Well-Being//

How Thanksgiving Taught Me to Put Myself First

The onslaught of a health crisis caused me to re-think how we celebrate, and helped me turn Thanksgiving into a more fun, less stressful holiday.

Thanksgiving has always given me a major case of the feels. You’ve got special foods in fall colors like sweet potato soufflé, pumpkin pie, and cranberry relish that seem only to appear on the fourth Thursday in November. I associate it deeply with family togetherness, from early years spent congregating with cousins from my dad’s side in the family deli (ensuring corn beef and pastrami was intermingled with the turkey) to teenage years celebrating with my mom’s side of the family at a beach condo. In that warm glow of 1970s and 1980s nostalgia, I didn’t think much about the stress that goes into feeding a slew of hungry family members, with the inevitable squabbles about who polished off the last of the stuffing and more.

I went to various Thanksgiving gatherings hosted by friends or family members as an adult, but then decided to take ownership of the holiday by the mid-2000s. I was determine to create the ultimate “orphan” Turkey Day, filled with friends, extended family members, and some people I barely knew, but whom I decided needed some taking care of during that time of thanks. I knocked myself out with the prep work, always put my guests first, and then was exceptionally tired afterwards. It was classic “pleaser” behavior, if you are familiar with the inner saboteur concept. Over time it got out of hand, with over 20 attendees. The dining room table was artificially extended with card tables and other oddly-shaped surfaces, making it hard to hear anyone not seated next to you. Trying to reheat dishes in our one-oven townhouse at the time required extensive engineering from my husband. It had become a stressful endeavor, but I felt people were counting on me to create a memorable holiday. Then I got sick in 2013, and my once-beloved Thanksgiving turned terrible.

I’m not talking about a mild cold or even a case of the flu. Turns out my body was erupting into what would later be diagnosed as Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. I was tired, weak, and chained to the bathroom with a whole host of upsetting symptoms. I didn’t know what was wrong, except that I felt awful, scared, and out of control. The last thing I needed was for a person I barely knew from my gym repeatedly asking where the freaking wine glass charms lived in the kitchen.

Completely exhausted, I had a heart-to-heart with my hubby the next morning. He had already been encouraging me to stop over-extending myself so much for everyone else. I finally agreed. I decided to quit hosting my version of an idyllic Thanksgiving cold turkey, pun fully intended.

It took switching doctors and four colonoscopies over the course of two years (which feels like I should have gotten some frequent user card, right?) to get diagnosed and start the best course of treatment. Actively taking steps to reduce stress, combined with great medical care, helped me ultimately go into remission and reclaim good health. During that time, Thanksgiving was an afterthought usually celebrated at a restaurant or a friend’s home.

In 2017, we decided to host Thanksgiving again in light of a visit from my brother-in-law and his fiancée, who live in the U.K. My husband, a British expat who is now an American citizen, was excited to pick back up with the English traditions he had added to our celebration — crispy potatoes roasted in duck fat and Yorkshire pudding. With just seven people in attendance, it was terrific. Our new home features a double oven and bigger kitchen, taking the hassle out of reheating food. Plus, we made sure our guests were responsible for bringing a dish per person.

This year, our Thanksgiving celebration is slightly bigger — but the festivities will be filled with lovely, self-sufficient friends who make it easy and don’t require additional nurturing or dining room seating. We’re providing the turkey, stuffing, gravy, British dishes, and main beverages while all side dishes and desserts have been fully assigned to attendees. I’ve also moved our meal to an earlier time that allows us to get plenty of rest that night.

Putting myself first has positively transformed my Thanksgiving experience — and made it a heck of a lot more fun.

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