Surviving a Holiday Dinner with a Chronic Illness (And Your Family)

As if the politics weren’t bad enough this year, as you sit down to your family dinners or get ready for your holiday parties–you’ve got one more worry on your mind–sorry, scratch that. You’ve got about thirty worries on your mind including (but not limited to):

Will I be able to make it to the dinner/party tonight?

Will I have to cancel last minute?

Will I be able to eat anything there?

Will they be offended if I bring my own disease-friendly food?

Will they be offended if I eat nothing?

Will they be offended if I eat something and then spend the next four hours in their bathroom because I chose to offend my intestines instead of my Great Aunt Cassie?

Will I faint while I’m clearing dishes?

Will the conversation turn to why I’m not “better” yet?

Will I be judged by my family because I’m on disability or had to leave school this year because of my chronic illness?

Will they comment that I’m too fat, too thin, too pale, too tired looking?

Will I be able to uber out early without anyone catching me in a three hour goodbye.

The anxiety of it all! Frankly, it’s enough to put anyone off their turkey. Not to worry though, I have some SUPER tips to help you get through it.


1.Don’t Set Yourself Up for Failure


Yes, I’ll come to the party! Sure I’ll bring the cookie platter! I’ll just need to buy a new dress (and find a way to fit into it before the 25th) and then unearth those semi-comfortable heels from the bottom of my shoe cupboard and spend a half an hour perfecting my eye makeup and then….

Take my medication. Deal with all the side effects. Try to push away the crushing fatigue. Wonder about whether or not I’m really safe driving to the bakery with how tired and dizzy I am and get to the party, dance through the stomach cramps, eat through the migraine, talk to everyone and their cousin’s mother’s uncle’s daughter–and come home in a pile of ashes.

Do yourself a favor: stop overcommitting to what your body can’t handle. Maybe it won’t be like this every year, but if you’re having a flare that you know is going to last into the holidays–then set your (and your family’s) expectations more realistically. No, you can’t bring the cookie tray if it has to be picked up the same day as the party. No, you’re not going to spend four days shopping for three hours at a time trying to find the PERFECT dress, just pick the old black one in the closet and pair it with some nice earrings. Take a break from all the conversation, step out into the driveway or the porch and give yourself a minute to breathe.

The holidays are a time to fail from small heights. Let’s come home with some bruised toes and a smile on our faces, not a broken body and a doggy bag of regret.

2. Practice Your Exit, Perfect It


My Cuban step-father does what I have officially termed “the Cuban goodbye” this consists of talking for at least fifteen minutes to all twenty of your relatives on your way out the door. Then rushing back in because you forgot that thing. (Rinse and repeat.)

But in some families, no matter how hard you try to make a speedy exit, saying goodbye is like a freaking obstacle course of conversation. You love these people, but now is not the time to recap 2018. It’s time to get in the car before your stomach explodes or you fall asleep in the door jam. 

So sometimes the best goodbye is no goodbye at all. Or rather, grabbing the host (or the nearest person) and giving them a big hug and whispering “I’ve got to run! (Insert whatever excuse you’d want to use if not the truth–like, “have to get home to catch This Is Us!” or “I’m totally not joking I just realized I left my hair straightener on and my cat is really curious and really dumb.”) conclude with, “do me a favor and just let anyone who asks know I had to go?! Thanks!”

3. Strike Back


You’ve got clinical depression? Well, maybe your Uncle Bradley has a thinning hairline. If one get’s brought up, why shouldn’t the other? In most situations I really do advocate for honest and educational conversations and trying to bridge the communication gap with those important people in your life who are witness to your struggle. Kindness, understanding, honesty….

In other situations, you’re faced with a table of vicious, hungry jackals and short of using cutlery as a weapon: we use our words. And if there are people you have to deal with at holidays who are genuinely garbage people, looking to start something rotten: put down the butter knife and make your own observations with as much compassion and empathy as has been shown to you.

4. Have an Ally


If you have a parent or a spouse or someone else close in your circle who is attending holiday dinners with you–make them your ally. Let them know the hand signal for when you need to leave (or when you’re sneaking out and grabbing an Uber if you can get home alone!)

Have someone there to run interference if table conversation gets awkward or heavy. Give someone the heads up that you’re nervous about this year’s celebration and you need moral support. 

A friend who takes the gluten-heavy stuffing off your plate before your sister-in-law notices is a friend for life.



‘Tis the season for running yourself ragged trying to please everyone, feeling utterly exposed to the judgement of others, and just wanting to throw the holiday parties in your own imaginary fairytale home, where your private bathroom awaits and you can rest comfortably on the couch with the fire going, everyone having a great time as your legion of maids, private chefs, waitresses, and security guards get everyone fed, sedated by good wine and chocolate lava cake, and home to their own couches before 9PM.

But until that perfect night….I hope the above tips will make your holiday a little easier, or at least make you laugh in the face of the real challenges your disease may be presenting this season.


Want more advice, stories, and tips on surviving and thriving with an invisible, chronic illness? Get yourself a copy of Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness: How to Stay Sane and Live One Step Ahead of Your Symptoms. 




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