By Jerri Burtchell
When I was a kid I loved this time of year. Snow on the ground, great food (except for that weird Jell-O salad Aunt Mary always made), and presents at Christmas. Things have changed since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1999. Now a sense of foreboding overcomes me each year, right after Halloween.
I’m not the “bah-humbug!” type, but I do hail from a long line of worriers. Maybe we were meant to be “warriors”, but some genetic mutation caused a typo. Now we fear things our imaginations dream up. The “what if” syndrome. My MS diagnosis has elevated my worrying to a whole new level.
Holiday time is prime “what if?” time for me. What if I can’t navigate the busy malls and grocery stores? What if the handicapped parking is all taken up? What if I don’t have enough money to give everyone gifts? What if this fatigue keeps me from enjoying the family I rarely get to see? And the biggest one: What if all this worrying stresses me out and I end up relapsing?
One Christmas, that changed when our family shared what other families keep secret. We all admitted that gift buying was stressing us out. Not only the act of shopping, but the dent it was putting in our pocketbooks. Our name isn’t Trump or even Kardashian. We don’t have money or personal shoppers. What a relief to know we all felt the same way!
So we started something new. When we gather at Thanksgiving now, part of our tradition is drawing names for Christmas gift exchange. We’ve instantly gone from buying gifts for ten to buying for one. Stress diminished. To take it a step further, we can only spend $20. Now the stress was melting like snow in the spring.
Christmas morning is no longer spent in a flurry of mindless paper shredding as we tear through one present after another. But the only ones disappointed are the cats with less cardboard boxes to explore. We still have the experience of gifts under the tree, but now it’s a single, more thoughtful, often handmade gift.
And we quit competing with Martha Stewart for the most elaborate side dishes and desserts. Not everything has to be perfect. We’re enjoying things on our terms, not those set forth in Better Homes and Gardens.
One Christmas I got a late start putting up the decorations. It seems MS fatigue brings out the natural procrastinator in me. So imagine my panic when I went to get the fake tree from the garage only to find it was now home to a family of mice.
I took a few deep breaths and channeled MacGyver. Before you know it, a big vase was the base for my silver, spray-painted Christmas “stick” – a dead branch I’d dragged in from the yard. With a string of lights and a few baubles here and there, the problem was solved. The best part is, it was cheap, handy, and I finally made use of an idea I’d pinned on Pinterest.com.
So in freeing myself from the stress that comes with striving for perfection, the reward I got was more quality time to spend with those I love–the only gift that counts.
Life passes too quickly and before you can say, “Black Friday,” it’s all over. I can safely say I won’t be lying on my deathbed lamenting over all the bargain basement prices I missed out on. It’s the people in my life and the connections we made that will be my fondest memories.
I won’t be stressing over the perfect gift for someone this Christmas, or if I forgot to put the marshmallows on top of the sweet potato casserole…again. I’m going to be counting my blessings in each smiling face that comes through the door.
So forget what the commercials all tell you to do. When you give yourself permission to lower your expectations of perfection, miracles happen. You have lots of laughs, give lots of hugs, and take lots of pictures. Aren’t those the memories you’ll treasure most in the end?
And that gem of wisdom is my holiday gift to you. (It was handmade and cost me less than twenty bucks – Enjoy!)
*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.