Chronic illness at Christmas: “Why I’ll be celebrating at my own pace this year”

Written by Hannah Turner

Usually, celebrating Christmas with chronic illness means immense pressure and anxiety for writer Hannah Turner. But last December’s lockdown taught her to see the holiday differently. This is what she’s learned about being sick at Christmas.

As the Christmas party rages downstairs with drunken karaoke and clinking wine glasses, I play meditation music in my noise-cancelling headphones, pull down my eye mask and attempt to sleep through another festive gathering.

I live with multiple conditions including endometriosis and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). My symptoms are hard all year round: fatigue, dizziness, intolerance to light and sound, constant pain – the list goes on. But during December, as the Christmas festivities ramp up, it all feels harder.

Christmas time creates a specific kind of pressure to ‘act well’. I can push a dinner date back with a friend if I wake up feeling rotten, or even rearrange my own birthday party if my body isn’t complying, but the Christmas period always seemed fixed.

Illness doesn’t comply with social calendars, and as the festive invitations increase and my family demands more time of me, socialising can become anxiety-inducing even with close family.  

Phoebe, who is in her early 20s and lives with endometriosis, agrees, saying it can be hard to negotiate spending time with her younger siblings over Christmas. “They just want to have fun and don’t understand my condition,” she tells Stylist. “It’s a lot of gritting your teeth or having to feel like you’re disappointing them.”

For Sophie, who is in their early 20s and lives with ME and extreme fatigue, Christmas Day can be exhausting. “When these big events come on a set, immovable day, there’s a lot of pressure that our bodies cannot match up to,” they say.

But, Christmas 2020 was a turning point for me. When lockdown measures hit last December without much warning, while most of the country panicked (rightfully) about what to do, my partner and I took a step back from the chaos and decided to spend a quiet day in our flat. Able to take the day at my own pace, it was the most restful Christmas I’ve had since becoming ill.  

We spent Christmas Day collecting a pre-made roast dinner from a local restaurant, which meant minimal cooking and washing up. We watched films in our pyjamas, so there was no energy spent getting ready. And we went to bed before 10pm – no staying up to entertain tipsy relatives.

It may not sound that different from other people’s Christmas Days, but this time I didn’t need to ‘act well’ in front of lots of other people. My partner and I could do Christmas our way without anyone else’s judgment.

Last Christmas was a reminder that I can scale back some of the bigger parts of the festive season; I don’t have to repeat activities because they’ve always been done that way when they no longer make me feel good. 

It’s a mindset other people with chronic illness share. “I’ve been examining which traditions matter to me versus the ones that are ‘just because’,” Melissa, who lives with multiple chronic illnesses, tells Stylist. “It’s better to save your energy for what matters most.”

Last Christmas was a reminder that I can scale back some of the bigger parts of the festive season.

Charlotte, 32, who lives with the autoimmune condition ulcerative colitis, chose to see a play with her brother this year instead of the usual festive drinks. This means the setting is quiet, the lights dim, and most importantly for us sick folk, it comes with a guaranteed seat.

Lindsey, in her 30s and living with chronic migraines, says she’s started checking the local pub menu or asking hosts in advance if there will be festive non-alcoholic options as alcohol triggers her migraines. Pre-planning is a way to conserve her energy during this busy time. 

“There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy this time of year,” says Charlotte. “Just enjoy what you can, when you can, and be kind to yourself.”

To make this year more restorative, I’m changing up Christmas again this year. I’m opting for time at home instead of crowding into a pub without a seat and I’m skipping the physical exertion of putting up a tree.

As 25 December fast approaches, I will be settling into my childhood bedroom at my mum’s house. Our festive gathering has shrunk by one more this year, so we will be commemorating my beloved granny. And as I toast her memory, I’ll be giving myself the time and space to remember her without the usual pressures of Christmas to interfere.  

Images: ArdeaA/Getty, Getty

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