Having MS: Alone For the Holidays

By Gayle Lewis, Ph.D.

It seems inevitable that, come the holiday season, which for some starts not just with an actual acknowledged date of “celebration,” but with the first signs of winter’s cold, it’s not the feelings of cheer and joy and brotherly love that abound, but rather feelings of sadness, loneliness and feeling very much alone and isolated. Why? After all, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Year’s are times of social gatherings, shared rituals and reminiscences. How come we all can’t just hop on board and feel festive and full of holiday spirit? And how come someone who has MS might just be feeling those aforementioned lows more deeply and profoundly than someone who is not struggling with MS’s chronicity?

Multiple sclerosis, whether it’s the more invisible kind or the more obvious symptomatic, renders the sufferer to feel “different” ALL THE TIME. And not necessarily different in the “I am special” way. “Different” in this case often means, “I don’t belong,” “I don’t fit,” “No one gets me or understands me.” And holidays, being a time for gatherings, friends and family, when you already feel like you don’t belong, it can feel more intensely uncomfortable being a joiner because it’s what is expected during holiday season.  In addition, the common Norman Rockwell–like characterization of the holidays can seem unreal to people whose families don’t fit the traditional-nuclear-family mold due to circumstances beyond their control, and having MS can exacerbate some of the complications there already in trying to fit into the mold.

It’s been my experience that many family members of people diagnosed with MS have not made an effort to understand their family member’s disease due to fear, disinterest, or distance that existed even prior to the time of diagnosis, and/or the patient actively deciding NOT to tell that he/she has MS. In the latter situation (which happens quite often), whatever holiday loneliness or feeling as if they do not fit, it is due to active participation of the patient with MS. To be sure, I am not blaming the patient for not sharing about their disease. There are often family histories and dynamics that inform that decision…and inform ANYONE’s feelings about the holidays, whether joyful or lonely. But MS IS a lonely disease, even if you tell someone about it, because most patients, at least the ones with whom I work, feel like no one gets it. And how could someone with MS not feel especially alone during the holidays at a time when you already feel like you don’t belong, as per usual anyway?

*Gayle Lewis, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Neurology, at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and Staff Psychologist at Juilliard’s Counseling Center. Additionally she is a graduate of both the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and the EDCAS program at the William Alanson White Institute. She specializes in the treatment of trauma, eating disorders and individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. See www.drgaylelewis.com

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