Adjusting to Your Diabetes Diagnosis

I remember the day I was told I had diabetes like it happened yesterday. I was 15 years old, visiting the doctor for my annual back-to-school physical. It was nearing the end of the exam when the doctor told me (and my mother, who was there with me) that I had extra sugar in my urine sample. I had no idea what this meant at the time, and so I assumed it was just because I had been drinking WAAAAAY too much sugary soda and junk food during my off-campus lunch trips with my friends. But then the doctor went on to tell us, in the most inappropriately casual and downright “cheery” voice, that it meant I probably had diabetes and would have to start taking insulin every day, managing my diet, limiting sugar intake, meal planning, and testing my blood sugar. She handed us some little pamphlet about diabetes, and suggested we make an appointment with the endocrinologist on our way out.

Now, I’m very lucky that I found out the way I did, in spite of my doctor’s lack of appropriate bedside manner. For most people with Type 1, the worsening undiagnosed diabetes just feels like a bad flu that won’t go away. Eventually, they find themselves in the ER after passing out or otherwise hitting a crisis point, and it is there that they find out their life is forever changed with the diagnosis of diabetes. Now, perhaps my doctor was simply trying to lighten the blow, but I’ve always thought she could have “sombered up” her tone just a little bit — I mean, she WAS telling a 15-year-old kid that his life was about to completely change and he would now have a chronic disease that required massive changes in his daily habits, carried a list of potential complications if he didn’t manage it just right, and required near constant attention.

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Critique of my doctor aside, adjusting to the news of Type 1 diabetes is not an easy thing to do. Adjusting to Type 2 is no picnic, either. Life with diabetes requires massive changes, and even when it’s going well, it still calls on us to give it enormous amounts of attention! So today, I want to talk about a few of the ways we can cope with the news and adjust to a life with diabetes.

It’s serious, yes, but…
When I was diagnosed, I immediately imagined ALL of the foods that would now be off-limits. I imagined the headache of keeping track of blood sugar, and I felt the dread of worry that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the job. At the time, meal-planning and the old “regular” insulin were still the norm, so I was also adjusting to the idea that I would have to live by a regimented schedule, something no teenager wants to hear!

In those first few months, I eventually came to a realization that proved very helpful, and is a good piece of advice for anyone struggling with a new diagnosis: I realized it didn’t have to come together all at once. When we’re newly diagnosed, we’re given so much information, and a lot of it concerns the importance of good blood sugar management, and the scary, dangerous complications awaiting us if we don’t. In this information age, there’s even more fear that can be instilled with a simple Google search for “diabetes complications.” All of this causes us to relate to the disease, particularly when it’s a new diagnosis, as if every single blood sugar reading is monumentally important. And yes, every reading IS important, but we will ALWAYS have bad readings here and there, and a few months of “wonky” numbers as we’re learning the ropes isn’t going to be a death sentence. In other words, you have time. It’s OK. Don’t try to be perfect right away, just try your best and treat your lows. Trust that the knowledge WILL build and you will find your rhythm.

The fact is, you’ll learn what you need to learn FASTER if you give yourself permission to not be perfect. That drive for perfection creates stress, and as stress goes up, our capacity for new learning goes down. And learning how to live with diabetes entails a LOT of new learning.

Life will be different, not “over”
When I learned I had diabetes, I imagined my entire life as I knew it before was just DONE. I imagined losing my social life because I would be stuck on my “meal schedule” and friends wouldn’t want to deal with it. I imagined all of my activities stopping while I devoted myself mind, body, and soul to the 24-hour-a-day job of “diabetes management.” It was a lot of fear-based projection.

You have to realize that yes, diabetes WILL impact your life. But your life is not “over.” Having diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t do what you did before your diagnosis. In fact, along with holding some positions in the military, one of the only things you now literally CAN’T do is become a commercial airline pilot in the United States (a rule that some resent but I have no problem with — I certainly don’t want my captain going low on the final runway approach…). But the world is FULL of people with diabetes who do amazing things. The ranks of Diabetians include professional athletes, world-touring musicians, writers, actors, and every other creative niche you can think of. And it includes bank tellers, convenience-store clerks, and accountants. In other words, diabetes has an impact on your life and on your daily choices, but it doesn’t dictate your life!

Keep moving forward
As a 22-year “veteran” of diabetes, I can assure you that there will be challenges. There will be bad times, and there will be some painful moments. But your life will continue, and diabetes will not consume you. Diabetes will be a PART of your life, not the whole of your life. And you’ll learn to manage this disease. I know the learning curve looks steep, and I know it can feel overwhelming at first, but you’ve gotta just keep moving forward. Find support groups, talk to a therapist if needed, find comfort in friends, educate yourself, and just take one day at a time. You’ll be OK. And welcome to the club!

Two diabetes drugs may increase the risk of heart failure, according to the FDA. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.

  • Samwell Baggins

    Thanks for the good words, Scott. For me, getting that initial diabetes diagnosis was one of the most stressful things that ever happened to me. My maternal grandmother had a heart attack and stroke, and two friends have had leg amputations that were diabetes-related, so I knew intellectually and viscerally exactly what that diagnosis meant.

    Thanks to some good diabetes education, proper diet and some crazy exercise, my A1cs have been in the 4.8 to 4.9 range for almost two years. My doctor doesn’t see this type of recovery often and now thinks I might not have diabetes, even with a first A1c of just over 7.0. I take the view that it does not matter whether I have diabetes or not, whether it is in remission or simply is well-controlled, I am not changing back to a bad diet, obesity or non-activity.

    Now, I stress out to get enough daily carbs to keep my blood glucose in the 80s without gaining my weight back. I strive for more complex carbs and less simple carbs. I have to eat three carbs prior to exercise to avoid BG readings in the low 60s.I exercise to live longer and feel better, not just to lower BG. I think I need support and reassurance more than ever, although the outright fear of complications seems to have lessened.

    I still consider myself a member of *the Club!*