handle on this disease, especially since they can’t see how this "invisible" illness makes you feel.
So, communicate and decide what your priorities are. What absolutely has to be done, and how can it be done with the least effort? What might be postponed or eliminated altogether? This is how you get organized and create your own plan.
Identify your challenges: If you know from experience there is a particular challenge for you during the holidays, plan a strategy to deal with it (or avoid it altogether). Do yourself a favor and make whatever changes are necessary to prevent being in the same situation this year. You might even decide the best solution is to go away for the holiday and avoid the fuss, muss, stress and strain altogether!
Cleaning your house. When you are home for the holidays, you might think the place to begin is to clean up your house. There are several ways to make this easier on yourself. If you can afford to hire someone to clean your home or even just your bathrooms and kitchen—then do it! If you cannot afford that, consider share-cleaning with a friend: the two of you can do your home one day and his the next (and it really does go easier with two people.) Do you have family at home? Make a family project out of it with pizza at the end as the prize. Or just pare down the list and do just the basics in easy stages. Delete, Dilute, and Delegate.
Food, Feasts and other Festivities: Again: Simplify. Plan ahead. A great tip is to skip going to the grocery store. Most large supermarket chains have home delivery and you do your ordering online or over the phone, often at no additional charge! Amazingly, it often turns out to save you money as well as your precious energy because you plan ahead, don’t walk down all the aisles and wait in lines, and there is no impulse buying!
You might also want to consider purchasing some prepared meals. There are some very reasonably priced complete holiday dinners available through most markets, or if you want to get fancy and can afford it, through caterers. If you have a large number of people coming to dinner, consider rented dinnerware. Some places do this for be less than a dollar per person, and you don’t even have to clean up! You just put everything back in the stackable cartons for pick up!
Here’s another energy and money saving idea: bring back the potluck tradition!
Shopping and financial stress: Even if you usually love to go shopping, at this time of year, forget the malls. It’s crowded, there are long lines, you get pushed around, and it is exhausting! I highly recommend shopping either by catalog or online. You can find anything you want, and at the same time do a price comparison so that you find the best available price. You can even order gift certificates for just about anything or anywhere! In addition, if you don’t enjoy gift wrapping, you can usually pay a small fee to have each item wrapped with an enclosure card, and the items can be delivered to you, or the your recipient.
No matter how you choose to shop, you can eliminate or at least control your holiday financial stress by beginning with a clear and realistic budget. Knowing your spending limits ahead of time and sticking to them keeps that awful little black cloud of anxiety from hanging over your head, and who needs to add that to the brain fog you’re already dealing with?
Decorating your home:
There is great beauty in simplicity. There is a lot of truth in the axiom "Less Is More," and in recent years it has become more than a trend in interior design. Consider applying this to your holiday decorations, inside and out.
You can create a beautifully decorated living room with nothing more than ribbons draped across a mantle or table and a few well placed candles. You can set a lovely table simply by using a festive table cloth with the ribbons tied around a candle as the centerpiece. If you have a big family, and a tree is part of your tradition, delegate the tree decoration to them, or ask friends in to help you. Perhaps there are a few treasures that are important for you to have out for the holidays? That’s fine, but the key words here are a few. Keep it simple. Less clutter, less work, less clean-up, less stress and strain.
Home exteriors can be elegant with a single wreath and a lovely garland around the entry (you can probably hang these yourself), or with multiple strands of lights (as long as they are hung by someone other than you.) Remember your goal: Less work. Less stress. So Delete, Dilute, And Delegate.
Learn to say no without feeling guilty! For everything you are saying no to, you are saying yes to something else. For instance, if you say no to a party that you don’t really care about that will send you home exhausted, you are saying yes to having the time and energy to spend a happy, low key evening with your family or a few select friends, or even helping out with a charity that has some special meaning for you. Think about it. Either way you are offering a gift from your heart. If the party is the activity that means the most to you, then by all means go, but be sure to unschedule some other activity! Decide what you want to say yes to and then be firm about saying no to everything else!
Learn to delay reacting. You can’t always prevent stressful situations from happening, but there are ways to help you prevent stress from taking over your body. Learn to recognize the first small signs of stress in your body, and immediately realize that you don’t have to react instantly! Take a deep breath. Take two or three. Look away, clear your head, excuse yourself and go someplace to meditate; do whatever it takes to put a bit of distance between you and your reaction to whatever it is that is stressful for you. Mentally step back and put the situation in perspective and ask yourself if you even need to respond? Will responding do any good? Will it help? Will it make a difference? Or will it make things worse. If it is not necessary for you to respond, let it go and focus on something else. If you do need to take action, consider first what might be best and what the outcome might be, and then make a deliberate choice based not on your emotions, but on your knowledge and the desired outcome. Above all else, take the time you need to step back from the situation before you respond or react in any way.
Take care of your body. You know you need to eat properly, pace yourself, and take breaks. You also know you need to move around and not stay in one position for very long. Commit to finding reasons to move about the room. Commit to changing the position you are sitting in. Have a seat cushion that helps make you comfortable handy. Remember to stretch. Move those muscles! If you are not home for the holidays, remember to take your heating pad, special pillows, or whatever else it is that helps you feel more comfortable. Take care of your body andmake a commitment to not pus yourself beyond your limits!
Family matters: Whether it’s visiting relatives, having them visit you, or simply dealing with your kids being out of school for the holidays, family can be a huge source of stress and an enormous energy drain. Here are a few suggestions to help you plan ahead:
School’s out!!!!! If you have children (or grandchildren) home for the holidays, hiring a sitter, even if just for two hours a day, will at least give you a break. Other options may be available, such as other family members, neighbors, or friends with their own children. Stock up ahead of time on videos, books, and activities that require minimal supervision to keep the kids occupied. Consider purchasing tickets for someone (other than yourself) to take them to a movie or other holiday event. If they are old enough, get them involved in the planning, cooking, or decorating. No matter how you manage it, it is very important that you get the support you need, so communicate your needs clearly and ask for help.
You might also discover that even fairly young children can be very sympathetic and really want to help if you just let them know you don’t feel well and you need to take a nap for a while. Even if you simply lie on the couch while they watch a video or play nearby, it’s a bit of a break for you.
Family events: Whether it is close to home or far away, pick and choose the family events you want to attend. If there are some out-of-town family events you would like to be part of, but you know that full-time contact would be stressful and exhausting for you, you might want to consider taking control by staying "offsite." If this is financially feasible, consider that if you stay in a nearby hotel, you decide when you come and go, and can therefore control how and when you withdraw from the frenzy and have the opportunity to rest.
Whether family festivities are around the corner or several states away, be honest with your relatives about your health situation and how quickly and easily your energy disappears. The better they understand, for example, that you can’t take part in everything without risking a profound flare up, the easier it will be for them to support you. By choosing some family events, and avoiding others, you are vastly improving your opportunity to enjoy yourself and to have positive interactions with the rest of the family.
Guests staying with you: This is a tough situation when you have fibromyalgia, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Do as much planning and as much simplifying as possible. If it’s staying at a nearby hotel is a possibility for them, you’ll have an easier time than if they are in your home, but no matter what, open communication is the key. Once your guests understand the situation, you might even be able to delegate a portion of the work to them. You can pre-arrange "down time" and explain to them why you can’t accompany them to all the activities they participate in. Don’t hide your situation. Be honest with yourself, and everyone around you.
Spending Time with Toxic People: There is only one person in this "relationship" that you can control, and that is you. Then take control of how you handle the situation. Start by taking time, long before you come in contact with these people, to invent ways to help yourself to cope with, deflect, protect, or immunize yourself to them.
When you have to be in the emotionally stressful situation of dealing with unpleasant relatives or guests, here are some tricks to help you cope. First of all, do everything in your power to limit your exposure to them! If you can avoid attending some of the functions where your paths will cross, by all means, beg off some of the activities. If you’d rather attend everything, then find some avoidance techniques like simply leaving the room for a few moments to detoxify, or making sure you are not seated near or left alone with these people. Next, try using humor (inside yourself) as a deflection mechanism. With a pleasant look on your face, pretend they are completely different people and that they are talking absolute gibberish. Just nod politely now and then. Above all else: DO NOT ENGAGE with them! Keep your end of any conversation light and meaningless.
Practice ahead of time with a friend at becoming adept at changing the subject and talking about trivial things. No matter what the toxic people say, no matter how they act, do not respond in kind, and do not allow yourself to react to them. Avoid, tune out, or try something silly like imagining they are a cartoon character or something equally unimpressive. Use your imagination to turn them into something completely ineffective.
Emotional support and getting outside of your self: This is an important time to seek out and maintain whoever it is that is or could be part of your support system. Friends, family, church and synagogue groups, coaches, local or online support groups are just some of the resources available to you. One of the biggest helps for coping during the holidays is to tap into your support system, so reach out! No one will know you need help if you don’t tell them! Share your problems, and share your pain. Share your hopes, your triumphs, and your joys!
Don’t buy into the idea that because you live with pain and restrictions, you have nothing left to give to others. The opposite is true. Out of your suffering has grown an empathy and compassion. Don’t lock it up inside you. Put it to use, and let others do the same for you. Find a way to share your gift with others during this season. Whether that means reaching out to other people with fibromyalgia, to people in your church or synagogue, to an unknown person whose name hangs on a giving tree, or to someone else who is sad or lonely, you can make a very real difference in your life as well as someone else’s.
The most precious gift of the season.
Your holidays don’t have to be made of sugarplums and resemble Norman Rockwell paintings to have meaning for you. Even if you didn’t have fibromyalgia, you still wouldn’t be Martha Stewart with a staff of 40, or have Donald Trump’s budget. By choosing to honestly assess what you do have, and by planning ahead and keeping it simple you can take whatever it is about the holidays that is most important to you, and make that your primary focus. You can find ways to minimize your stress and keep your activity level manageable. You can make the choice to understand, respect and honor your body’s limitations instead of pushing beyond the limits until its no longer possible for you to be a part of anyone’s happy holidays; and you can communicate all of this with clarity to the people closest to you. You have the power to take control and make your own choices, to create a holiday that will be balanced, fulfilling and well worth your efforts.
This is a gift you can give yourself and everyone you share the holiday season with.
As my holiday gift to you, I would like to share one of my favorite quotes: "Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart." Anonymous
From my heart to yours: Seasons Greetings, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays to each and every one of you!