Being Ill At Christmas

16/12/2016 16:39 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 16:39 GMT
scanrail via Getty Images

I missed my work Christmas party last week. It seems unlikely that I'll be sending many Christmas cards, given that I have none, and as for presents, there might not be any this year. I'm not the Grinch, I love Christmas and I'm the person least likely to say "Bah! Humbug."

I'm ill.

The question you want to ask now is, 'What's wrong?'

The thing is, I'm not ready to share the reason for my emergency surgery, trips to A&E and post-operative complications, though (fingers crossed behind my back) it isn't cancer. I used to see chemotherapy as the lowest point in my expedition into what Susan Sontag called the kingdom of the sick, but there have been times over the last six weeks when I've wondered whether my passport to the kingdom of the well has expired.

Most of us have an idea of what it feels like to have 'the flu' but it's hard to explain what it's like to have a chronic illness to people who haven't suffered from it. It's not easy to write when all attention is focused on the next breath, and, with no energy for coherent thought, my ideas dissolve like snowflakes on the back of the hand.

To borrow Thomas Wolfe's words from a letter which he wrote from his hospital bed - "I've made a long voyage and been to a strange country."

What else?

I feel as though I'm a pebble skimming the surface of the sun.

Days and weeks are lost in the kingdom of pain, but the nights are worse, much worse.

I'm afraid to sleep - what if I stop breathing?

I spent Christmas 2009 recovering from surgery for breast cancer and I've come in a full circle to meet myself on a depressingly familiar and well-worn path. My 'old self' greets me like a beloved friend and offers words of encouragement:

As much as you like the advert, don't model yourself on Mrs Claus, you don't have a helicopter, the money, or the technology to make wishes come true. You aren't responsible for everyone's happiness and you can still be lovely in your tatty pyjamas.

It isn't your fault that you're ill. Yes, you've been ill a great deal, and you wonder why, but the guilt you feel that you're a burden to everyone is simply sadness in disguise.

Christmas is a time to be merry, it's a time of hope and new beginnings but it's also a time for wistfulness and nostalgia, otherwise 'I'm dreaming of a White Christmas' wouldn't be such a well-loved song.

Christmas doesn't have to be 'perfect' - the Christmases you remember best are the ones when you were snowed in, and, with a three day power-cut, you played board games by candle light (even though it was annoying at the time).

This isn't the time for unrealistic expectations. Focus on eating well, keeping hydrated, getting plenty of rest and if you can't get any fresh air, do a couple of circuits of the living room. Resist the urge to give up on self-care - you feel better when you use your moisturiser.

It's true that mindfulness has much to offer as a tool for managing fear and uncertainty, but it's also true that 'living in the moment' is far from appealing when every fibre of your being wants to escape 'the present', when you say to yourself, 'tomorrow will be a better day.' And that's okay.

You're going through a difficult time. You don't have to hide the reality of your illness and your feelings because you think other people will feel uncomfortable. I know you feel exposed, but vulnerability is a source of grit and strength, not weakness.

Yes, there are many people who are less fortunate than you, the people in Aleppo, those in hospital, homeless or alone and I know you're comparing yourself with the Amazon employees penalised for their sick leave. But being kind to others begins with being kind to ourselves; we need to be able to connect with our own pain to fully empathise with the suffering of others.

I know that you're worried that this could be your last Christmas on this earth, but you thought that last year, and the year before. Life is a bitter-sweet gift - as Emily Dickinson said, "That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet" - and knowing this brings both sadness and joy.

Nothing lasts forever and any illness has peaks and troughs. I know it's hard to believe but you will get better.

With less than two weeks to go, I've missed the much-anticipated theatre trip, the meals out with friends; the dazzling Christmas lights against the backdrop of dark winter nights. But this year we'll be making some new traditions - fairy lights around the bed and snuggling up with my daughter to read Christmas stories, eat chocolate and sing along to 'Dominic the Donkey'. And there's cinnamon and spice, holly and ivy; crackers to pull, candle-light and the joy of seeing crisp mornings from my bedroom window. This is the stuff of memories. Ill or not, I'll still be celebrating Christmas.

Find Tamsin at the Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer where a private psycho-educational group offers women with a breast cancer diagnosis a safe space to share their feelings over Christmas.

Tenovus Cancer Care offers a free Support Line open from 8am to 8pm, every day of the year, including the Christmas period: 0808 808 1010.