In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month, a writer examines the importance mindfulness has on managing her chronic and often misunderstood health condition.
When I was 10 years old, out of nowhere, I started waking up in the middle of the night to urinate. Unquenchably thirsty in that half-asleep state, I’d guzzle cups of water from the sink. I’d fall back asleep, wake up in another hour or so with a full bladder, and repeat the cycle of peeing and drinking water until morning came.
My mother knew, of course, that something was wrong. We went to the doctor, where I was told to urinate in a cup. The test showed that the amount of glucose spilling out of my body put me at a dangerous risk of my organs shutting down. We were rushed to the hospital, and I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that day, more than 41 years ago.
I was taught to give myself insulin injections that first afternoon, drawing up saline and jabbing it into an orange. When I woke up the second day, a nurse instructed me how to pinch my thigh and shoot the syringe of insulin right in. Children with diabetes need daily insulin shots in order to live, she explained.
The doctors tried to comfort me and my family by explaining that a cure for Type 1 diabetes was on the horizon. It would surely be available by the time that I was an adult. They urged me to be stringent about monitoring my blood sugar at home and in school to avoid frightening long-term diabetes complications such as kidney disease, heart failure, and blindness.
After five days, we left the hospital with strict instructions: Eat a low-sugar diet (super-fun for a kid), exercise, get my eyes checked regularly, and always carry glucose tabs in case my blood sugar dropped low, which, if untreated, could lead to a coma or death. We were on our own with the daunting responsibility of both managing a chronic illness that demands 24-7 diligence and figuring out how to live with the trauma my diagnosis caused my family.
I was fortunate to have loving, supportive parents. My mom found a local diabetes support group so I could get to know kids like me who were managing Type 1. But during rebellious teenage years, I struggled with accepting all that I had to do to manage my disease. Later, as a college student who was outwardly pursuing my dream of writing and making new friends, my inner fears and anxieties led to a major depressive episode.
Throughout my health journey, I was actually never prescribed any mental health care by a doctor. It turned out that therapy and mindfulness were the missing ingredients that I needed to live well with Type 1 diabetes as an adult. Starting therapy in my early 20s was the pivotal change that helped me find my resilience. Having a safe space to process the feelings that I’d been holding back led me to discover an inner strength that has been with me — and growing deeper — ever since I was diagnosed.
There are currently .css-5z6rvi{-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-decoration-thickness:0.0625rem;text-decoration-color:inherit;text-underline-offset:0.25rem;color:inherit;-webkit-transition:all 0.3s ease-in-out;transition:all 0.3s ease-in-out;}.css-5z6rvi:hover{color:#B20B16;text-decoration-color:border-link-body-hover;}1.45 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes. While the technology needed to maintain optimal blood sugar range has dramatically improved since I was first diagnosed, the cure I was promised as a kid remains elusive. Type 1 diabetes is often invisible in the national conversation around the diabetes epidemic and the soaring price of insulin.
In a recent debate, U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker said that eating right could eliminate the need for insulin, ignoring the fact that Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune reaction, not diet. Ignorant comments like this one are uttered in the media more often than you could imagine.
When I heard Walker’s words and felt my blood start to boil, I used one of my favorite coping techniques: taking deep breaths to release my rage. I’ve learned through the years that stress makes my blood sugar skyrocket. I can watch on my continuous glucose sensor how stress hormones like cortisol make my numbers climb out of range.
To stay healthy — and hopefully continue living complication-free — I’ve acquired a whole toolbox that helps me find balance, like engaging in meditation, practicing yoga, watching comedy videos, and walking my dog.
Instead of passively waiting for that promised cure, I focus on mind-body-spirit healing, which requires much more of me than managing my blood sugar. Healing means tuning in to how my body feels, paying close attention to my emotions, and finding ways to release the fears that are an inevitable part of life for every human. I must make time for fun and joy as well as offer myself compassion on the days when my blood sugar control isn’t optimal, despite doing my best.
I embrace the opportunity to be here, present in my life in an imperfect body that may never be totally fixed. I tell that 10-year-old girl inside of me, the one who was really scared back in the hospital, that she will discover strength that she never could have imagined, and that it’s okay to be vulnerable. I tell her that she belongs here, whether or not a cure comes in our lifetime. On the days when I am struggling with this reality — and I do still struggle — I hold her close, and we keep moving forward together.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a Philadelphia-based writer, educator, and disability advocate. Follow her on Twitter @GabKaplanMayer.
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