The Diabetic Parent Journals Part. 2: Something Out of Nothing

We all start from nothing. When we’re born, we’re blank slates, minds looking outward, ready to absorb the love of our parents and the lessons of a rapidly shifting world. And we all grow. We learn those lessons. We grow up. Our minds expand and develop in a multitude of unexpected directions.

As a parent, I’ve had a front-row seat to this remarkable development. I watched my son-on the day he was born-cry, and poop, and sleep. As the months passed, I watched him stay awake more and more, opening his eyes to the wonders of all that surrounded him. I watched him develop likes and dislikes, a fascination with clocks and a hatred of weed whackers. Out of nothing, he’s developed into a little person.

And so it is with our diabetes. We start knowing nothing about the disease. We don’t even know enough to be concerned about it. We simply don’t know what’s in store for us. Then we learn, and we grow. We start to manage the disease actively.

And we experience breakthroughs.

Any parent will tell you that a child’s progression from infant to toddler and beyond isn’t a matter of smooth, gradual change. Instead there are periods of rapid change, then plateaus, and occasionally even a reversal or two.

It’s exactly the same with people who have diabetes. New treatments pop up every now and then, offering markedly better control. We assimilate them, and then go through lengthy periods of just keeping everything on an even keel. And occasionally we suffer a reversal or two.

Here are some more observations from the worlds of diabetes and parenting, drawn from my life over the past few months. Be sure to share some of your own experiences in the comments section below.

Moments of Delight

The world looks different through a child’s eyes. When I follow my son around, his reactions to the world I take for granted surprise and delight. He gets down on his hands and knees to look at bugs-he calls them “buh-goos”-up close and personal. He laughs uproariously as he tosses a plastic ball toward the ceiling, over, and over, and over again.

It can be easy for us, as diabetics, to lose that sense of wonder. And we have every reason to experience our world that way. Think about it: A century ago, type 1 diabetes was an unstoppable death sentence. Today, it’s a manageable disease in which treatment advances mean complications can be delayed indefinitely (or at the very least, meaningfully limited). How amazing that is.

For type 2s, the news is nearly as good. New drugs are flooding the market, many of them promising more and more control over blood sugar levels. Doctors and insurance companies are taking the disease seriously, and aggressive treatment is yet again reducing complications.

You might not think about it this way, given all of the alarming headlines about obesity and an epidemic of diabetes. But what fabulous times we live in. What an amazing world it is for people with diabetes, and how much promise awaits us!

The Charm of a Schedule

My son lives on a pretty strict schedule. He’s up most days around 6 a.m. He takes a two- to three-hour nap at 11:45 a.m., and at 7 p.m. or so he heads to bed.

Modern technology and treatment paradigms have freed diabetics from the need to stay on a rigid, restrictive schedule. Yet I wonder if my son’s routine might hold some lessons for all of us. Any person with diabetes who has compared his or her control under a set schedule with one that varies knows the truth: A stable schedule produces big benefits.

After all, your body reacts differently to insulin at different times. Many type 1s are familiar with the “dawn phenomenon,” an unexplained early morning rise in blood sugars. And depending on the person, blood sugars can vary in a similar way throughout the day, as our physical activity, food intake, and hormone levels vary.

In other words, our bodies are following a schedule, whether or not we acknowledge it.

So why not make that schedule work for us? Why don’t we try to eat at more regular times and more regular amounts? Why don’t we keep track of those natural variations throughout the day and make sure they don’t take us by surprise?

A lot of people with diabetes do this already. A lot of them don’t. Not everyone’s lives make it possible, either. But if you have the space to set a schedule, and if you have the discipline to enforce regular mealtimes, you might give it a try.

Willing to Make Mistakes

When you’re a little person trying to get around a world designed for big people, you’re going to fall down. You’re going to bump your head. You’re going to feel confused at all of the words and activity taking place above you.

As diabetics, sometimes we’re reluctant to take our bumps. We don’t want to acknowledge that we make mistakes and that we will always be learning. And it’s not like I’m immune to this tendency. Oh, no. Let me give you an example.

Over this summer, I had a seriously chastening experience with my diabetes educator. I’d been feeling seriously put out by my pump. My blood sugars were too high, too often. The doses of insulin I gave myself at mealtimes didn’t seem to cover the food I ate. Nothing seemed to be working out right, and it made me incredibly frustrated.

I went to an appointment with my educator and vented. I told her everything. We went through my treatment plan point by point and made a bunch of adjustments. They seemed tiny. I left her office wondering if I’d really accomplished anything.

But then, over the next few days, I found that all of my gripes were melting away. My blood sugars were dropping. My body was responding. And it was all for a simple reason-I was taking more insulin.

That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Of course my blood sugars would be lower if I took more insulin. But it wasn’t until I actually sat down and made the tweaks-to my insulin-carb ratio, to my correction factor, and to a couple of sections of my basal rate-that everything came together.

But I was invested in my version of reality. One in which my pump was betraying me. One in which unknown circumstances were making my life difficult. It couldn’t have been that I was falling short. Of course not. Not me.

Constant Changes, Constantly

When I look back at pictures of my son as a newborn, I can scarcely believe it. How did that sweet little bundle turn into the precocious toddler tearing around my living room? How did he manage to do it in a couple of years?

The answer, simply, is that he changed. And he is changing. It’s an ongoing process, too slow to see day by day or week by week, but a magic trick that unfolds over months. My son is growing into someone I don’t know. I will come to know these future versions of him, but it can be disorienting to realize how fast the time passes.

In the same way, I can remember the way I controlled my diabetes as an elementary school student. I can remember the way I handled it in college. I can remember the way I managed it in my first job.

Those memories astonish me. I took so much about the diabetes for granted. I assumed everything would work out for the best. I was never truly careless, but luck was definitely on my side.

My control and my understanding of this illness has changed throughout the decades. I’m sure it will continue to evolve as new technology becomes available. I can’t predict the twists and turns it will take; I can only hold on and do my level best to manage.

Where We End Up

My son delights and amazes me. Sometimes he acts like a bit of a pain, but I love him anyway. It’s safe to say that I don’t have such a warm and fuzzy relationship with diabetes. I accept and respect it-that’s the only safe choice-but I certainly don’t love it.

Yet I can’t ignore the fact that this disease has become part of who I am. And as I make my peace with that, I can look for the little lessons it teaches. For we should always be able and willing to learn-from our children, from our loved ones, from our own bodies.

Those lessons transcend their context. I don’t love my diabetes, but it has taught me much about being a person and recognizing my own limitations. And being a parent has taught me to savor the joy and wisdom surrounding me, no matter how small.

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