Surviving the Holiday Party Small Talk when you have a Chronic Illness

December 18, 2015

The holiday season is well and truly here. A joyful time full of many festivities, parties, catch ups, events and family reunions.

It can be the worst nightmare of a person with a chronic illness!

Not only is this season a physical challenge for managing energy levels, stress, health and dietary constraints, but it is a season where you are bombarded with countless occurrences of the dreaded small talk. Small talk…the painful superficial conversations you have with new acquaintances and people you only see once a year.

Now, there are a number of practical ways to make these conversations and events somewhat manageable. These include;

  • Finding a quiet place to sit, so you can conserve some energy and not have your cognitive function battling the additional noise.
  • Avoiding the alcohol which can exacerbate symptoms, or react with medications. 
  • Eating beforehand, so your stomach isn’t grumbling as plate after plate of food that isn’t on your specific diet are passed by.
  • Coming to the event with a good friend or partner, who is happy to help you escape when the evening or conversation becomes too much. 
All useful, practical ideas.

However, it is the content of these conversations that are the real challenge.

Distant relatives, partner’s colleagues, long lost ‘friends’ all wanting to know the same two basic questions… “How are you?” and “What do you do?” Both perfectly reasonable questions in themselves, but when your days, weeks and months are primarily spent in bed, at medical appointments or at times in the hospital, and in reality you feel like you have been running the marathon whilst having the flu, how do you respond? Yes, you have made it out of the house and to the event, and yes, you have made an effort with your make up, your outfit and your plastered on smile, but the reality of how you are and what your year has been like is a far cry from pleasant superficial small talk.

So, how can you respond to these questions?

Let’s start with the first one…“How are you?” which is pretty much guaranteed to start most conversations.

Now there are a couple of possible responses

1. “I’m well.” 

This could be interpreted that you are a healthy individual without any cause for concern. Whereas, what you probably mean is that in the scheme of things you are actually doing pretty well, you are out of bed today, the pain is manageable and things could really be a lot worse. 

2. “I’m doing okay.” 

This could be taken that you have had your ups and downs (like most people) and are generally just cruising along. However, what is going through your head is that you are actually feeling okay at this moment, but if they were to ask you again in 20 minutes after enduring standing at this party and making small talk, your answer may be the same. Yet, by this stage you are holding yourself up on the wall you are leaning against, you are missing every second sentence spoken, and really by now just want to be home in bed!

3. “Actually, I feel like I have been hit by a truck!” 

Here you have gone for laying all of your cards on the table…you do feel like you have been hit by a truck. That is, everything hurts, and you are struggling to function. Just be prepared for the person who you are speaking with to think you are a hypochondriac and watch them try to escape the conversation as fast as possible.

Sadly, there appears to be no middle ground….however, if the conversation has survived the first stage of “How are you?” and has moved onto the “What do you do?” how do you respond?

1. “I am a _______”. 

Insert own profession and hope the follow up questions don’t require you to disclose your omission that you haven’t worked in over a year due to your health. Redirect as soon as possible to talking about them!

2. “I am currently taking a period of leave from ________, to focus on other things.” 

Again, redirect as soon as possible, people love talking about themselves!

3. “I do nothing! I am sitting around milking my government disability pension for all its worth.” 

Please note, this answer may result in funny looks, and a quick exit from the conversation.

4. “I am a lady of leisure.” 

Leave it at this and the air of mystery that surrounds you.

5. “I am a professional patient. I have __________(insert chronic illness) and I spend my time looking after myself, managing multiple appointments and specialists and navigating the mess that is our health care system and government support services.” 

This is my preferred answer. However, once the chronic illness has been revealed, be prepared for the barrage of ‘advice’…
  • · “My great aunt had that, she was healed by __________ (insert drug/food/exercise/specialist of choice!)”
  • · “Have you tried ________ diet. I hear that is good for tiredness.”
  • · “I know a great alternative _________ (insert health care practitioner of choice)”
  • · “I get tired all the time too!”
And with that, you smile sweetly, grit your teeth and make a choice; either exert your remaining energy for the evening on educating that individual about your illness with as much grace as you can muster, or excuse yourself and head to the bar knowing this is going to be one very long night!

Christmas table setting
Dinner party time!

This has also been published at The Mighty and can be found here.

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A photo posted by Kate Eastman (@makeitbakeitfakeit) on