I'm writing this brief holiday message to those who aren't okay.  Sickness poses a host of specific problems to the one who's ill, depending on the nature of the illness, but one thing common to most who are sick is a sense of being different from the masses-all those folks who are buying the presents, baking the Christmas cookies, trimming the tree.   It's a commonplace that the holidays are the worst of times for those who have troubles, whether mental, emotional, or physical: all the joy abounding increases a feeling of cognitive dissonance and separateness.  The happier everyone else is (or seems), the sadder and darker one's own situation can look. 

Bromides and platitudes don't help much; they may even be particularly galling at the dark of the year, when the air is filled with yo ho ho's and season's greetings.  But truisms are often true.  So here are three somewhat familiar, but hopefully useful, strategies for getting through to the other side of the solstice:

1.     Let yourself feel bad.  Offering empathy for a tough situation is a kindness you would extend to someone else; in the season of gift-giving, be kind to yourself.  Take some private moments to recognize what your struggles are.

2.     Put on your party face.  This is pretty much the opposite of #1, but it only sounds like a contradiction.  A person has many aspects of self, and that social smiling being who walks into the room, nurses the eggnog, makes small talk, and enjoys the opening of the presents is a useful piece of identity at the holidays.

3.     Find your sources of strength.  If you're religious, remember what the season really signifies.  If you're not, draw on your values and beliefs, seek out your meaningful relationships, and observe the private rituals that offer solace.

In a practical sense, the holidays impose a special burden of self-control on anyone who is struggling to manage weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar.  There are all kinds of tactics and tips for skirting temptation and sticking to one's regimen: plead ill health (if you feel up to announcing it); dump the spiked punch in the potted plant when no one's looking; move the food around on the plate in a pretense of eating.  Or take a leaf from the patient who took an annual vacation in the Bahamas and made a ritual of eating one taboo meal, plate piled high with everything that he denied himself the rest of the year.  Christmas dinner could be your Bahamas, the bargain with yourself that allows better compliance day in and day out.  

But it's not just the tips and the tactics that make the solstice bearable.  Something deeper, involving a reflection on self, others, meanings, beliefs, is possible in the midst of the hubbub.  Here's to that deeper experience, and a happy new year.

About the Authors

Betsy Seifter Ph.D.

Betsy Seifter, Ph.D., is a teacher, editor, writer and co-author of After the Diagnosis.

Julian Seifter M.D.

Julian Seifter, M.D., is a professor at Harvard Medical School, and the chair of the Ethics Committee on Human Research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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