Finding the Love within the Loneliness

That time of the year has returned--Holiday Time! This is a period of great ambivalence for most people. There is excitement about gatherings with loved ones and there is also anxiety about the many activities one is expected to engage in. Many wonder how they will manage to find balance between enjoyment, responsibility, and rest. The Holidays are also about love--being with loved ones, sharing your love for others, and giving with love. It can be easy to take the experience of love for granted; however, the Holidays can be extremely lonely for some people who live with chronic physical illness and finding the love within the loneliness may be a struggle.

Imagine multiple holiday gatherings, night after night, on work nights and with drinking involved. For someone in good physical condition this may sound fun. In theory, this may also sound great to someone who lives with a chronic physical illness; however, practically this may feel exhausting or emotionally anxiety provoking. For example, a person taking certain medications may not be able to drink alcohol. Another person undergoing certain treatments may not have energy to engage socially for so many hours. Another person may require a number of hours of sleep otherwise s/he will suffer the next day. Some people may not look physically well or may have a skin condition or deformity and may feel embarrassed or ashamed to see many people. It may be easy for someone who has never had such an experience to say, "what's the big deal" or "get over it;" however, for someone who lives with a chronic condition these situations can bring up numerous emotions.

At times people with chronic conditions attend some of the holiday events and may worry about what they will say to others when they need to leave early or decline a drink. These folks may dread responses from others such as, "Come on. Stay a little longer. What's the big deal?" Or "You're being a bit too anxious aren't you? What will one drink do?" Or "What do you mean you can't eat that? What's wrong with you?" During these times, the person with the illness may struggle with how to answer such questions. Does s/he shrug it off and avoid answering it? Does the person disclose what s/he is dealing with and how much should the person disclose? So many decisions are to be made. It can be difficult to strike the balance between wanting to feel a part of the group but also to feel taken care of, accepted and loved, which includes taking care of one's illness as well. Even if someone with an illness does decide to attend these holiday events it can feel very lonely if that person does not feel safe or free to openly discuss what s/he needs in the moment. It can be like part of the person is there but another part is isolated and alone.

Sometimes all of these decisions and potential outcomes are too much for a person and some may choose to just avoid Holiday events.  Other times one may reminisce about what the Holidays were like pre-diagnosis and this may make one feel sad, believing that since things will never be the same there is no point in trying. This avoidance may decrease anxiety but it can feel very lonely. This avoidance can also reinforce a feeling of shame or embarrassment, which can be harmful in itself. There is a big difference between taking care of oneself and needing to rest, and avoidance due to an underlying thought that something is wrong with you and that nobody will understand. Avoidant behavior assumes that you cannot find the love within the loneliness so rather you give up. Avoidance is one of the least helpful coping mechanisms a person can use to deal with chronic illness.

As scary as the Holidays can be, what if there was a way to turn it on its head and create a situation where much love is found within an experienced lonely state? Maybe it will be too much to attend all gatherings, but maybe there are a few that one especially wishes to be part of. Who are the people you would like to see most? Choose wisely. Are these the people who will listen kindly when you explain how your rheumatoid arthritis has caused deformity in your hands? Are these the people who can respect your statement of not wanting to talk more about your chemotherapy? Are these the people who will appreciate how hard it was for you to join them and feel gratitude that you were able to be with them?  If the answer is no then you should probably save your energy and find something else to attend, and if there are no events that meet your criteria, create your own. There is a way to respect your needs and your unique situation and still be part of something bigger.

Living with a chronic physical illness is not easy and it can become less easy during the Holiday times. Loneliness is an emotion that thrives during the Holidays for most people but it can be especially detrimental to folks with chronic illness. It takes effort to find the love within the loneliness during these times but it is effort worth exerted. Remember, you never have to do it alone. If you do not already have the "right" people in your life, find a support group with people who are going through the same thing that you are. If you cannot find one in your area you can find many online communities. There are many people in the world...