I have a large extended family. A very large extended family. The small fraction that lives in this tenth of the continent numbers well into the double digits, and we number well into the hundreds if I only reach out three generations on the family tree. No matter how carefully rested I am or how prepared I am, I will have times when I visit in a small house with so many people (the people-to-bedroom ratio currently is about 4:1. Earlier, it was 5:1. The word “sardines” comes to mind as a metaphor) that I will experince sensory overload. This is an unavoidable function of too many people in a small building. Especially since 1/3 of the people here are children. Children are loud. Especially when stressed, cranky, and tired, as holidays are wont to make children.
I am especially vulnerable to noise when I, myself, am stressed (as holidays make me), tired (as sleeping in a strange place makes me), sick (as visiting family makes me, thanks to my asthma and their pets), and/or busy (have you ever had a holiday season that wasn’t busy?). This is the first year that I have managed the entire holiday visit (so far – and I leave tomorrow morning, so it seems I will be successful) with only a few close calls and no full meltdowns since… ever. In my entire life, this is the first time I have ended up only in tears at night in bed, and not yelled or screamed or cursed or needed to go for an hour long walk to cool my head after making a spectacle of myself or [insert other seemingly self-destructive action here] once. I am getting better at this adulting thing.
So, to make notes on how this year managed to be my first successful holiday year since infancy: how did I cope? In no particular order:
- Running errands. Did someone forget the ketchup? How about corn starch for the gravy? Any forgotten thing is an opportunity for escape from cacophony for a few minutes/hours. When I was a kid, I’d offer to accompany my parents. As an adult, I offer to run out to pick these things up. I seem helpful, and I get a break from noise. Win/win.
- Doing chores. In particular, solitary chores. Are cars covered in snow? Is laundry in need of washing or folding? Are porches in need of shoveling? Any chore that involves an out-of-the-way quiet room or time outdoors is an opportunity for a break. Again, I seem helpful, but I also get a break from noise and general sensory overload. Win/win.
- Reading breaks. Books are a special interest for me. When I get too overwhelmed, if I can’t get alone, I read. Substitute with an appropriate special interest. If small relatives enjoy said special interest, you can get them out of their parents’ hair while taking a break from following busy conversations.
- Naps. Fatigue is meltdown fuel. I fight it at all costs. If earplugs and blanket forts are necessary, employ them. This is likely more necessary for me, with my chronic conditions that are all flaring up due to triggers and/or stress, than for most, but I have adopted a biphasic sleep cycle for the duration of my visit because asthma fatigue is kicking my behind. People might be hurt or annoyed if I miss a sprogling relative’s developmental milestone in favor of sleep, but they will be hurt and annoyed if I end up ruining a meal with tears and screaming. Self care is not selfish. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- Managing chronic conditions. If I feel like shit, my mood is shitty. I am no different from an NT person that way. If I keep my chronic illness as controlled as possible, I have more energy to devote to coping with noise, bright lights, busy conversations, and too many people.
- Frequent bathroom breaks. A bathroom break is a breather from activity. Whether or not I actually need to use the bathroom, I make a point to duck away to it every hour or so for about five minutes, just to get away from everything. A few minutes sitting in the dark listening to white noise from a fan can make the difference between a cheerful dinner and me screaming profanity across the table at certain relatives when I hit my point of no return and start to snap at everyone because everything everyone says is like knives stabbing in my ears. If someone asks if I’m feeling under the weather, I can truthfully answer “yes” even if it’s not for the reason they think, but in my experience, people simply don’t notice.
- Dressing entirely for comfort. I have spent the entire visit in exercise pants, T-shirts, and sports bras. Being comfortable eliminates a huge stressor and makes it a lot easier to deal with other discomforts (like squalling infants).
- Eating when hungry, not when food is available. I don’t hunger well. At all. Ever. Ordinarily, I have two settings: Full, and “Feed me now. I’m so hungry my stomach hurts and I want to rip the hair out of anyone who so much as looks at me funny.” (this likely has a lot to do with the fact that I routinely forget to eat for hours/days on end). Multiply that by 100 when I’m already stressed and overloaded. Waiting for food is not something I can do well ordinarily. In the holiday season, it’s just not possible. So if I am hungry, I eat. I don’t care if there’s only 20 minutes until lunch. If I am hungry now, I am eating now. If need be, I can have an orange or some salad as a snack now and just give myself a smaller lunch portion later. Miffing someone because I didn’t eat enough of their casserole is much better than snapping at everyone who says two words to me for the wait until dinner.
- Operate in risk minimization mode, and give up aiming for perfect. I am not going to perfect. I can’t. However, I can operate in a way that minimizes my risk of meltdown. This is more pleasant for me, but until this year I thought it was being selfish. This year, I realized it’s really not – my desire to try to be the “perfect” eldest sibling is what’s selfish. If I do adequate self-care, it’s more pleasant for everyone involved – for me, because I don’t have a meltdown, and for everyone else, because they don’t have to deal with me screaming profanity at the universe on top of dealing with small children, animals and their own holiday stress. Don’t try to be the storybook perfect sibling. Try to take care of myself. In so doing, it seems that I’m also helping to take care of everyone else by keeping extra work off their plate.