Sink or Swim?

The road to my diabetes diagnosis was anything but easy.  Over Thanksgiving break during my first semester of graduate school, I fell ill with a horrific stomach virus. I was too busy to be sick, swamped with student essays to grade and papers to write for my own classes. But as the following year and half progressed, I felt worse and worse.  I suffered from chronic sinus infections, drastic weight loss, extreme thirst, and constant fatigue.   As I bounced from doctor to doctor, I grew increasingly discouraged.  No one could figure out what was wrong with me.

Aside from feeling terrible physically, I struggled emotionally with my symptoms, particularly the weight loss.  Not a day passed that someone didn’t make a comment about my weight.  A man at my gym walked by me one day, gave me an up-and-down glance, and said, “Eat a hamburger” before walking off.  My friends followed me into the bathroom to see if I was throwing up my meals.   My doctor asked me if I had anorexia.

I felt isolated, helpless, and dehumanized.   On one hand, I was pursuing my educational goals and enjoying being a newlywed, but on the other hand, I was suffering a slow death, one without reason or cause. 

Thankfully, I was diagnosed with diabetes just in the proverbial “nick of time.”  I entered the emergency room of my local hospital on a Friday and left five days later with a diagnosis  and an armful of brochures.  Although the diagnosis shocked me, I was mostly overwhelmed with relief.  I finally had an answer, and I had hope that I would survive and eventually continue with my life.

Little did I know that being labeled as a “diabetic” would bring about a whole new set of challenges.  Mere acquaintances questioned my food choices, many asking if I should be eating a certain food because, they said, I shouldn’t have sugar.   Their ignorance and criticism astounded and disappointed me.  Other people told me that they could “never handle” a disease like diabetes because they were scared of needles.  They didn’t understand that without my needles (and medications), I would die.  They also failed to understand that this disease had already taken so much away from me, and that their comments only hurt me further.  A family friend remarked to my mom, “It’s a good thing Rachel got diabetes, and not me.  She can handle it.”   I guess it was meant to be a compliment, as I have always been a driven individual, but it only made me angrier. 

Once, a child said to me, “My uncle has diabetes.  He had his feet cut off.”  Encouraging, right?  But that’s what the child understood to be diabetes—something as frightful and life-altering as amputation.  Likewise, a cousin of mine once asked, “When are the doctors going to get you off that insulin?”  His naiveté wasn’t surprising, considering the ignorance that I am constantly facing, but his question added to my frustration.   I realized that a diabetes diagnosis promoted me, without my permission, to a medical educator and diabetes defender.   

The misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding diabetes impact each of us who have it. I spent a lot of time being angry post-diagnosis.  I was rightfully bitter toward the doctors who failed to diagnose me.  I was swimming in defeat because every time I turned around, someone had a comment about my disease.  People would approach me and tell me I looked “so much better” than before my diagnosis.  Though these comments were likely accurate, they were hurtful.  Additionally, I felt that God could have given this disease to someone else. Why me?  Why did I deserve this punishment?

As months and years progressed, however, diabetes became more normalized in my life, as my diabetes nurse educator had promised it would.  I began to grow into a new attitude, one of permission to live with my disease.  And not just to live, but to live well. Seasons of anger, bitterness, confusion, and depression are normal and even helpful to a person with diabetes.  My attitude is to let myself feel what I feel, but never to accept these feelings as permission to allow defeat.  As Maya Angelou said in a recent interview on the Today show, “We can’t go through life with two catcher’s mitts on.  We have to throw back sometimes.”

I daily have to fight the negative voices and influences that surround all of us who constantly battle and live with diabetes.  It might be the doctor who doesn’t have a good bedside manner, or the friend who asks me if I should really be eating a piece of pie, or my own mind, which tells me I’m still not doing enough to manage my disease well.   Discouraging?  Yes.  Disheartening?  Sure.  Disappointing?  Absolutely.

However, I know that I have to “throw back” in my own ways.  This means stopping communication with someone who is constantly negative. For example, I am greatly disturbed and upset with women who tend to be dramatic, gossipy, and catty.  Consequently, I do not befriend such women because it creates a wave of negativity that can affect my mood and thus, my diabetes care.  When my focus is taken away from my health and emotional wellbeing, my blood sugars are compromised.

When someone makes a comment about diabetes that is both negative and inaccurate, I take the person’s invitation to talk about diabetes, and I educate that person.  When my aunt said to me, “Oh, I forgot that you shouldn’t drink that” after offering pouring me a glass of juice, I explained that I can have juice, but that I choose not to include juice in my meal plan because I would rather consume my allotted carbohydrates from a different food.  

Another way I “throw back” is that I take what I have learned and share it with others.  Whether it involves learning of a new online diabetes community or blogging about a recent doctor’s visit, I’m talking about my disease.  As the number of people with diabetes continues to rise, I feel that the number and quality of conversations about it need to increase.

I didn’t choose diabetes, I didn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it.  But I’ve learned to accept that diabetes is what it is.   I have a choice:  sink or swim.  I choose to swim, and to do so with purpose, conviction, and determination.   No matter what has happened to you in the past, I hope that today you make the necessary changes in your life to live well with your diabetes and to educate others.

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