Christmas shines a spotlight on relationships. We all have a romantic view of how the holidays should go, with beautifully behaved children, thoughtful spouses, wonderful food which magically appears on a prettily decorated table, visits from friends and extended family and everyone laughing and playing games around a log fire while drinking eggnog and stuffing our faces with mince pies. The reality, however, is often delinquent children, spouses who treat you like an unpaid skivvy, food which takes days of backbreaking preparation, visiting parents who point out everything you’re doing wrong, friends who drink too much and outstay their welcome, and the woman of the house ending up crying in an exhausted heap on the stairs wondering why no-one appreciates her.
Relationship breakups sky-rocket over Christmas even amongst healthy people and when you add chronic illness into the mix things can get even worse.
I, of course, have the opposite problem to all of the above. Loneliness is spotlighted over Christmas, when the entire world seems to be surrounded by friends and family and I am lying in bed alone at 4pm watching everyone on the telly having a wonderful time. Even if I were surrounded by family I couldn’t bare the noise, join in with the games or eat most of the food and would still be in bed alone at 4pm with a flat battery while the party carried on without me.
But you don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely. I remember Christmases when I was healthy and in a relationship when I’ve felt lonelier than I ever have single. I’ve been to parties where I’ve stood in a crowded room and felt like the loneliest person on the planet. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things.
It seems to me that over Christmas expectations often don’t live up to reality. We’re constantly bombarded with unrealistic images on TV of perfect family Christmases and forget that, just like photos of models in magazines, the images are airbrushed into perfection. Unless you have an army of paid help it’s almost impossible to have the perfect home and table groaning with home-made delights. Your husband is not going to magically turn into Superman and your children are not going to have a personality transplant. You are not going to suddenly have a great relationship with your in-laws and Santa is not going to provide you with a month’s worth of extra energy in your stocking. Realizing that Christmas is probably going to be tiring, stressful and a lot of bloody hard work makes the reality less disappointing and leads to less confrontation.
When you’re ill, lowering expectations is even more critical. It’s important to discuss Christmas with the significant people in your life well before the day. Your spouse, children, friends and family might expect you to rally and ‘make an effort’ to act like your healthy self which can lead to disappointment on all sides. Talk about your reality and how much you can participate without your health suffering, so that everyone has chance to get their head around the situation well in advance. Realize that there may be times over Christmas where you may feel sad that your life has changed so that you’re not totally blindsided.
As a singleton I treat Christmas like an actual holiday. I give myself permission to lounge around doing whatever the hell I like. If I want to sleep all day I sleep all day. If I want to eat crap I eat crap, even if it gives me hives. I take long, candlelit baths. I spend way too much time on Facebook than is healthy chatting to my other single sick friends, or I sometimes impose a complete internet ban and give my brain a rest.
I realize that problems don’t go away just because it’s Christmas. My Mum will probably be more drunk on Christmas day, not less, and my parents will not take the day off from bickering. I will not magically feel well, in fact I’ll probably be having a pretty rough day due to the extra effort involved in the run up to the holidays, and I will not suddenly be able to drink alcohol without passing out however much I’d like to.
Most importantly I try not to be nostalgic about the holidays. I remind myself that, when I was healthy, not a single Christmas went by where I did not have a blazing row with my partner, usually for going out on Christmas Eve and getting hammered with their mates then spending Christmas day hung over, or for spending the whole of Boxing Day watching sport on TV. My parents annoyed the crap out of me and I felt obliged to visit my step-brothers despite the fact I don’t like either of them – at least being sick gives me an excuse to opt of shit I don’t want to do! There are definitely things I miss about my healthy life, but there are definitely things I don’t.
Ultimately, Christmas for me will be a mixed bag. There will be times I’ll feel content and times I’ll feel miserable. There will be times I’ll have some energy to join in, even if that’s just online, and times I won’t. There will be times I’ll feel lonely and times I’m glad I’m on my own. There will be times I’ll want to strange my Mum with my bare hands and times I’ll be sad this could be our last Christmas together. No change there then. And that’s the point. Christmas is just a day like any other. It’s our expectation that it will be something wonderful and the disappointment when the reality turns out not to meet that expectation that makes us sad and angry. The more realistic we are with our expectations and the more prepared we are for the reality of the holidays hopefully we can find joy in the good bits and acceptance of the bad.