The day I learned that I had type 1 diabetes was no doubt one of the most heart-wrenching, confusing, and angry days of my life. But I quickly decided that I had to channel those feelings into something productive, something worthwhile. I gained confidence as a person with diabetes, and even though, yes, the shots stung, I wasn’t going to flinch. Welcome to my life.
From the very beginning of my diabetes journey, I didn’t conceal my disease. I had spent a year and a half without a diagnosis, and during that time, when I battled frequent urination, chronic thirst, extreme fatigue, mood swings, and tingling feet, I went into emotional hiding. I concealed my helplessness because I didn’t want to burden anyone else with my hardships. I was incredibly isolated, though I was surrounded by my peers in graduate school, my students, my husband, and my friends.
When I was told that I had diabetes, I surprisingly felt relief above all else.Finally, I had an answer. A sense of freedom washed over me, and I felt like the proverbial weight was lifted from my shoulders.
So I tested my blood sugar at the dinner table, and I dosed and injected insulin there, too. If I had a low, I said so. I would plop on a sidewalk, a bench, or the end of a shopping aisle, stuff glucose tablets into my mouth, and watch as everyone else continued around me. I wore a medical identification bracelet. I carried an “I have diabetes” card in my wallet and plenty of supplies in my purse and car. I was prepared to fight the beast called diabetes, and I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought.
I was surprised to encounter people who whispered to me that they too had diabetes, but they didn’t tell anyone–not their coworkers, their family members, or their friends. It was like we were in a secret society, the few who understood each other and held common ground in a world that was seemingly laden with sugar and healthy, happy-go-lucky people.
The truth, as I see it, is that everyone struggles with something. My struggle in life is diabetes–hands down. I have a 24/7 job that I didn’t sign up for, but it is what it is. My blood sugar is never far from my mind. Every twitch and tingle in my body sends up red flags–is it my diabetes?, I wonder. I can’t drive, eat, sleep, exercise, or teach without first testing my blood sugar, making sure I’m not too high or too low. But you know, the person next to me is also struggling. Perhaps his or her battle isn’t a disease but an addiction, or a family secret, or something else. Though our struggles aren’t the same, the common denominator is that whatever IT is, IT can be incredibly ostracizing.
To combat the struggles, I put on my game face and wear my diabetes on my sleeve. I decided long ago that diabetes is part of my life, possibly forever, and I could either deal with it or I could ignore it. The latter was a deadly option.
So I talked about diabetes to anyone and everyone. I answered questions about my insulin pump or my food choices. I was asked many questions about diabetes symptoms and side effects. The general consensus is this: people need to talk to someone about their IT.
I know that not every person with diabetes wants to be an unofficial diabetes educator. Perhaps that is one reason why diabetes is the elephant in the room for some diabetics. Perhaps it’s an accountability issue. If someone knows I have diabetes, that opens me up to a slew of questions (including “Can you eat that?” when I pick up a slice of apple pie). Perhaps some diabetics want to believe that not talking about diabetes will somehow make it go away. Ignorance can be bliss!
I have heard several diabetics tell me that their diabetes is “no big deal.” Thus, why should they share the fact that they have the disease with other people? The fact is, however, that diabetes is a big deal. Check out the statistics, the complications, and the emotional, physical, mental, and financial toll it takes not only on a person, but also on a family, and, even greater, on a country.
Diabetes doesn’t need to be a secret. In fact, not talking about it seems counter-intuitive. Diabetes is an epidemic in our country, and I don’t want someone saying “shhh” or staying silent when silence isn’t going to educate. Silence isn’t going to cure. Silence isn’t going to prevent or save. Silence isn’t going to open doors.
I urge you not to keep your diabetes a secret. Not only can it be dangerous (what if you pass out and no one knows you are experiencing a low blood sugar?), but it also seems unhealthy to work so hard to conceal your truth. I am certain that if you have an experience to share, there is someone who needs to hear it. Talking about your diabetes could save another person’s life. And if you help one person, perhaps he or she in turn will help another. Your diabetes isn’t just about you; it’s about a world that desperately needs to be heard and healed.