Holidays used to be very painful for me. They were a reminder of all the things I couldn’t enjoy: parties I couldn’t attend, food I couldn’t eat, and gatherings with loved ones that were challenging for multiple reasons.
For many years, those Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings I attended were often fraught with sadness, as I was obliged to hear about all the new and exciting things that my friends and family were doing with their lives. Every year, I got to indulge in their stories of new babies, new marriage relationships, home upgrades, or new careers. If there wasn’t some new significant life event that they had to share about, the conversation revolved around the latest in sports, travel or some other activity that I couldn’t talk about or participate in.
Chronic Illness and The Holiday Season
It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy for my loved ones — but their stories were a reminder to me about how their lives were always advancing or changing in some way, while for a long time, every year of my existence looked the same: research, medical treatments, and book writing (although thank God my brain still worked well enough to write!). But marriage, children, a career, a stable home, recreation, and fun events, were all things that I didn’t get to partake in, for the most part—throughout my 30s and even into my early 40s.
As if that weren’t enough, at social gatherings, family members would occasionally ask me about my life. This didn’t happen often, actually, as most of them knew that I was chronically ill and didn’t seem to want to touch the subject of Lyme disease with a ten-foot pole. But for the few that were interested or cared, I would often feel stuck between telling them the truth about my incredibly challenging life and downplaying the difficulties.
Both had advantages and disadvantages. The truth often led to them either pitying me or asking me insensitive questions, while lying was, well, just uncomfortable. Either way, I truly had very little that was meaningful to discuss outside of illness, anyway, because my life afforded me little mental and physical bandwidth beyond that.
Food was the other struggle with holidays. For a long time, nothing was more painful than attending a holiday event and watching my friends or family gobble down pumpkin pie, cookies, cake, gravy, stuffing, wine, and other assorted delicacies, while I either suffered in silence or tried a pastry and paid the consequences for days later.
You’d think that the pain of holiday triggers would be offset a little by the joy of spending time with loved ones, rather than in isolation. Certainly, it was for me. But holidays were, in the end, bittersweet.
Over the years, I learned to navigate the challenges of the holidays by bringing my own gluten and allergy-free dishes to gatherings, and to expect less of my loved ones. It took me awhile to accept that “you don’t get it until you get it,” –meaning, a chronic illness, and that even the most-well meaning of my friends and family members didn’t have the capacity to relate to me in the way I desired or needed. Only other people who had suffered the same as I had were capable of that.
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I began to work on shedding the Leper identity that I felt Lyme had assigned to me and to embrace the truth of how God saw me: which was as His mighty, strong, beautiful, kind, wise and compassionate daughter. I had just as much to offer the world as anyone else. My physical state didn’t determine my worth and value, and God saw me as whole and complete, just as I was — Lyme disease or not. I needed to learn to live in that identity, not the sick one, in order to overcome the real battle of chronic Lyme or chronic illness, which is that of knowing and remembering who we truly are in this world. This is helpful whether it’s Lyme, fibromyalgia, or ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) you’re dealing with.
We are not lepers or beggars. We are no more weak or broken than the rest of humanity, and we don’t need others to understand our battles, because God does. And He will meet all of our needs, if we choose to trust Him to do so. Anyway, no matter how much we want people to get it, they simply can’t. They haven’t been there.
Today, I am thankful to be able to say that nearly 15 years after first becoming chronically ill, I can eat most anything at holiday gatherings, if only in moderation. I am totally fine with that though, because there’s nothing good about the holiday glut of dairy, gluten, and sugar, for anyone, anymore. Our bodies weren’t designed to process GMOs, and antibiotic and pesticide-laden foods, so I now want to stay away from these things. I’m content to have some gluten-free, naturally sweetened fudge and a glass of wine along with my turkey and sweet potato, and with that, I’m good to go. I don’t feel deprived or like I’m missing out anymore.
While I still battle a few symptoms, I am now the health guru at holiday gatherings, rather than the sick Lyme sufferer who needs the approval of others. In my mind and spirit, I am healthier than I have ever been in my life, thanks to all the work that God, my doctors, and I have done in me over the years. My body is getting there, too, but the trial of Lyme has taught me that in the end, I don’t have to do or be anything or anyone special for anyone. I can be content, even if others don’t meet my needs. I can “do” holidays my own way, even if that means sometimes spending them alone, and I can love who I am — whether I am loved and supported for being that person, or not. Because God loves and accepts me, and that’s all that matters to me.
What is challenging for you about the holidays? If you struggle during this time, I encourage you to consider how you might reframe the difficulties of the season, and find new ways to think about the holidays and celebrate them. It might mean giving up gatherings with toxic people, or choosing to take an interest in others’ lives, even if you don’t feel like it. When you do the latter, it’s easier to let go of expectations of how others will treat you.
Or, maybe your holidays are better spent at home alone or with a companion or friend, soaking in a hot bubble bath and partaking of a gluten-free dessert while you listen to holiday music, pray or contemplate the beautiful lights outside your window or on your Christmas tree.
Even pretending that the holidays don’t exist may not be a bad idea at times. For instance, while I still celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving is often a catch up day for me to get stuff done. I live in Texas and my family and friends are mostly in Colorado, so to avoid loneliness on Thanksgiving, I see it as a fabulous day to do all the things that I don’t have time to do during the year. It’s a day where I know I won’t be interrupted by the phone, text messages or email. Besides, it isn’t that important for me to celebrate Thanksgiving. I see my family at Christmas, and that’s good enough.
Finally, and regardless of how you choose to spend the holidays, know that you are deeply loved by your Creator, and if the most that you can do during the holidays is stay in bed at home, sipping a cup of chamomile tea in front of the TV, know that you aren’t alone, and that better days are ahead of you. They really, truly are—if you just believe.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on November 20, 2018 and was updated on December 16, 2020.