The holiday season is filled with excitement, anticipation and a multitude of activities. But for those of us living with chronic pain, they can also be filled with anxiety, fear and concern for our survival. Every year I used to privately worry, will I make it through another one?
Will I be able to give my daughter all the fun and joy she deserves, without hurting myself? It started with all the boxes filled with holiday treasures stored high up in the garage closet, waiting to be brought down and unpacked. I would cringe knowing the pain I’d incur decorating the house to set just the right tone and atmosphere. Getting on ladders, crawling on the floor to direct cords to their proper outlet, and stretching to hang something in just the right place.
Or the upcoming parties we’d attend after a long, arduous work week, driving times to get to the locations and carrying presents to and from the car. I’d wonder how I’d manage to bake Grandma’s special komish bread only I knew how to make for the family gathering, make the cookies for my daughters class, or cook the food I’d agreed to bring to the potluck at the office. All wonderful, enjoyable events. All horrifying and overwhelming.
That’s when I realized things had to change. I needed to set up ground rules and boundaries so I wouldn’t pay the price for months into the new year. Here’s what I learned:
You aren’t alone. Clearly you’re doing what you’re doing so others can enjoy it as well. Have a decorating party. Feed the brood while they do the heavy lifting, literally! And then direct where everything goes. You don’t have to be the muscle, just the lovable host who started the season off right- bringing people together to laugh and share their time surrounded in holiday cheer. And remember, it doesn’t have to done all at one time. The holidays last for weeks, taking advantage of that can make all the difference.
Share the cooking
Bake your holiday treats by sharing your special knowledge of long forgotten recipes with loved ones. I taught my daughter, nieces and nephews how to make komish bread and potato latkes for Hanukkah celebrations. This way I had help and passed down long-cherished traditions at the same time. And when that didn’t work, I bought them! I still fulfilled my part of the pot luck without the pain I’d have felt preparing it on my own. Those who care about you will understand. It’s not the food that matters, it’s the company.
Set an end
I have just so much time before a party becomes a hardship. Know what that is for you and plan accordingly. I get to the festivities after I hope everyone’s already there. That way I’m able to socialize and enjoy with the most amount of friends and family. If there are going to be activities, like lighting the menorah, opening presents, and playing games, I factor that into the amount of time I know I can comfortably expend.
Whether it’s a party, shopping, decorating, or restaurant dates, I always plan for my much needed down-time to recover. For me, that usually means a long, hot bath and chance to lie down on a hot or ice pack. Incorporating this short break into every schedule can change my mood and pain level drastically.
Don’t be ashamed: For years, others’ schedules decided my own. I was told repeatedly there wasn’t enough time to take that bath, sit for awhile, or rest on ice. Feeling like I was hindering the fun or interrupting the action, I’d succumb to the pressure. Later I always paid the price. No one means us harm. They just don’t understand how hard it is to acknowledge our pain and its impact on others. Make it clear, those who care will always understand.
Drive two cars
Thinking back, I’m shocked at how long it took to implement this rule. After several memorable melt downs, I finally realized being able to slip out when needed made all the difference. It didn’t stop anyone else’s fun and I could leave before the pain was intolerable. When my daughter was younger, I always had someone available to bring her home if I was in too much pain to stay to open present or play games. She missed me but preferred this option to going home early.
Say the magic words
It’s incredible to me how hard it is to say, “thank you,but no.” to activities or events without feeling diminished. Or being able to ask for help when I couldn’t climb the steps to a friends house when invited. When I found the courage to explain the issue a simple solution was always found- I met up with others when they returned home or someone else drove and dropped me off. If I hadn’t found the right words I’d have missed all the fun.
I was never a boy scout but I appreciate the value of the motto, always be prepared. Setting up the cooking ingredients before they are needed, so it’s quick and simple to put together, can save hours. Buying online, writing holiday cards a day at a time, catering events, and making lists, all help keep the holidays manageable and my pain tolerable.
Get your medications
Remember, your provider will be having shorter weeks for the holidays too. That may impact your refills, appointments, or care. Be sure to review your needs as early as possible. Especially if you’ll be traveling. Make sure to discuss your upcoming plans and put into place arrangements that’ll prevent any lapses. Keep them in your purse or carry-on at all times so they can’t get lost since some are not replaceable.
Plan the cleanup
Why worry about cleanup when you can rent plates, utensils, and napkins? Now it can all add to the look of your party while being packed up and picked up at the end of the day by a party rental company. I know it sounds expensive, but it really isn’t- the price is even comparable to the cost of purchasing disposable (and most often, not recyclable) paper goods. The stress and worry of having to face a mess is gone. If renting isn’t an option, ask your family and friends for help with the clean up- think production line style. A couple of people gather dishes, others rinse and wash, yet another can dry and put things away, and other people can gather trash and take it out for you. If you ask, the crowd will surely be willing to help knowing what that the little things can make a big difference to your pain levels. Throw on some music and have a good time!
It’s easy with all the added pressures to let exercise slide by justifying we’re in too much pain. But that’s exactly when it’s needed the most. Don’t stop or reduce your exercise regimen, it’ll only make you worse. The increased stress, worry, long hours and physical impact the holidays create, the more our bodies need a release. Exercise is the perfect answer. Even walking the malls can work, you’ll be out of the elements and able to soak up great holiday atmosphere.
Use code words
Too often, we don’t honor our needs because it’s too uncomfortable to offer a reason. Having to explain why we require a few minutes to sit and recover or it’s time to go home to a hot bath or bed is awkward. That’s why code words, or phrases, help whoever you’re with to quickly understand and act. “I hope my puppies are doing well at home” can have a whole new meaning!
Change the venue
Maybe the family gathering is best done at your home. I used to host our large family Hanukkah parties. It was always a pot luck dinner with disposable everything! That way I didn’t have to drive or combat the elements and I had a safe place to retreat to when the pain escalated. Whenever required, I could relax for a time in bed while the festivities continued in the family room. I never impacted any one else’s fun and was rarely gone long enough to be missed.
Forgive: It’s easy to get angry and frustrated that people don’t honor our needs or pain. That they seem to be heartless, even cruel, at times when we’re clearly in agony. The problem is they often don’t understand or even realize our suffering when they’re caught up in their own craziness and issues at the holidays. Forgive them their occasional lapses of sensitivity. Speak up, share what you’re feeling, ask for help. No on can read minds. Us included.
Avoid overwhelming yourself at the holidays. We all want to enjoy family, friends and co-workers this time of year. That’s why it’s easy to agree to multiple commitments that can be too much to attend. Be mindful of what’s realistically possible and stick to that schedule. It’s easier to thank someone but admit you’re already booked than to back out later. Pain shouldn’t preclude us from enjoying the holiday season. Be realistic, honor your body and set appropriate boundaries and it’ll be the best one yet. I’d love to hear how you cope. Happy holidays to everyone.