Question Time: The Holidays

Question Time is a series in which we open up the floor to you, commenters. We invite you to share as you feel comfortable.

It’s the holiday season, which means that many of us are attending parties, family and friends gatherings, and so forth. Inevitably for some of us, the holidays are an issue.

I recently had a classic example.

I was at a large party of old friends, and someone brought out a camera. I said “please do not use the flash, flashes are a migraine trigger for me.” This is not the first time I have said this. This is an established and known fact about me. All of my friends have been asked, repeatedly, not to use a flash around me. At every social gathering, I seem to be forced to say this yet again.

And yet, this person went ahead and took pictures, with flash, and said “I thought it didn’t matter” when I asked what in blazes made this person think that would be a good idea.

Only one person ever remembers not to use flash around me, and to remind others not to use flash. She also happens to be someone who gets migraines.

I do not think this is a coincidence.

So, here’s my question, inspired by this experience: FWD readers, how do you deal with the holidays?

How do you deal with asking for accommodations at social gatherings? How do you do the holidays, if you do them? Do you have some holiday success or horror stories? Do you have tips/tricks you think other FWD readers might benefit from?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

34 thoughts on “Question Time: The Holidays

  1. Mostly I don’t ask, I just go ahead and do what I can for accommodations, like wear earplugs and read a book and stay by myself in a corner and not shaking anyone’s hand in greeting and wearing sunglasses indoors and leaving early and whenever I feel I need to. If people have a problem with those things, they can go do something impolite to themselves. These are things I don’t need to ask or notify others about though, unless I feel I need their approval/permission for some reason. There are other things though, like not going to a massive foodshed for multiple large groups for my partner’s family’s New Year’s brunch. I’ve suggested this several times, but haven’t said anything about difficulties coping on my part. Even if I did though, it wouldn’t matter, it’s a majority vote thing for them.

    My partner no longer takes more than one or two alcoholic drinks per social gathering when I am there, at my request, since he’s there also as my aide, and sometimes my transportation, and he speaks for me if necessary (heavily coached, I royally hate people not saying what I meant, even if I know they don’t do it on purpose) (yet more reasons why we’d be better off with a professional aide and a text-to-speech device). He also doesn’t leave me by myself (unless specifically asked) at any gatherings we both attend, at my request.

    A lot of stuff we (or at least I) simply skip. Like New Year’s Eve. I hate it, it’s too loud, too smelly, and people throw fireworks at you on the street as a way of entertainment. I need to wear my earplugs inside my own house. I try not to leave the house at all for 3 weeks prior to and after New Year’s. It’s not like I can ask my entire neighbourhood for 5 blocks in any direction if they would please not light any fireworks on account of me, that would be taking it a bit far.

    We don’t celebrate Christmas with presents, we have Sinterklaas for that (which is already over). The latter is only celebrated with family and no less tolerable than any other family gathering. For Christmas we just do a ‘fancy’ meal at my parents for one night and at his for the other. We have no tree on account of hayfever, money issues, and oh yeah, we live on the third floor :D.

    Public transport is always difficult, just slightly more so during this month, especially towards the end, what with all the fireworks.
    Also too many lights, sometimes flickering lights, everywhere during these months.
    People know by now never to give me flowers. If I do get them I smile and say how pretty they are, then remark on how they’ll have to go stay outside the house and pointedly go put them in a vase and then on the outside of the door.
    I do ask people to turn off any artificial air fresheners (especially scented ones) when I come over. Some people also willingly put any flowers and possibly potted plants into a separate room when I’m there.

  2. My anxiety can make holiday gatherings difficult as it’s triggered by crowds, noise and social contact, but my family and friends have come to understand this more and make accommodations such as allowing me to leave the room when I need to. It might not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference to know that I won’t get in trouble for briefly being absent, and I value people’s understanding more than I can say. If leaving the situation isn’t practical or I just don’t want to, I try to control my breathing and mentally talk myself through the situation. It’s not always successful and I don’t always catch the signs of getting too stressed in time, but it can help. Having a glass of water or juice to hold can be a useful focus point and distraction too.

  3. I never liked parties or big family gatherings, even before everything started. (I’m 12. I just discovered the X-files. We’re at Grandpa Richer’s down in Georgia for Thanksgiving. I’m poking out of my room just long enough to keep everyone happy and then settling down to watch The X-files marathon! Priorities people!)

    If I’m feeling especially bad, fireworks (or tornado sirens) don’t help. If I’m not feeling bad, I’m cursing everyone because my baby Dixie doesn’t like loud noises like that and if you won’t stop for me, surely you’ll stop for puppy dog eyes – stop licking your butt Dixie, look sympathetic – ?

    Last Thanksgiving was the first time we got together with family in a long time. They just assume I’m being weird, or being myself. I don’t recall many problems. (Besides my stinky cousin Daniel making fun of my music, saying that the Tamil song was about blowing things up – and no, it wasn’t about the Tamil Tigers – he was just being himself, making fun of non-English songs.)

    My usual plans involve retreating and staying as long as necessary.

    This was before the holidays – but we were at my stinky cousin’s school for a band thing. It was too hot in there, so I walked around outside, sometimes reading. And they were okay with that.

    Can’t stand overheated air, crowds, or lots of noise. So I’m still lucky enough that I can avoid them if I want.

  4. Frankincensy – I’m glad you’ve got understanding friends. I’d just go outside and hope someone might poke their head out (or text me) to see what’s going on. If not, when I come in and they ask, I’ll tell them the truth – “It’s too hot.” *the NYE celebration on TV is interrupted by a warning for blizzards* “Yup, too hot.”

    What helps me in uncomfortable social situations is having control. Either I’m a wallflower reading (who will end up with a Mexican Milhouse), or I’m in the middle of a conversation. I can’t stand being at the dinner table with no one to talk to and/or it’s not “appropriate” to pull your book out. (Like going out to dinner – any time of year – with Mom’s friend(s). The grown-ups talk and my sister and I are left sitting there.) If you drag me to a party with talking, then let me talk to someone. Bore their ears of with BollyBabble! If not, then let me read/leave!

  5. Gaa! How horrible! Beyond simply forgetting, she decided that it doesn’t even matter to her.

    I think you would be fully entitled to deliberately keep your eyes closed for every photo until someone complains, then explain that you’re protecting yourself from the flash. Maybe eventually they’ll see your closed eyes and volunteer to say “I turned the flash off”. Your health needs come before their photography.
    .-= The Nerd´s last blog ..What is your Gender? =-.

  6. Oh wow, guess who has ADHD? To answer your question…

    I adopt an easy-breezy attitude toward it all. I let others make the big plans and do the organizing. I don’t beat myself up if I forget to send the cards out on time or forget to include a certain someone. After all, the moment that card-sending or gift-giving becomes mandatory is the moment the holidays lose their communal value for me.
    .-= The Nerd´s last blog ..What is your Gender? =-.

  7. Aaah, the holidays: that magical time of year when distant family members force “accommodations” on you that you don’t need and get upset about being asked for ones you DO need. Cheers!

  8. Due to fun wonkiness with my cycle, I’ve discovered that my plane trip back to my mom’s will likely coincide with the first day of my period.

    I’m not sure if I can actually *do* that.

  9. Honestly? I plan on hiding from people as much as possible.

    (It might not be the best idea, but it’s got to be better than having a panic attack or suddenly crying in front of about 100 people at the party I was meant to be going to tonight.)

  10. I spend the holidays alone, by choice. It’s an excellent time to recharge my batteries. I live about 500 miles away from my family, and for several years I was involved in theatre productions over the Xmas holiday and through New Year, so no-one expects to see me at that this time of year any more.

    I manage the office Xmas do by going for the meal and then coming home – I no longer feel obliged to get involved in the party/pub-crawl portion of the evening.

    I’ve found at this time of year my atheism is more of a problem than my disability – if I have to explain ONE MORE TIME why I won’t be attending the carol service, I may throw something.

  11. My main coping strategy is to stay home and suggest that people visit me there instead. This Thanksgiving, my husband’s family hosted 28 adults and 6 kids. I stayed home and enjoyed rosemary-lemon chicken, buttermilk mashed potatoes (we contributed 12lbs! to the meal), and a biscuit to the sound of my top-rated songs. A few hours later, a much more tolerable group (9 youngish adults total) descended upon our house for video games and chats. I stayed comfortably ensconced on the couch, wrapped in a blanket and watching, while the mild chaos swirled around me. So much more pleasant!

    Like Sammie, I think sometimes staying in is better than having a panic attack or similar meltdown in front of a large group of people.

    When it comes to visiting my family (who live about 5 hours away), I cope by getting a hotel room with a 2-person jacuzzi (I realize not everyone can afford this, and I have to save up for it myself, but given that it’s only $40 more than a regular room — which we have to get b/c my parents and my sister have cats, to which my husband is extremely allergic and can’t tolerate being in their presence for more than 5 hours — it’s a luxury well worth scrimping for!) My parents have great respect for “getting your money’s worth,” so excusing ourselves from the festivities with “we need to use our jacuzzi!” works better than saying “I’m going to have a panic attack, stop pressuring me, stand back, please can you wait to smoke till we leave?” My parents still see me as exactly the same person I was when I left their house to go to college, while I still had what amounts to armor that kept my hyper-sensitivity in check. Years of living in quiet, clean environments has stripped that armor away, but they haven’t gained a corresponding understanding of who I actually am. So I stay away, or go back to my hotel room and soak away the tension and the stress.

  12. Oh, death to flashes. Whatever clueless individual decided putting a farking strobe light on a camera was a great idea needs [violent imagery redacted per our comments policy].

    A couple years ago, some shining example of humanity pulled my arm out of my eyes and flashed her camera in my face 4 times in succession & watched me seize because “she didn’t beleive I’d really have a seizure”. Thanks, Arbiter Of Reality. Hope your hangover from all that alcohol is as big as mine from what you did <3

  13. “Whatever clueless individual decided putting a farking strobe light on a camera was a great idea needs [violent imagery redacted per our comments policy].”

    To be fair, the flash serves a perfectly good purpose with regards to taking pictures in low-light situations (even my digital needs it, when it can take video just fine in the same situation ><) Personally, I'd put the situation as 60% ignorance, 40% asshattery. I know I didn't fully realise just how debilitating migraines could be until I met my husband, even though I logically KNEW they were bad. Still, "Flashes give me migraines" should translate to any reasonable person as "Turn off the fucking flash!"

  14. Kassiane – okay, your person trumps Mel’s for sheer A-hole-ness. That’s just… I mean… what the hell? I hope zer hangeover is was bigger. I mean… *like seriously speechless* FOUR TIMES IN A ROW?!

  15. And, here’s some logical thinking (come on brain, we got an exam in 40 minutes!) – thank you, Mel and Kassiane. I don’t take pictures that often, and when I do, they’re of inanimate objects (look it snowed!) or the dogs. But I will keep this in mind next time I take a picture of people that I don’t know that well. I’ll just ask, “Is anyone bothered by flash? I can turn it off.”

  16. As a fellow migraine-sufferer, it is my experience that often people who have never experienced one do not take the idea of a migraine seriously.

    I do a lot of removing myself from the room when necessary. I don’t try to get accommodations from others, which is problematic perhaps, but I’ve come to prefer that to beating my head against a wall of ignorance.

  17. I am a huge extrovert and love parties; however, holiday parties are often a let down do to lack of accessibility (especially at people’s homes). I often end up relegated to a corner and left alone. I really hate that! I can get lost in crowds because I am so short in my chair.

  18. One thing I used to like about the holidays but know have moved from ambivalent to can’t stand is the decorations.

    All that work – of course everything is upstairs or upstairs in my attic – for something we’ll put away in less than a month?

    I feel Grinchy when I say that, but I don’t like decorating for Christmas anymore.

  19. Argh, I absolutely hate the holidays. Christmas can just [violent imagery redacted per our comments policy] as far as I’m concerned. My family don’t know* that I suffer from anxiety and depression, so I can’t ask for accomidations. To make matters worse, they’re all horribly judgemental, often without trying. 

    Family lunches are often filled with well-meaning Aunts picking at every little thing. If I’m not eating much, its “gain some weight, you’re too skinny”. If I’m eating it’s “it’ll all catch up to you one day!”
    It’s just so constant! Dress like a lady, why don’t you wear makeup, settle down, when are you having kids/getting married…

    It’s better now with LM around. He can drive me away if need be and is emotional support. 

    It actually seems silly, now that I write it down, but it’s hard to describe just how painful it can be. I remember one year when the stress was getting too much, so I sat in a corner to read. My uncle took my book off me, told me off for being rude, then said that ibwas “ruining it for everyone” when I had an anxiety attack and left the room, refusing to talk to anyone.

    *My reasons are my own. Please do not judge that.  

    Kassiane: Oh my fucking gods!! What a complete arse! *rages* grrrr!!!! 

  20. Last time someone went out of their way to tell everyone else not to flash me, THAT VERY SAME PERSON who had warned everyone, went and flashed me. Headdesk.

  21. I get sound-sensitive migraines, triggered by repetitive and high-pitched noises (like sleigh bells in the background of christmas carols). So I carry silicone earplugs with me at all times and pop them in when need be. At first glance, they look like hearing aids, so people tend not to ask me about them. Other than that, I avoid a lot of situations, because people don’t equate “I have a migraine” with “let’s leave her be when she’s in a quiet room by herself.”

    Can I make a request? Can we please avoid violent imagery [quoted violent imagery redacted per our comments policy]? Let’s use something less triggering, like “is a giant cheese-head” or “should never get to pet a puppy again.” Thanks, friends. 🙂

  22. One of the things I love about my mom: she is very “who cares what they think” when it comes to social gatherings. She needs to nap for at least an hour in the afternoon if she wants to enjoy any of it, so if we are at some strange place without a bed, she’ll go sleep in the car.

    When I was younger, it used to emberass me, but now I am proud of her. And it is great to know that I have somone to come with me when I need to get out, but also do not want to be alone. My cousin can also be really good at sharing silences, and on my mom’s side of the family, everybody knows about my depression, as well as my cousin’s scizophrenia, and they are pretty good about letting us be when we need them to.

    *hugs family, glad that they are finally getting over their stupid fights*

  23. Is it possible that some of these people who are flashing migraine sufferers, don’t know how to turn off the flash– or don’t know how to tell when it is on– and are embarrassed to admit it? Maybe turning it off for them would be a good idea after all. 🙂

    My holidays usually are fine, just tiring. Got lucky in the family department I guess, and I pace myself carefully.

  24. I’m lucky in that I have my parents willing to back me up/make my excuses for me if I need to slip away for a while at big family events, where I’m guaranteed to need some periodic alone time.

    The biggest problem this holiday season is going to pose for me is the continual presence of alcohol – it’ll be my first sober Christmas/New Year combo, and if there were ever a time I was tempted to relapse… Mostly, I hope that my extended family and friends won’t feel the need to pressure me into having ‘just one’ or asking too many invasive questions about why I don’t drink any more, as I’ll already be using a lot of energy trying to relax amidst the constant flow of the stuff.
    .-= Rea´s last blog i learned to stop worrying and love my depression (sort of) =-.

  25. I think I’ve finally got my holiday crap down pat, after moving far away from family 15 yrs ago, then having kids.

    Mainly, I make far away family / friends feel great by sending thoughtful gifts, which are usually bought in spring / summer, and packed in fall, and shipped by mid-Nov. Cards get done equally ahead of time in case of my body falling apart. Once that’s all done, I feel zero guilt about ignoring all those people during the month of December.

    For all of December I concentrate on my kids, my own house, whatever WE want to do. I keep it low key. I’ve conditioned friends to understand that if they want to see us, they come us our house for an hour or two of cookies / socializing. That’s all I can take physically, that’s all my older son can take (Asperger’s). Luckily most of my friends are introverts as don’t want more socializing than I do anyway. So it works out.

    I still have nightmares though that somehow I’m back in the midwest with the in-laws / my family, and we are forced to go through a nasty holiday meal with pointed comments, stress and no place to sit down. :::::shudder:::::

    (((hugs))) to all who have to endure less than relaxing holidays! Midwinter is a time for new beginnings, a time to recharge, not a time to be sucked dry 🙁

  26. @SavvyChristine: Gahh, that reminds me… Salvation Army bell-ringers. Seriously, I’m fine with fundraising, but does it have to be a noise assault every time I approach a store?

  27. SavvyChristine is absolutely correct about violent imagery; it is specifically mentioned as unwelcome in our comments policy. Apologies; we try to do a better job with moderation than that.

    And oh I hate the Salvation Army. It’s mutual so I don’t feel even a little bit guilty about it or walking past the kettles. The people with the bells I’m fine with; it’s the organization I want gone. It’s not like the only choices are SA or not helping people at all.

  28. The holidays this year are more difficult for me than usual because it’s the first holiday season since the breakup of my almost-nine-year relationship. Why do I bring this up in a disability community? Because, in a lot of ways, he was my assistive device. I can’t drive, so he was my ride to places like family gatherings and holiday parties. I can’t stay upright and social for very long, which worked out fine with his social anxieties, and we could retreat to quiet corners together as needed. It’s harder not having him to lean on this year in so very many ways. Fortunately, my family is pretty great and making sure I’m getting the rides I need and such. This means, unfortunately, making some compromises which are hard on me like spending a few night’s over at my mom’s house which takes an extra toll on my health, but I know it will be worth it.

    More difficult to arrange, always, is the holiday gathering with my three closest friends from high school. All of us have various health issues which make getting together even more complicated than trying to schedule four different people’s time during a busy season. Some years we don’t manage it at all, which makes us very sad. So we work hard at making it happen, but, wow, the stress that comes up as a result sometimes! Last year, three of us ended up in this strange three-way fight where we were all upset with one another about something, and it really did all come down to managing things health-wise and feeling like the others weren’t respecting our needs. It all ended in crying and hugging and love-festing, but GEEZE. We can be dramatic sometimes. 😉

  29. meloukhia and Kassiane that is so much D: about jackasses with flashes. I have had exactly one migraine in my life and I do not care to repeat the experience, nor would I want to inflict in on anyone else. And intentionally triggering someone to have a seizure is just unfathomable. (I also had epilepsy when I was little and it was still called epilepsy! My seizures were all triggered by head trauma though. ….apparently I hit my head a lot? Hey, the lack of coordination isn’t a new thing. Never registered that before. Huh.)

    Anyway, on-topic! I will be bringing a book or three so I can hide in it. And my netbook so I can play mahjongg or whatever just get out of the crazy family shit. Unfortunately my grandmother’s house, where our family spends christmas, doesn’t have wifi.

    I’m also pretty likely to go hide and nap on the couch in my grandma’s bedroom when I run out of spoons. I had to do that after her 80th birthday party. My family is less than wonderful about accomodations (thanks, mom, for whacking on the pillow I was using to try and block out the light and sound!), but I don’t get complained at TOO much if I go hide. Hell, if it’s not too cold I might go sit in the tree outside. I like trees.

    Oh, also, people seem to have started actually letting my cousin sleep when she naps on the couch constantly so they leave me alone about that more too. (I’m guilty of not being wonderful about my cousin. I assume she sleeps all day because she stays up all night because she’s sixteen and she used to stay up all night texting but for all I know she’s started sleeping 18 hours a day with her gall bladder problems. I’m pretty disgusted that her parents didn’t see anything wrong with her saying that she was going to starve herself after thanksgiving to be thinner, though. She *said* starve, straight out, and everyone thought it was just fine. wtf? anyway, tangent >_>)

    I know I have pretty serious limits on the amount of time around family I can deal with, but since I can’t drive I can’t just go home when I run out :/ grandma’s is half an hour away. So I’m stuck there until dad decides he wants to go home and drags mum away from whatever she’s doing. So my only escape options are hiding outside or in a back room. And I’m likely to at some point run completely out of spoons before I notice and end up hiding in a closet crying. Again. Because that’s how my family is. Sigh.

    I really look forward to moving thousands of miles away from everyone related to me.

  30. I’m one of these really annoying people who absolutely loves Christmas and spends most of November and December in a festive haze. I love everythin about Christmas (though I’m an atheist) I just seem to have much more energy and be much happier round this time of year and I love the atmosphere when I go out. I’m lucky in that my family are great and I love spending time with them. Sometimes people try to describe everything to me (whether I’ve asked for a description or not) because they assume I want to know and this can lead to be information overload, I’d usually ask people to limit themselves to describing stuff I ask about, but it actually works to my favour at Christmas because I really do want to know about all the Christmas decorations we pass!

  31. I love Christmas, and social events in general around this time (I’m scottish. hogmanay is *important* to me) but my lord in heaven, are these events hard to deal with.

    If it was just me at these things, I would be able to deal with the inevitable sensory overload. I’m old enough to have strategies to deal with them, like leaving the room, putting earphones in, reading a book et cetera. The problem is my family. They just don’t get it, particularly mum.

    don’t get me wrong (why yes, I am incredibly bitter, why do you ask?) she is fine if I leave the room for a few moments and go to be by myself. It’s just when my disability gets in the way of social life. It’s just when I run out of spoons, of energy, of will, of ANYTHING, that she minds. Because that is when it shows*, when people notice that something ‘isn’t right’. Because God forbid that mum admit she has a disabled daughter.

    Anecdote: last hogmanay (see first line) we were at a ceilidh (scottish country dance). I always hate the countdown to midnight, because it is SO NOISY but this was particularly noisy, there were so many people. I swear, when midnight chimed, I SAW the noise swell up before it hit me. I know it sounds crazy. Anyway, I started crying, (as any person would do when they felt like a leaf battered by a particularly violent wind) and mum turned round and saw me, and told me to get away from her, to go away. First words I heard after the bells. Thank you so fucking much mother dearest. I love you too.

    ANYWAY back on topic, I do love social events and holidays, but preferably on my terms, not anyone elses.

  32. Oh boy. Holidays.

    Lately they’ve been problematic on the food front since I have so many dietary restrictions that have only recently come into play (last year) that none of my family adequately know how to adhere to. Bless my mother, she tries, but there’s just too much to keep track of and I wind up getting a reaction anyway. The most recent holiday(ish)/social gathering I’ve gone to, since the host is lactose intolerant and knows about my restrictions, had tape and a sharpie floating around to mark what food was safe for me so I knew. That was awesome. Though I still got a reaction, not sure from what (maybe the alcohol?). I’m considering eating prior to going and keeping the quantities of anything I eat at gatherings to a minimum to help avoid such complications. More for other people to enjoy anyway.

    In the past I had problems with the socializing aspect because of my fear of people and general anxiety, none of which my family understood. My parents used to get on my case about how I’m not connecting with any of my extended family when we visit them and that I’m “not trying”. After the reason why became “officially” clear, my mom started getting it. When I was attending the family Christmas gathering last year, she told me that if I needed to step out and take a break or if I had to leave early (I drove myself there just in case), she understood and would explain to the rest of my family for me. That was a big deal to me after the conflict we used to have over the issue.

    Usually in such environments I have to scope the area first and find an isolated quiet place that I could retreat to if necessary, or if I’m having difficulties with that, having someone look around for me. Then when sound was becoming too much for me or I was getting anxious, I would spend some time separated from the crowd and nonsense to give myself a chance to relax again. Sometimes I would bring music or my portable gaming systems (another reason why people thought I wasn’t trying to connect to anyone) to help distract myself from any background sounds that would make themselves painfully obvious to me. And then if I started to calm down, mingle back into the mix. If not, find a way to excuse myself and head home.

    Either way though, I need social gatherings and events to be small. If they have too many people, I’m liable to go into a panic attack and that would be a mess. If there’s a bunch of people I don’t know or I feel like there’ll be too many people there, I just don’t go. I find something to politely decline the invitation with.

  33. UGH. Last year on Christmas, I had a 4-day long migraine. I looked, and felt, like absolute crap. My FH’s family remarked that I looked “miserable” and wanted to know why I was so unhappy at such a “joyous” time.

    Sometimes I wish that people who think migraines are not serious would get one of the days-long migraines that I used to get before my medication combo (that I of course “don’t need” and could easily replace with a gluten-free diet!).

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