How I Survived Christmas Despite Chronic Illness – How To Cope During The Festive Season
One thing that can really cause a lot of stress for people with Chronic illness is coping with Christmas and all that it entails. For me personally, Christmas has changed so much over the years. It's changed from huge family get-togethers when I still lived with my parents, to multinational bring-and-share gatherings of friends once I moved to London, and then small meals with just my sister and I in my bedroom after I fell ill, and every combination in between! I think it's safe to say that I don't really have a typical Christmas tradition anymore.
This year we had a lovely quiet day at home, just the 4 of us. I was doing okay despite having had a bath the night before, I actually managed to spend most of Christmas upright with my family in the living room!
This post will be a recount of our celebration, but will also include tips on how I coped with the holiday chaos.
Three Days Of Celebration
My family, on both sides, has always started celebrating on Christmas Eve with a big family dinner and gift giving, followed by a sleepover, lie in, then Christmas lunch the next day and often people would still be around for leftovers on Boxing Day, so Christmas is really a three-day affair in our family.
This year was slightly different as it was only my parents, sister and I and our first Christmas together since the onset of my ME/CFS, but we still spread it out over 3 days...
Preparation Is Key
On the 23 December I had a bath, painted my nails and planned my outfits, so that I would have less to exert on the day. After that bath I made sure to rest all day and spread out the other few things I did. I really think this has helped me to make it through the holidays without much payback at all. Of course, there were many other little adjustments that were made, I'll cover them below.
I like to dress up for Christmas, so I wore some of my favourite dresses. I went with dresses this year rather than jeans or trousers because they put less pressure on my belly. Certainly more comfortable with all the eating involved in the holidays. My alternative option would have been pyjamas!
Dressing up pretty is more fun than pyjamas for me though and it helps to make us feel good if we look good. I wear pyjamas most days of the year, so I went all out for the holidays and matched everything up as best I could.
Tips For Choosing An Outfit
In my opinion, for the winter holidays you want something comfy and warm. Preferably layers and something that's easy to manage when going to the bathroom or if you suddenly get hot flashes or feel faint. Since you're likely to eat foods you don't commonly eat and spend time with more people than usual, such reactions are possible at any point.
On Christmas Eve I used a shawl and on Christmas day I used a cardigan. Both are easy to wrap up in or strip off in a moment. You could use comfy slip-on shoes rather than heels, buckled boots or lace-ups as they are easier to put on and take off as needed. You might also want to consider dresses to avoid the bands around your belly as we are bound to eat more and feel discomfort around meal times.
You might have noticed from the pictures that I didn't bother with makeup. I would get allergic reactions from makeup before I fell ill with ME/CFS, so I'm not going to waste my energy on it now that I'm even more sensitive to chemicals and additives. There's also no way I would wear heels or anything like that in the house since I need to lie down often, so I opted for my fluffy boot slippers, they are most comfy and warm as well as easy to slip on and off.
I was really comfortable and didn't regret my choices at all.
Pay Attention To Your Environment
In the mornings while there was much commotion going on in the kitchen, I stayed in my bedroom resting on the bed, reading or sending festive messages to people far away. My house has no stairs though, if your room is upstairs and you're planning on spending time downstairs with others, I'd suggest moving downstairs in advance so you can recover from the exertion of taking the stairs and not tackle them for a few days.
For example, at our family home in Italy, I moved into the downstairs living room so I wouldn't have to take the stairs daily, this way I could easily make it to the kitchen to eat with the family and make it back to my new room without too much hassle.
Creating A Festive Atmosphere
We don't use flashing or flickering lights anymore, it's not good for anybody with sensory issues, way too stimulating, so we have opted for static fairy lights instead.
This year there was also a relaxing Christmas soundtrack playing quietly on the TV throughout the day. We did put it off at times just to have some quiet time, but I had prepared a few gentle instrumental playlists in the run up to Christmas and saved the most relaxing ones on my YouTube account in advance.
These playlists are wonderful, they're basically hour-long (or even 3-hour-long!) videos with a very festive or wintery scene on your screen and Christmas music non-stop. It really helps with setting the scene and atmosphere. Just make sure to keep the volume low and choose tracks that are not too high-pitched - I prefer gentle piano rather than orchestra or radio tunes. My favourites are a piano soundtrack which turns your TV into a virtual fireplace or this slow, instrumental playlist with gorgeous christmas scenes:
Food, Glorious Food
Instead of cramming all the Christmas foods into one or two days, we decided to do a few days of delicious meals. They would be regular size meals, but include things we don't usually eat. This way we feel fine after our meals and still get to enjoy all the delights of the season. Just spread out.
Christmas Eve Lunch
We had our typical Italian Christmas Eve seafood meal which included our favourite salmon sandwiches for starters, then a spicy seafood pasta (I had keto bread and zoodles), and then rather than having the 3-4 courses we usually have in one meal, we had the rest of the seafood for dinner. We all felt so much better doing it this way - no food coma.
Christmas Eve Dinner
We had small prawn cocktail salad bowls, battered prawns and spring rolls (which aren't typically Italian, but was a nice addition to the finger foods we were having), we also had a cheese platter and the others also had crackers with salami.
Christmas Eve Dessert
For me a delicious keto friendly icecream, I also had nutty chocolate clusters to enjoy throughout the day, and for the others an apple pie with vanilla icecream.
Christmas Day Lunch
We had a delicious roast dinner, including gammon, chicken and roasted vegetables. The others also had baked potatoes and gravy. There was also garlic bread, mine was made with cheesey keto bread and Mum made me a creamy mustard sauce for my meat instead of the gravy.
Christmas Day Dinner
There were pigs in blankets, some more salmon sandwiches, chicken skewers and a cheese platter.
Christmas Day Dessert
The others had a Christmas pudding with cream and I had a keto friendly raspberry cheesecake Mum made for me.
I managed very well on Christmas Eve, but then had a noticeable increase in pain on Christmas day, so they decided to go out shopping on Boxing Day and leave me at home to recover. I spent most of the day in bed in my pyjamas, it was lovely and I was grateful for the down-time.
Meals consisted of delicious leftovers. The leftover roast chicken became chicken mayo lettuce wraps for me and there was some leftover gammon and sauce which Mum added some vegetables to.
Low Exertion Entertainment
As is tradition in our family, we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve, but before that we played a hilarious game of Bonanza (a fun card game we had never played before).
We also did a little photo booth session with props - So much laughing!
Our family isn't big on Christmas themed movies, so on Christmas day we watched The Intern. A funny, family friendly movie with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.
My sister also played some Nintendo games, so I spent some time watching her play too. Just beware that video games can be quite noisy and the excitement and flashing screens can cause increased PEM, so short sessions, low volume, the calmer the better.
As mentioned previously, when things were too chaotic in the communal areas, I would retreat to my bedroom and do whatever I wanted in the quiet there, until the others were ready and settled down for me to join them. I made much use of my noise cancelling headphones during the holidays! This really helped. I didn't always remember to retreat, but my family now remind me to go to my room occasionally to recharge.
Overall this Christmas has been a very positive one. I have had minimal payback, had to take only a couple of pain killers and went to bed early only on Christmas night, which was to be expected as it was day 2 after my bath, so quite normal for me to have an increase in pain and general fatigue. Being able to spend the following morning in bed while my family went out shopping, was a great help too.
My Tips For Coping During The Festive Season
Some of these points will be hard to implement unless you have help. I realise that many people do not have the luxury of having family or friends who would take over preparation and decoration on their behalf, I have a wonderful family who support me and help me with everything, so these are the ways I was able to make it through the holidays without too much payback:
Decorating was done as a family at the end of November allowing lots of recovery time and, with all the help, I didn't need to exert much myself. I sat still on the sofa, tree in front of me and hung baubles while the others did the rest of the decorating.
Shopping was done online for the most part. My sister went to town to buy joint gifts for our parents on my behalf, other gifts were ordered from Amazon. Amazon wish-lists are a great help for gift-giving, I added items all year whenever I found something I liked, and then I just had to share the link with my family a few times in the run up to my birthday in October and then Christmas, so they could easily access and order the items I love!
Bath and beauty - I think it's a great idea to have a bath the day before all the festivities begin and get any beauty treatments, like facials, hair, nails, etc out of the way ahead of the time, then rest the whole day to recover afterwards.
literally I just bath, then go lie down and don't do anything else, but rest. I did paint my nails in the evening before bed, but if you're going to have a proper manicure, then I'd suggest doing it days in advance.
Small, low exertion activities that can be done in bed and don't require much energy are fine to do on these days, but I try to give my body the time it needs to recover from any upright activities.
Outfit of the day - I usually decide and set out what I want to wear for the next day or two so I don't stress and rush around looking for things on the day only to find things missing, don't fit or aren't ready to wear. Getting all this out of the way in advance means a stress free start to your day.
Take your time to get ready in the morning, don't leave it to the last minute, but slowly do one thing at a time even resting between each item you put on if you need to. Having events start later rather than early in the morning can be a huge help. Although my parents are visiting, I don't leave my room until about 10.30 each morning. This gives me time to quietly rest, get dressed, get bathroom bits done and rest some more before joining everybody else in the living room. Sometimes they bring me coffee and meds while I'm in bed, so I can rest more. It's helpful to have a slow, peaceful start to the day. If you have children, it would be great if they could be helped by somebody else as these holidays will be extra draining on you already.
Delegate shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping gifts, sorting out the children, etc - get others to take care of all of that for you. The more you rest, the more you will be able to spend time with the others rather than isolated in your room. Sit as much as possible and have others help bring things to you if you want to help with preparations. The less you move about, the longer you'll last.
Going solo - If you don't have family or friends who celebrate with you, there are a few options. Many supermarkets now sell online and deliver to your home. They also provide ready put together Christmas feasts. You could also call up a local church in advance and ask if they would be able to send a meal for you. There are many people willing to help out and provide food for those in need. When I lived alone, I would make a simple roast meal as it doesn't require standing at the stove, and there's less prep involved as the veg can be roasted whole or chunky chopped rather than finely. These days they can be bought already cleaned and cut too.
Resting - frequent retreats to a quiet room to lie down can actually do the world of good. Sometimes all I need is a few minutes of closed eyes, silence and a warm blanket and then I feel like I can handle more peopling. I know I always say "listen to your body", but really during the holidays you want to prevent rather than deal with consequences. Try to take rests even if you're feeling fine, a little bit of a recharge every so often will keep you going longer and help reduce compounded PEM.
Remember that your health is the priority.
It is the together time that remains in our memories, not the gifts bought or received, but the time spent together. By taking care of yourself, pacing well, resting lots and delegating things to others, you are making sure you're as well as can be to spend as much time with your loved ones as possible.
I hope you have had a wonderful holiday season and that your recovery will be quick and as comfortable as possible. I'd love to hear about your Christmas and how you adjusted things to accommodate your condition. Let me know in the comments how it went!
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