Watch Out for Aftershocks

It doesn’t matter whether your doctor is a blunt bull-in-a-china-shop type or a hand-holder who tries to deliver the news as softly as possible: it’s a shock when you learn you have type 2.

Often that’s not the only shock. There’s a second one soon after when you learn that your doctor may know less about the disease than you think. That’s because most people with diabetes first hear the bad news from general practitioners –doctors who know a great deal about many things but usually not as much about any single one of them as you’d like.

That was my experience in 2003 when my doctor jolted me with the news that I had type 2. After letting the news sink in, he turned to me and said, “Now, let’s talk about what this means for your life from now on.”

I listened in a mild daze as he recited advice that most people have heard in one form or another, even if they’re not coping with diabetes. Avoid sugar at all costs. Cut back on fats. Exercise. He also told me that potatoes might be a no-no, but that the jury was still out on that.

I immediately rearranged my life to follow my doctor’s advice. I gave up a two-can-a-day beer drinking habit, dropped cheese and red meat, and scoured supermarket shelves for fat- and sugar-free foods. The problem was that the foods I was buying were disgusting. Fat-free “mayonnaise” and sugar-free “relish” were flat, tasteless, and, dare I say it, repulsive.

Seeing Through the Folklore

Dismayed by the prospect of a life filled with unpalatable food, I began reading a lot about diabetes and attending a class sponsored by my health plan where newly diagnosed people with diabetes learned about eating right. That’s when I realized that a lot of my doctor’s advice was canned stuff that wasn’t always on the mark.

I learned that sugar itself–fructose and sucrose—wasn’t quite the bogeyman that everybody thinks it is. My body is going to convert every carbohydrate I feed it into glucose, so it doesn’t matter if the source is cake icing or half a peach. The real concern is how many carbs I feed it at any one time and whether those carbs are the kind that my body has to work harder and longer to break down into sugar.

In short, I didn’t have to give up all of my favorite foods to control my diabetes. What I had to give up was overindulging in those foods or consuming them in the wrong combinations.


The next shock was that after initial successes at losing weight, modifying my diet and bringing down my blood sugar count, I hit a morale-wrecking plateau. I came in one day after a tough up-and-down three-mile walk, drew some blood and saw that my count was 179. It was like somebody had kicked the props out from under me. After months of hard work walking, eating properly and taking my meds, the best I could do after hard exercise was a 179.

That’s when I learned the hardest lesson of all about having diabetes: You can manage the disease and even become masterful at it, but sometimes diabetes just rears up and bites you a big one—like that demoralizing 179 reading.  It’s a fork-in-the-road situation where you give up trying or you decide to fight back.

Taking Control

I fought back by continuing my vigorous diet and exercise routine. But I also got on the Internet and began scouring it for information on various therapies, drugs, and other people’s experiences managing diabetes. I began to put together some plausible alternatives to my current treatment scheme, such as adding new drugs to the mix and exploring low-carb diets. Then I went to talk to my doctor.

I decided when I saw him to turn the tables and deliver a shock rather than take one: I was going to be the one to take charge of my treatment. I showed him the treatment plan I had created. After his initial surprise at how much I knew and how serious I was about managing my diabetes, the man almost began to glow. “You don’t know how gratifying it is when a diabetes patient helps me like this,” he told me. By becoming my doctor’s informed partner, I had given him the most powerful reason he needed to become my staunch advocate.

Since then I have had the ups and downs that almost all of us with diabetes have come to expect. I try to keep setbacks in perspective by remembering that most of the time I’m in control of my disease. Before I was diagnosed, I had no control at all.

These days there are no shocks for me. I know that I’ll always have to adjust to changes in my metabolism and the progression of the disease. But I intend to slow down, pay attention to my body, and halt the progression as much as possible.

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