Yesterday I finally started to take down my tree. I'd planned to start on January 5 and be done by the twelfth night, but a post Christmas illness being spread around my family laid me low for two weeks, and being chronically ill, I've been recovering since. At any rate, in attempting to disentangle some ornament hooks so they can fit back in their box, and weighing the environmental cost of trashing the jumble versus the cost to my sanity, as I calmly sat disentangling hooks I was reminded of an article I read before Christmas.
In writing about relationships, the writer mentioned that you can tell a lot about a person by how she responds to putting up Christmas tree lights. And I was reminded of how wise we are in our ignorance.
You see, my father was impatient with small things--dropping screws when installing a window air conditioner, etc. My mother went insane when it came to putting up Christmas tree lights. I saw how my father's impatience affected his health and how my mother's traumatic past created a sort of Christmas hell for me. And so I learned to develop patience as a virtue. Oh, I was so virtuous. It was easy for me to accommodate guests into my home and have them help with decorating my tree at Christmas and even be witness to my light hanging capabilities.
Then, I became totally disabled from the chronic illness I had previously managed most of my life. (At least I credited myself with having managed my illness and staving off total disability for as long as possible.) As my neuro-immune illness got worse, irritability became an unwelcome companion—a function of central nervous system involvement. Still, I managed.
Irritability was pretty much a new experience for me. I understood frustration, anger even, but I was not the sort to carry resentment or even anger. I remember once being angry about a work situation for a couple of weeks, and I could see the impact on my body. It made me wonder how some people managed to be angry a good deal of the time and be able to tolerate the experience within in their bodies.
Before total disability, I only ever remember becoming irritable when I was very sleepy and feeling forced to stay awake--e.g., on vacation with friends and feeling like I had to finish the card game I started--, and I called that feeling cranky. Even so, when I'd check in by mentioning I had to go to bed because I was feeling cranky, most people reported that they did not detect my crankiness. I guess you could say, on the rare occasion that I felt cranky due to sleepiness I'd managed to manage my feelings. Suddenly, with total disability, I was overly exhausted all of the time, unable to sleep, and finding myself subjected on a regular basis to a feeling I had rarely encountered. I was tap dancing as fast as I could.
Finally, one Christmas I went insane with the Christmas tree lights. I must have been 50 at the time. After a lifetime of cool calmness under most pressures, save the one time I tried to hang wallpaper, I could not handle handling those lights. I could barely handle making a meal, but I so wanted to participate in decorating for Christmas.
The Christmas tree lights had shown me that I had reached a point where I wasn't managing my exhaustion-related irritability as I had in the past. In addition to the increased nervous system involvement, grief, compounded by frustration, over the severity of my illness and having to ask for help all the time and also having to watch someone else do the things I had once loved to do, was overwhelming me and contributing to my irritability with others. As I grappled with these feelings, I'd also worked at letting whomever know that the edge in my voice was directed at the damn disease and not them. I tried to communicate that I was working hard to adapt to my changed circumstances--both physical and emotional--, but whether that communication was ever received by my partner at the time is doubtful.
Most people with ME/CFS know that their stress response is out of whack and once upset, it can be difficult to calm down. Learning not to get upset in the first place is key. At one time in my life, I'd pretty much had that down pat, save for communicating with the phone company, and I was having to learn it all over again.
Back to the Christmas tree lights. By the next year, I made sure we had a pre-lit tree in the house. Maybe you can learn something about someone by the way that someone handles Christmas tree lights after all.
After all, I replaced the tree rather than risk re-enacting the scene from the Christmas before. However, my own situation has me wondering how long people's memories are when it comes to those they love and their efforts at making amends. Did my ex even notice that I'd taken action to avoid a similar situation in the future (e.g., made the decision to go with a pre-lit tree)?
I have recovered a wee bit, which means I can sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, walk further than the length of my house, and take care of about half of my basic needs while resting both my body and my brain the vast majority of my waking hours. I have also recovered the patience I’d lost in adjusting to my new normal. I really have no idea how much my parents illnesses contributed to their lack of patience at times, but I am glad my watching them made me work hard to learn skills to manage my responses to feelings. I am still subject to feeling irritable more often than I had and also to a long-lasting stress response if I become stressed (as a result of illness), but the tools I have used most of my life to manage my responses to my feelings--tools that enabled me to be patient--have been restored. Mostly I am back to going with the flow.
Moreover, I have a clearer understanding of what questions someone with a chronic illness might want to ask when considering a relationship with a relatively healthy person. The following represent a few questions to ponder.
- Just how gracious is that someone in dealing with someone else's health issues, poor health, or even not so gracious slide into a deeply distressing state of health? Many illnesses have relapses; how does this person handle a relapse?
- Does this person respect the illness or expect the sick person to do things that will harm that person's health to keep the love interest happy?
- Is the person forthcoming with her feelings--the ones she is struggling with at having to live with the chronic debilitating illness of another--, or does she nurse resentments and vilify the sick person?
- Does he seek understanding when disagreements or misunderstandings arise generally and also demonstrate an interest in understanding the illness? That is, is he passive, almost always waiting for the sick person to initiate dialog, or is he capable of taking risks when it comes to maintaining an intimate relationship? And how willing and/or interested is he in learning about the illness?
- Most importantly, how capable is she from separating herself from another's illness symptoms, including falling apart when putting up Christmas tree lights?
After all that I've experienced, I just might be able to tell a lot about a person and how he or she handles another person falling apart when putting up Christmas tree lights, and more importantly, I think it possible to tell a lot about people by how they handle life when loved ones become ill. A slide into total disability is a journey and when picking a mate, we might want to make sure, as sure as humanly possible, that we become involved with someone who is capable of making that journey.