Vestibular-Friendly Family Gathering
Our family looked forward to gathering for the holidays in December 2021. It would be the first time the five of us–I, my husband Robert, our daughter Sarah and her husband John, and our daughter Betsy–would be together in two years, due to the COVID pandemic. It was also the first time we’d all be together in our new home in the North Carolina mountains.
We expected some challenges since we knew from experience that a few additional people in a house can make it louder and more confusing, throwing me off-balance due to my vestibular problems. In addition, our new house is 15% smaller than our previous one, which could make it feel even more crowded.
To mitigate any potential problems and pave the way for a smooth and enjoyable visit for all, we made some preparations.
- Three-day rule: Are you familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”? With that in mind, Sarah and John only stayed with us for three nights around the Thanksgiving holiday.
- Food prep: We prepared some food and menus ahead of time in order to make meals easier to prepare. Since Betsy could work remotely, she came down early and helped make some dishes. Sarah and John also brought ingredients for other favorite foods. The family pitching in made the time together less stressful.
- Letting go: I had to relinquish some of my traditional responsibilities. That was not easy, but I knew that everyone would have a better time if I didn’t push myself. Betsy, Sarah, and John have introduced some new ideas for Thanksgiving foods over the years, which have become family traditions. This flexibility has enriched our family rather than diminishing it.
- Tools: We planned to use some of the tools I have developed to manage my vestibular symptoms. The most basic is a daily nap in the early afternoon. I change into my pajamas, go to bed, and lie down for at least an hour. This gives my brain time to rest and recharge for the rest of the day. I also keep my noise-canceling earbuds on hand. Sarah and Betsy gave them to me almost five years ago to block out sounds when my brain gets overwhelmed.
As soon as Sarah and John arrived, we shared a group hug. It felt so good to be in each other’s arms. It was a special way to begin our time of thanksgiving.
Meal preparations for Thanksgiving went well. Robert, Betsy, Sarah and John worked together in the kitchen to roast the turkey, make the pies, and fix the rest of the dinner. I stayed out of the kitchen, sitting in the adjacent great room where I could hear and watch the activity. I took care of cleaning up when the others needed a break.
We had Thanksgiving dinner after my nap. The food was delicious, and the conversation around the table lively. All five of us are on the same page on social and political issues, so we didn’t have to avoid those topics. We continued to sit around the table and visit after dessert.
I was growing tired when the discussion became more intense. It was hard for me to follow, so I just listened. When the impassioned conversation began to overwhelm me I said, “Enough! I can’t take it anymore. You all can clean up and continue your conversation. I’m going to my room.” Then I walked out.
Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed to take a break.
My family cleaned up and went for a walk while I regrouped. The rest of the weekend went well. All of us were grateful for our time together as a family.
Based on our Thanksgiving experience Robert and I discussed changes to improve our time together at Christmas. The first thing to address was my feeling that I was banished to our room when I was getting overloaded, as if I were a child. Upon reflection, I realized that I was seeking a quiet place to which I could retreat and rejuvenate. Deciding to go to a quiet space feels better psychologically than “being sent to my room.”
The second thing was realizing that I needed to monitor myself for warning signals that I was beginning to feel off-balance. I sometimes tell Robert “I’m about to hit the wall” when I’m beginning to feel draggy and light-headed. This can be when we’re out for a walk or in the midst of a conversation that requires concentration. It’s a signal that I need to draw back and let my brain relax and recharge. In the context of a holiday gathering it means that I can monitor myself and retreat to a quiet space before I experience a meltdown. Once I feel rebalanced I can return to the group. That is much more enjoyable for everyone than if I end up “losing it” or making a scene.
A third adaptation was purchasing an oil-filled radiator heater for one of my two primary quiet spaces. It’s a closed-in porch, so it’s colder than the rest of the house. The heater puts out radiant heat, which is silent, as opposed to a noisy ceramic space heater. That is a huge advantage for me because of my sensitivity to noise.
The most important thing I needed to do was acknowledge that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do. Sometimes I chose to stay inside and rest while others went out for a walk. I watched them play board games and put together a jigsaw puzzle. Those are fun activities, but participating in them overextends my brain power.
Planning and adaptation are my friends. I have to choose which activities are most important. Is it preparing the meal or joining the family around the table for the meal? Is it having one-on-one conversations with different family members or participating in a favorite activity, such as watching a religious service, a concert, or a favorite holiday movie?
One of the hidden benefits of having a vestibular disorder is that it encourages me to prioritize what is most important and to focus on that, while letting go of activities that are less essential. Robert and I have had to make many changes and adaptations as we adjust to life with vestibular dysfunction. It hasn’t always been easy, but our lives have been enriched as we focus on what we value most.
By Carol Cannon
How to Survive the Holidays with Meniere’s, by Glenn Schweitzer