It’s that time of year when websites wheel out their usual Top Tips To Avoid Festive Burnout but every time I see another ‘helpful’ headline, I want to scream “TRY BEING A CARER IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT FESTIVE BURNOUT REALLY LOOKS LIKE”.
It’s great that they’re advising us to take a Berocca the morning after our drunken office party and sharing their kitchen hacks for the perfect festive feast, but what about some tips for people navigating the Christmas crowds with a wheelchair? While I would never doubt the power of vitamin C when hungover, or dismiss the virtues of parboiling your roast potatoes, where’s the advice for those timing carol concerts around chemo and desperately trying to find a disabled parking space outside Sainsburys?
When someone you love has cancer, managing ‘normality’ on a regular day is hard enough, let alone over the holidays!
I had two Christmases caring for my mum after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Both years, there was all the usual seasonal stress but with a whole heap of added pressure:
How can I make it feel as normal as possible? What can I cook for mum so that she enjoys it even though she feels like death after another round of treatment? Should I move the tree and presents into her bedroom so she doesn’t have to get up if she’s tired? What if this is our last Christmas together? Should I plan something really special like they do in films, just in case?
The second year that mum was ill, I went into sentimental seasonal overdrive. It looked as if it might be our last Christmas together so I told myself I had to make it PERFECT. I came up with all these grand plans that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some cheesy straight-to-DVD movie: Writing wishes on handmade decorations and hanging them on the tree, digging out old videos of mine and my sisters’ school nativity plays to watch together, getting dressed up for Christmas Day lunch and taking loads of photos.
But, we don't live in a Hollywood movie. The reality was that Christmas consisted of us three girls tripping over one another in the kitchen, trying to make something remotely edible while mum drifted in and out of sleep for most of the day. We had to help mum open her presents because she’d lost use of her right side and I didn’t change from my pyjamas all day, let alone get dressed up or put on make-up for photos.
I felt so pathetic saying that I didn’t have the time or energy to do all the things that I had planned - but it was the truth! We had been through so much as a family in the months leading up to Christmas that year, that we were all physically and emotionally drained in every way. At the time, I felt so guilty and was convinced I would always regret not putting enough effort in - but, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Instead, I’ve come to appreciate what a ridiculously tough job it is to be looking after someone who is ill over the festive season. Caring for my mum during her cancer taught me to look for the perfect moments that hide within every imperfect experience.
I’ve found that it’s not the grand, expertly orchestrated, picture-perfect gestures that are the ones you look back on most fondly but the wonky, slightly broken, not-quite-to-plan moments. And do you know what’s so great about that? It takes the pressure off!
If you’re anything like me, you’ll put yourself under a whole load of unnecessary pressure to make everything extra special when someone close to you has cancer. You’ll be agonising for hours over finding the right words to put in their Christmas card and be stressing for weeks over colour-coordinating the table decorations. But in the end, both of those memories will probably be outshone by some magical moment of madness that nobody could have ever planned - Like the Christmas I found my mum and grandma panicking in the kitchen (after a few too many Baileys!) that there was no meat on the turkey, only for me to point out they were trying to carve it upside down! Or the time when mum did such a good job of hiding my present so that I wouldn’t find it, that even she couldn’t remember where it was until New Year’s Day!
When someone you love is ill, Christmas is hard. There’s no doubt about it. But you will manage. You will cope. Cry if you want to. Nap if you need to. But never doubt that you’ve got this! As far as I’m concerned, being a carer automatically makes you a little Christmas miracle.