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Surviving Holiday Gatherings with Multiple Sclerosis

A couple of tips to increase cheer and reduce stress

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Updated November 30, 2011

I am finally learning how to "do the holidays." Until very recently, I would have visions of how I wanted things to go. I would proceed to wear myself out, trying to achieve the perfect scenario that was in my head. I would then be overly sensitive, cranky and tired during the actual holiday. I then would follow up with rehashing the whole thing in my head, trying to decide where things went wrong.

As a person with multiple sclerosis (MS), I have limited energy. I want to use it to enjoy things, not waste it spinning my wheels. I want to have nice things to remember. I want the holidays to mean something wonderful, not be days on the calendar to dread as they come closer.

With that in mind, I have put together a couple of my tips for sailing through holiday gatherings with friends and family. I have put them into action and they really work to keep things reasonable.

Prioritize Your Efforts

Ask yourself: what is the most important thing about this holiday for me? Is it that the house is clean and the table is beautifully set for guests? Is it that the dessert is exquisite? Is it that your family is all well-dressed and reasonably behaved?

Pick one thing to make perfect. You may not pick all of them. You have every right to want to make fabulous memories, however, if you try to control and hone every single detail, your only memory will be how very tired you were during the holidays.

Delegate (or Buy)

You can do this several ways. You can ask your guests to bring things and help you set up.

You can also pay others to do the dirty work. This Thanksgiving, for instance, instead of spending two days cooking under pressure, I simply let a local grocery store (Whole Foods) cook many of the sides for me. I bought mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with praline topping, "homemade" cranberry sauce, and gravy. Brought it home, transferred it to my own cookware and felt pretty smug about the whole thing.

For those of you who think this is cost-prohibitive, let me tell you, I got all of the above food – enough for 12 people – for under $50. I guarantee you that I would have spent more trying to make it myself. Plus, this is not the type food that I cook all of the time, so I don't have a go-to recipe for any of these things. It would have been stressful to try to cook them to my standards. Remember, you can always add "personal touches" to prepared food that you buy.

Ration Your Energy During Gatherings

In an article I wrote, entitled Tips for Dealing with Cognitive Dysfunction in Multiple Sclerosis, I tell people to "tame their people" to better deal with certain aspects of cognitive dysfunction. Actually, what I mean is that it is up to us to control our social situations so that our fatigue and cognitive issues can be better managed.

I have finally learned to be Zen-like during holiday get-togethers. I no longer feel the need to be witty or engaged or up-to-date on current events. I mostly try to spend a few moments talking to one person at a time, rather than jumping into the fray of conversation around the long table. I really don't think that anyone is really listening to one another in that big group setting, anyway (unless someone starts getting rowdy or inappropriate). People just seem to be jockeying for their turn to talk. Stay out of it and enjoy the show.

Prepare Your Answer to "The Question"

Assuming that several members of your family know that you have MS, or that at least some people at a holiday gathering are aware of this fact, you can reasonably expect a question along the lines of "How are you?" or "How have you been feeling?" Whether the person asking is a beloved relative who is genuinely concerned or a friend of your cousin whom you barely know, it still helps to have an answer prepared, in order to reduce your own stress and just make conversation flow more smoothly.

I know that when I am asked that question and am not prepared, I tend to focus on what part of my body is malfunctioning at that moment or what medication side effect is plaguing me. However, a holiday gathering is not the appropriate place for me to talk about frequent nighttime urination or to pull down my pants to show my latest areas of lipoatrophy. I realize that my best course of action is to keep it pretty neutral and try to give a little information, without portraying myself as falsely happy with my physical status or overly detail-oriented in my answer.

Something along the lines of: "Thank you for asking. I'm doing pretty well. Some days are better than others and I try to make the most of the good ones." Yes, it is watered down, but it is probably enough of an answer for the majority of people that ask.

Bottom Line

Yes, holidays can be hard for everyone. People with MS face some extra challenges in terms of limited energy and other symptoms that can impede our ability to "do it all" to make things perfect. My message for you is that it will never be perfect and you should not do it all. Do what you can to contribute to holiday cheer without depleting yourself and let others do the rest (or leave it undone). Give yourself the gift of actually enjoying the holidays.

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