On November 25, 2004, it was confirmed that one of my internal organs was on its way out, and that soon, it would probably stop working altogether. I had spent the few weeks before this in complete agony. I was 15, and instead of feeling invincible and in the prime of my life, I was sleeping all day and losing weight at such a rate that it was obvious to me something wasn’t right. Then came the dead giveaway symptom: the unquenchable thirst—one of the first noticeable signs of high blood sugar. I had grown up in a household of three diabetics, so I knew at my core what this all meant. I just didn’t want to admit that it was my time to join their little club.
What are you supposed to do when you’re met with the life-changing diagnosis of being a type 1 diabetic, over the phone, while vacationing with your entire extended family in the Adirondack Mountains on Thanksgiving? Run downstairs to lock yourself in a bathroom stall and cry? Perfect, because that’s what I did. I was feeling anything but thankful that night.
It took me years before I came to accept this new lifestyle, and even longer until I was able to live in harmony with it instead of fear. Sometimes I still get exhausted and overwhelmed with the disease, but every November I figure I can either allow myself to get depressed on my “Dia-versary,” or I can join the thousands of others sharing their stories, support, and knowledge during National Diabetes Awareness Month.
Myth: You won’t get diabetes if you just watch your weight and eat fewer sweets.
Fact: Diabetes is an autoimmune disease that affects 29.1 million Americans (2012), none of whom brought the disease upon themselves. There are two different types of diabetes:
Type 1 accounts for only 5% of people with diabetes and is when the pancreas stops producing insulin altogether, resulting in the individual having to do injections of the hormone to break down glucose from meals. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t known, but research suggests environmental factors, viruses, or genetics may play a role. As one of four type 1’s in my immediate family, I’m going to lean toward the genetics part of things on this one.
Type 2 is when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, and/or it can’t use the insulin properly. Those affected can manage their diabetes through diet and exercise, but medication may still be needed. The exact cause of type 2 is also unknown, but again, research suggests the environment, genetics, ethnicity, and yes maybe even excess weight and inactivity may be contributing factors. But again, strictly eating too many sweets does not cause the disease; it may increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, but only if you’re already at risk.
Myth: Diabetes isn’t really that big of a deal.
Fact: Did you know that diabetes is responsible for more deaths each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined? Despite all of the continued research, nobody knows the exact cause, or has been able to find a cure, and the numbers of diagnoses continue to rise. It is true that if treated and kept under good control, one can live a long, healthy life with diabetes, but that doesn’t make the gravity of the situation any easier to handle. Just because diabetics are able to count carbohydrates and do the calculations to inject the amount of insulin needed for each meal, or just because we know how much exercise we should do and have the devices to test our blood sugars after, it doesn’t make it less of a deal. These things become our daily reminders of just how much of our lives the disease has taken control of.
Myth: See! Diabetes is super easy to manage and I’ve even heard these extremes can be avoided altogether with a special restricted, sugar free diet.
Fact: Yes, it can be managed. Yes, it can be lived with. But that in no way means it’s easy. Diabetes is like a test every day. And there are no days off. Sometimes you pass, sometimes you fail. Some days you know why your numbers are trending high, other days you’re blindsided by that low. Even if you do every single thing right, and follow all of your doctor’s’ orders, sometimes it can still go wrong. There are approximately a billion different things that can affect your blood sugar levels—from how much sleep you get to your menstrual cycle, from traveling through time zones to having an extra cup of coffee—there’s still quite a bit of guesswork to be done, even after a lifetime of having the disease.
As for the special diet you’ve heard about, nutritionists actually recommend that diabetics follow the same healthy diet guidelines as everybody else: plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, with a limited amount of fat and refined sugar. We can even have the occasional alcoholic drink and sweets as a part of that healthy diet and lifestyle.
So next time you upload that photo of your cinnamon sugar covered brunch, or your haul of half-off Halloween candy, and use the hashtag “#diabetes,” joking about the causes and ignoring the seriousness of the disease, please remember these facts and those of us who aren’t LOL-ing.