This week, Dan takes a look at the Holiday Season and those people wee see once a year. They always ask after your health, and it can be a tricky thing, deciding how to answer. Well, here is a simply guide an explanation on how both sides feel, and what both sides want. Check out this tongue-in-cheek, yet useful, Holiday greeting primer.

For example, for a great many years when people would ask how I was doing disease-wise, I would give them the party line. “Oh, I’m doing fine. You know, ups and downs, but things are looking good.” I said that so many times I began to recite in my sleep. Really.

Well, it looks like we are here once again. That month or so that begins after Thanksgiving and ends as soon as the hangover wears off after New Year’s. Some people deign to call it “The Holidays.” Whatever name it goes by in your life, it’s the special time of year when you do things you normally try to avoid. The time of year when you buy presents for people you would usually cross the street to avoid. The time of year when men ringing bells in red suits is not out of place. And, it’s the time of year when you get to see acquaintances that you don’t see on a regular basis, usually with good reason.

Holiday parties and yearly get-togethers are always a fixture of the season, and when you do see those friends of yours that rarely make an appearance outside of funerals and weddings, they always ask the same question. “So, how are you? What have you been up to?”

We’ve all heard it a thousand times, yet we always answer the same. In fact, some of us even make decisions during the year that will increase our chances of having something to talk about in that yearly Christmas Card, or at that family get-together where perfect cousin Thomas is always bragging about his latest success. It’s human nature, and we are all guilty of it at some point in our lives.

When you have a disease or chronic illness, this particular question becomes even more “fun” to answer. People always want to know how you have been feeling. Has it been a “hard year,” and have you been able to do everything you’ve wanted to. Some of the people who ask may not even care what your answer is, but it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Most people who are ill do not want to be reminded that their disease is how they are defined.

holiday gathering

Now, I know that some of you will say that family and friends ask after your health because they love you and truly care about you. I am sure your loved ones really do care if you had a hard year or if your illness is in remission. My point is just that those of us who suffer the hardships of chronic disease day in and day out are not just all about our disease. We know that most people see our illness first when they think of us, but that doesn’t mean we like to be reminded of it. My gift to all of you this Holiday season is the gift of knowledge. (Gifts of knowledge are cheap, and I have to give one to all of my readers!) This year, when you see your friend with R.A., or Ulcerative Colitis, or Chron’s Disease, don’t ask them about their disease first. Ask them how their kids are, or ask them how their job is, or ask them why on Earth they chose to wear that sweater with those shoes. 

Now, the flip side to this issue is that those of us who are chronically ill have to keep in mind that people usually don’t mean to be insensitive. Most people out there, even our close friends and family, don’t know how to handle the subject. When it comes to any handicap or disability, most healthy people get very awkward when the topic comes up.

For example, for a great many years when people would ask how I was doing disease-wise, I would give them the party line. “Oh, I’m doing fine. You know, ups and downs, but things are looking good.” I said that so many times I began to recite in my sleep. Really.

I finally got so fed up with repeating the same thing over and over, I decided to make a change. Now, I was going to give people exactly what they asked for. When people asked how I was getting along, I decided to tell them the truth. I told them how this was probably the worst three years of my life. I told them about how my feet were so swollen that I felt like I was wearing clown shoes. I told them about how my steroids added over fifty pounds of water weight, and how I was so bloated some nights that I could barely breathe. I even told them how I would just break down at times simply because the weight of it all was too much to bear.

After a while, I noticed something interesting. When people would listen to how tough it was to live with disease, and what the realistic life of chronic illness held in store, they shied away. Even close friends who normally spoke to me on a regular basis, began to stray. It turns out that most people don’t want to hear about how horrible some of the darker days can be. Now, don’t get me wrong — it’s not their fault. It’s human nature to stay away from something that makes you feel sad or uncomfortable. Most people just want you to know that they care about you, and that’s good enough for them.  It’s not that they don’t feel for you, but it really serves no purpose to let them know just how bad it can be. They aren’t doctors, and even if they act interested, they probably feel bad despite the forced smile. Friends and family don’t know how to help, and that makes them feel awkward.

So, this year, as your gift to everyone, give people what they really want, not what they ask for. When people inquire as to how you have been feeling this past year, give them the response that they are expecting. “Oh, I’m doing fine. You know, ups and downs, but things are looking good.” When it comes right down to it, that’s what both of you really desire, so why complicate things with the pesky truth? I hope this opens some eyes for the coming Holiday Season, and I hope it helps some of you to deal with the rest of you. As for me, oh I’m doing fine, you know, ups and downs….