Surviving the Holidays, Despite IBD
Truth be told, I have a real love/hate relationship with the holiday season. I love the idea of getting together with friends and family. I love the smell of winter foods and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger. But, I hate the stress that can come with all the holiday hub-bub and social gatherings. And, I hate, even more, that what I can and can't eat seems to become an even bigger deal at this time of year.
Having lived with IBD and IBS for the past eleven holiday seasons I've learned a few "tricks" that help to keep me pretty happy and healthy. Not all of my suggestions are easy, but they work for me and my health, and when dealing with two chronic illnesses I think that's what is most important.
First, I've learned to be a little selfish. I know how that word can conjure all sorts of negative thoughts. But, I like to think of this sort of selfishness as positive. It's a, doing-what-I-know-is-best-for-me sort of selfishness, rather than an I-only-care-about-myself sort of thing. So, what do I mean by being selfish? Basically, giving yourself permission to pick-and-choose what you want and can do without making yourself sick. If you are anything like me, then you probably only have a certain amount of energy that you can put into any given day or week before you are exhausted, stressed, and your gut flares. And during the holiday season there are far more gatherings and parties and other invitations to consider than during the non-holiday season.
No matter how much I may want to attend every gathering for which I receive an invitation, I just know there is no way I'll be able to go to more than two seasonal gatherings in one week and still maintain my health and energy levels. So, I pick and choose. Sometimes this means I don't travel from my home in Colorado to my family home in Wisconsin. Or, I might choose a quiet dinner with a few friends over a big, loud holiday gathering where I'll only know a few people and most of the food and drinks will be "off bounds" for me. Now that I'm self-employed I don't have to worry about an office or work Christmas party, but if that's not an option for you then go, make an appearance, say hello to the important people, then quietly slip out after 30 or 45 minutes.
Second, I've learned to manage my own food. Ever since IBD entered my life eleven years ago I've had certain foods that I just know I shouldn't or can't eat. But, as of this year, the whole issue has gotten even more complicated because I am now eating gluten-free (GF). This means all those wonderful holiday cookies and cakes and pies that everyone is offering are not going to be able to pass my lips. Instead of feeling bummed, or deprived, though, I just bring my own "safe" food to any party or gathering. There are so many gluten-free food options out there these days that either buying already made GF products or making them yourself is so much easier than even a few years ago.
Whether we are attending a party, dinner, or holiday Open House, I always offer to make something. This way I am sure of having something I can safely eat. And really, what hostess is going to turn down your offer to help them out a little bit? And, no, you don't have to put a huge sign on what you take along announcing that it's gluten-free, or egg-free, or dairy-free. But these days there are so many people who are dealing with food allergies that I am pretty positive you won't be the only one in the room with a food issue.
Even if I plan to take a dish to share, I still tend to eat before at my house before leaving for the party. This way I know I've been fed well "my way" and therefore won't be tempted to eat something that might not agree with me simply because I am hungry. I've been doing this for years and I've never been shunned, ridiculed, or pestered about why I'm not eating this or drinking that. When it comes to food and living with IBD, my motto is, "plan ahead."
Third, manage your stress. In a sense, this concept goes along with being selfish and picking and choosing what you choose to do this holiday season. It is natural human behavior that we all believe we are super heroes and can do everything for everyone perfectly. Well, the reality is, we can't. Nobody can. It's not a personality flaw it's just the simple reality of being human. You can multitask 24/7 every day between now and New Year's and one of two things will happen: 1. you'll get it all done and end up sick; or, 2. you won't get it all done, will feel guilty and less of a person, and end up sick. I recommend scaling back your plans to the point that they are realistic. Then, get your family involved in what you do decide to do.
Organize a family night where you all decorate the house and the tree together. Put on some festive music, a Santa hat or two and let everyone do their own thing. Instead of baking your own holiday cakes and cookies, ask another friend or relative to bring them to the gathering. Scale back on your gift giving - in the past couple of years my family has taken to giving each other one or two small, but meaningful gifts. This is one area where it really isn't the quantity, but the thought behind the gift that matters.
It is also imperative that you be sure to take time for yourself during the holiday season. If you find it hard to make time for you, then make an appointment with yourself and write it into your calendar. Seriously, I do this and it's great. Schedule yourself a 30 minute walk, or 15 minutes of meditation, or 30 minutes at the gym, or an hour to enjoy a cup of tea and page through your favorite magazine, or 30 minutes to simply sit and do nothing without feeling guilty. Try it, I think you'll like and appreciate it.
The basics of what I've come to realize when living with a chronic illness is this. You have to come first, even if you have three children, a husband or wife, and extended family from here to Timbuktu. If you don't take care of yourself and your needs, and keep yourself healthy, then you are of no use to any of these people. The world will not stop if every holiday detail is not completed or completed perfectly. You will not be judged or deemed an unacceptable parent, spouse, or friend. Just being able to be happy and healthy and able to spend time with your loved ones is what I think the goal should be. Don't you?