Living with diabetes is about so much more than dieting and exercising. It’s a daily chore that never stops.
Only a diabetic can understand what it feels like to live with it. You only have to walk in the shoes of a person with type 1 or type 2 diabetes for a few miles to realize that this disease is about so much more than just diet and exercise.
Your blood sugars don’t simply rise because you ate candy — they can rise from a few bites of the world’s healthiest whole-grain bran, or a freshly plucked-off-the-tree organic apple. Your blood sugar can rise simply from a stressful day at work and an increase in your cortisol levels. Your blood sugar can rise from the adrenaline of a roller-coaster ride or the hormones we all produce around 4 a.m. every day. Your blood sugar can interrupt your life at the most inopportune times: when you’re trying to get your kids ready for school, when you’re speaking at your grandfather’s memorial service, or in the middle of the night when you’re so tired you can barely think straight. Even healthy activities like exercise can mean you have to work even harder to keep your blood sugar in a safe and healthy range. Diabetes never leaves you alone. Everything you do can impact your blood sugar, for better or worse.
2. Full of forced choices
Oh, sure, your brother is doing the “cave man diet” because everybody at his CrossFit gym is doing it, too, but to a non-diabetic it’s a choice. Yes, we all need to make healthy choices, but people with diabetes are commanded and lectured and threatened to make those healthy choices. The pressure to be perfect with that daunting long-term fear of losing your vision, losing your toes, or needing a kidney transplant isn’t inspiring; it’s terrifying and exhausting. And on top of it all, perfection in diet or exercise or insulin doses doesn’t actually mean you’re guaranteed a life of perfect blood sugars. Every day brings new variables, many of which are out of your control in life with diabetes.
One of the most important things a person with diabetes can do to take care of themselves is test their blood sugar regularly, but every single result we see on the screen of that glucometer can feel like an overwhelming grade. That grade is basically telling us whether we got it all right or we totally screwed up. Those taking insulin, especially, are constantly trying to estimate the carbohydrates (and sometimes protein) in the food they consume, and must estimate insulin doses and activity levels. Not to mention the extra stress of what happens when someone else sees the number on the screen of your glucometer: an extra dose of judgment. “Oh my gosh, that’s bad! What’d you do?” The blame and shame comes from friends, family, and even our doctors.
4. It’s scary too
To a non-diabetic, the scariest thing about diabetes is probably the idea of needing an amputation, but in reality, the scariest thing about diabetes is the daily fluctuation of your blood sugar levels. A non-diabetic may think they’re having a low blood sugar because they skipped lunch, but the body automatically balances their blood sugar levels to prevent true hypoglycemia. In diabetics, true hypoglycemia can be terrifying. It starts with mild sweating and shakiness, but it can quickly progress to your body feeling as if it’s shutting down. Your brain feels like it’s screaming, “Save me! I feel like I’m dying! Save me!” and you have to resist the urge to eat everything in site to bring your blood sugar back up to a safe level. Some lows are so subtle that you don’t feel them until they’re so low you can hardly function. Imagine going to bed at night and your last thought is, “I hope I wake up.”
5. Shaming and blaming
We can’t expect the entire world to know about diabetes just because we live with it ourselves, but diabetes comes with a unique aspect that most diseases do not: the general public feels entitled to shaming and blaming and lecturing us. Even with a lifetime cigarette smoker who develops lung cancer, it would be very rare to hear a stranger tell that person it’s their fault for smoking too many cigarettes. But in diabetes, we receive those types of comments every week. “You gave yourself diabetes because you ate too much candy?” “You have diabetes? You don’t look that fat.” “Oh, your child has diabetes? My grandmother had diabetes. She lost her legs, and then she died.” These types of comments and the many scientifically inaccurate jokes that are spread throughout mainstream media are hard to ignore. Even at meals with your very own family, a person with diabetes can endure a slurry of directions or criticism for what they’ve chosen to eat, leaving that diabetic with nothing more than the urge to rebel or scream or give up entirely.