Holiday Tips From a CFS Survivor
When I was growing up, Christmas was always the most magical time of the year. As a Swedish immigrant family, we followed the tradition of having our main celebration on Christmas Eve. In preparation, my mother baked coffee cake and seven or eight types of Christmas cookies. She made Swedish potato sausage from scratch, while my father spent several days chopping onions, squeezing lemons and deboning herring in preparation for his yearly contribution to the Christmas festivities, his own special pickled herring.
On our door hung a wreath made of pine boughs and holly. More greenery and candles adorned the mantle, and a nativity scene was displayed on the buffet in the dining room. Under the lighted tree, miniature figures formed a small village on the white cotton snow.
Duplicating such a wonderful childhood Christmas would be a hard act for anyone to follow. Today, with the demands of blended families trying to have two or three separate celebrations in one day, it’s even harder and any holiday can become a negative experience instead of the joyous time it’s meant to be—particularly for those also struggling with the crushing fatigue and other symptoms of CFS.
For those with CFS, choosing some different ways of doing things is the key for holiday survival. Choice means taking control over the stress and chaos of unrealistic demands and expectations—even those that are self-imposed by our own desires or sense of guilt.
Loosening expectations without losing the holiday
The following are some suggestions on how to cope more effectively and manage your energy during the holiday season.
Declare your boundaries, politely but firmly. Try not to go to multiple events in one day or maybe even in one weekend. Don’t overexplain. People in general don’t understand the words tired or sick beyond their own experiences. Most of the time it’s wise to simply say, very graciously, “I am unable to come, but I appreciate your invitation.”
Don’t compare yourself with others. Accept your limitations without blaming yourself. Also realize that people you know who seem to be able to do it all aren’t always doing as well as they appear. In my counseling office, I’ve seen people whose personal life may be falling apart while they rush around to all the activities of the season.
For many of us, buying and wrapping presents are the final stresses that overwhelm us. Shopping early, using home shopping on TV or the Internet, buying gift certificates, wrapping ahead of time, using bags rather than wrapping paper and getting help from a teenager or friend are all ways to relieve some of that stress. You might also consider forgoing gifts altogether one year in favor of a just spending time with friends or giving a card with a heartfelt message.
Don’t expend valuable energy trying to decorate your house. If you enjoy holiday decorations, choose one or two favorites to display. Focus on a wreath, a menorah or another meaningful symbol of the holiday you celebrate. Save some things for another year. If you alternate decorations rather than using them all at one time, the stress will be less and the change will add variety to future holidays.
If entertaining is an integral part of your holiday season, think of simple ways to do it—like serving dessert instead of a full dinner or getting take-out food arranged on festive dishes. Be more casual and serve buffet-style. Let people help you serve and clean up. And above all, plan ahead by freezing foods and pacing your cooking activities.
Try creative ways to entertain that do the work for you. Let each guest bring a specific type of dish. Have a tree-decorating party and serve dessert. A similar plan can work with a holiday card-writing party. Have someone help you set up tables and have everyone bring their cards, writing materials and a snack for everyone else. Just remember to keep it small.
Maintain better nutrition throughout the holiday season. Protein snacks and fresh vegetables and fruits, combined with less sugar and fats, can help in maintaining your energy level during the holidays. And don’t forget to keep hydrated.
Plan your rest time as much as your activities. Space your events so that active days are followed by those which have less demands. Use your down time to really break away from holiday activities and rejuvenate yourself.
Avoiding the ghost of Christmas past
For those who experienced Christmas or Hanukah as a time of pure joy in childhood, adult holidays may seem unable to compete. Yet for those who never had happy holidays in their past, occasions like Christmas, Hanukah and even birthdays may bring feelings of sadness over what never was or what might have been. In essence, holidays like Christmas can then be a trigger for depression. Conditions like CFS and FM only add to that potential. For me, the year that Christmas was a reminder of the fatal car accident that had recently taken my mother’s life, my holiday survival was greatly helped by trying to provide Christmas for some foster children. I gave myself a break from all the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” aspects of traditional holiday celebration. I made sure I got enough rest. Then for several hours on Christmas day I forgot about me and focused on them. Before I knew it, the holiday was over and something good had happened after all.
Whether we’re haunted by what used to be or by what never was, once we learn to make some practical changes to reduce holiday stress, we can open ourselves to enjoying a happier season. So reexamine your holiday expectations and don’t be afraid to say no to exhausting demands. Choose to celebrate the season in whatever unique way is right for you this year. You may actually have the merriest holiday of all as a result of not trying so hard to make it “perfect.”
Elizabeth R. Skoglund is a marriage and family counselor in Burbank, California. She has written more than 30 books and articles on a variety of topics including guilt, grief, end-of-life issues, hospitality and inspiration.
Updated December 5, 2007