The Other: How Spouses of Diabetics Deal

It’s a cool Sunday evening, and I’m sitting in a lively Italian restaurant. My husband is across the table.  We’ve just placed our orders, and we’re engaged in easy conversation.

Knowing that our meal will be arriving shortly, I pull my meter out of my purse and proceed to check my blood sugar.   Meanwhile, my husband is talking about his job, and our server has placed a basket of warm bread and a bowl of olive oil and garlic in front of us.  The smell is intoxicating.

My meter screen counts down from five.   I glance down to see a less-than-ideal reading:  one that warrants an injection (in case my insulin pump set is clogged) and a few hours without any intake of carbohydrates. In an instant, I feel that the evening is ruined.  I’m embarrassed, ashamed, and, mostly, angry.

While the diners surrounding our table laugh merrily and converse loudly over glasses of wine and plates heaped with steaming pasta, and my husband sits across from me, attentive and content, my mind is racing.  Should I change my set?  Leave the restaurant immediately in anger?  Seethe and watch my husband enjoy his meal?  Cry?  Go ahead and eat while praying that my blood sugar cooperates?

I choose the latter, knowing that we are thirty minutes from home, that my daughter is enjoying time with her favorite babysitter, and that the quiet, intimate dinner we are having is a rare occasion.  However, this questions plays over and over in my mind:  Why, once again, does my diabetes seem to ruin the most perfect of moments?

As difficult as diabetes is for me, I often forget to consider the Other, the person who supports me “in sickness and in health.” He’s the one who feeds me glucose tablets when I’m low and wakes up with me when my CGM beeps loudly at 2:00 AM.   I’m easily sucked into a “woe is me” pity party, and I forget that my whole family seemingly has this disease, not just me. 

Brad Bourgeois’ wife Suzanne is 28 years old, has had type 1 diabetes since she was nine, and recently gave birth to a baby girl.  When I asked Brad how Suzanne’s diabetes makes him feel, he said, “Sometimes I feel helpless, in situations where I would otherwise know exactly what to do to fix the situation.  But really, any feelings I have are secondary to just being supportive for her.”  

My husband has frequently felt the same way.   He often asks me, “What can I do?”  But the truth is, I just need him to be there.  I don’t expect him to understand how I feel, nor do I want him to “fix” the problem.   A simple gesture like getting me a glass of water (if I’m high and thirsty) or glucose tablets (if I’m low and irritated) can improve my situation.  

Maureen Swenson’s husband Kirk has had type 1 diabetes since childhood. Kirk was snowboarding with friends one day when he faced a dangerous low blood sugar and crashed. Maureen was able to respond promptly, testing Kirk’s sugar (34!) and giving him juice. Though the incident was scary for Maureen, she was able to control her own emotions and respond to the immediate need:  Kirk’s low blood sugar. 

The common thread that runs throughout each spouse’s story seems to be one of sacrifice and service. The spouse puts his or her feelings and needs on the back burner to attend to the urgent requirements of his or her spouse’s diabetes.  

Brad advises spouses of people with diabetes to try to understand how the person with diabetes is feeling, but most importantly, “You just have to listen.” Maureen believes that one should “help when help is needed, but don’t overdo it.” 

The balance between being a help and a hindrance is difficult for a spouse to find.   Many of us with diabetes hide our feelings and struggles so that we do not burden our spouses.   Brad shared with me that he knows Suzanne gets frustrated at times when she does everything she is supposed to, yet her body doesn’t always cooperate.    Maureen stated that her husband maintains tight blood sugar control so his diabetes isn’t “that big of a deal.”  However, she added, she can tell that Kirk is stressed when his sugars are high or low.  

Most of the burden of diabetes falls on the patient.  Day to day, moment to moment, we care for our diabetes—testing, injecting, waiting, eating, managing.  The spouse is often left with nothing to do but wait and listen, which can be challenging.

Though my husband doesn’t feel the physical effects of a low or high blood sugar, he has to deal with my mood swings and physical reactions, whether that is extreme fatigue and fogginess due to a high or shaking and sweating due to a low.  Brad told me that anything he feels as a result of Suzanne’s blood sugar swings “pales in comparison to the things she goes through.” What are those things?   Constant discipline and sacrifice on behalf of oneself and, in Suzanne’s case, her recent pregnancy. Furthermore, the discipline and sacrifice that it takes to live as normal of a life as possible with diabetes is a gift to the diabetic’s spouse.  I recall a saying my grandmother had hanging in her kitchen:  “A happy wife, a happy life.” 

Rob Thomas’ song “Her Diamonds” is a beautiful yet dark tale of a husband whose wife suffers from an auto-immune disease that leaves her frustrated and crying “diamonds” onto the floor.  Rob sings that “her diamonds bring me down” and that “I can’t help her now.” This husband’s helplessness and sorrow resonates with me as I think about what my spouse must feel when he sees me suffering the effects of my diabetes.

Even though diabetes is relentless and the struggles can appear during the most inopportune moments, the blessing of having a partner nearby, one who is encouraging, helpful, and supportive, is priceless.    It’s so easy for those of us with diabetes to forget about all that “the Other” does for us, because diabetes is so consuming. However, we must stop and reflect:  Where would we be without them? 

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