Freedom Within Barriers — Life With Diabetes

Last week I brought up a question for us Diabetians to think about: How do we take the power away from diabetes and find freedom within the confines of this sometimes oppressive, and always limiting, condition? How do we live with the constraints it presents to us without letting those constraints dictate who we are, what we do, or how we feel?

These kinds of questions venture into psychology, philosophy, and spirituality, making them both very interesting and very personal. And because we’re talking about the nature of the self, and the nature of what it means to live a human life, it can touch on places of deep division between people, as well. Our ideas of God, destiny, and free will all come into play.


So as I offer my take on this wide-ranging question, I will do my best to avoid “partisan” opinions or taking any positions that go overtly toward or against any particular belief systems. I hope that what I’m offering, which is drawn largely from my experience as a former therapist and my life with diabetes for the past 22 years, can be adapted by readers to fit within their larger worldview. And as my former jazz piano teacher used to say to me, “keep what you like, throw away what you don’t — I’m just offering options.”

Complete freedom is a myth — for E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y
Diabetes feels like something that robs us of personal freedom. We lament the limitations it puts on us, the tether that it holds around us all the time. I lament these things, too. But many years ago, I had a realization about this idea of freedom — it’s a myth for everybody, not just people with diabetes. Freedom from constraints is impossible in this world. If you really stop and examine your daily life, you very quickly see the staggering web of interdependence we ALL live in. How many of us could actually procure the food we eat everyday? How many of us know how to hunt, skin, treat, prepare, and cook a wild animal? How many of us know how to farm? How many of us know how to weave our own clothes in the winter? How many of us know how to build a shelter, or build a well for water, or treat that water to make it safe to consume? Most of us are utterly dependent on the vast infrastructure that supports modern life. And if that infrastructure crashes, MOST of us perish pretty quickly.

You might be thinking, “OK, the preceding paragraph seems a bit outlandish; yes, if society crashes we’ll all lose out, but right NOW we Diabetians have less freedom than a lot of people.” But there’s an important distinction to make here, and that is between “material freedom” and “absolute freedom.” Material freedom is about practical, physical circumstances. It’s the literal constraints of not being allowed to pilot a commercial plane because you have diabetes, or living with complications that limit mobility, or having to walk around all day, every day with an insulin pump attached to your body. It’s the limitation of not being able to eat with everyone at a dinner party because your blood sugar was high before the meal and now you have to wait an hour before you can consume food. On this level, a life with diabetes imposes a few more limitations than a life without diabetes (though again, nobody is free from material dependence).

But absolute freedom is about the mind; it’s about internal freedom. And that is something physical constraints can’t contain. Absolute freedom gets back to that idea I started with last week from Pema Chodron about the “freedom of no escape.” Her point was that true freedom comes from realizing the myth of material freedom; it comes from understanding that we all live in a conditioned world, in a physical body that WILL eventually perish; it means embracing the fact that we’re not in control of MOST things, and that every concrete action we take is conditioned by this impermanent world. When we understand this, we can stop searching for a material form of freedom that simply can’t exist, and instead we can turn inward.

When we turn inward, we see that our true obstacles are not the material constraints we face, but our reactions TO them. The problem is not that we have to wait an hour to eat; the problem is that we react to this fact by indulging in anger or self-pity or some other emotional surge. We become trapped not by the fact that we have to alter our concrete plans, but by our own emotional response to what happened. In other words, we take away our OWN freedom. If we learn to accept the material imposition without reacting to it, that material imposition loses all power over us.

As Diabetians, we must learn this lesson. We must understand that all of the physical limitations, or concrete obstacles, are part of that conditioned world that can’t be controlled by ANYONE, diabetes or no diabetes, and our energy needs to be devoted to cultivating our own internal freedom.

I hope this week’s entry was, if nothing else, an interesting “thought experiment,” and planted the seed of what is a very powerful idea. Next week, I’ll wrap this series up with some more practical ideas about how to really cultivate and implement this idea of “absolute freedom” and how to regulate our emotional responses to the often-infuriatingly fickle uninvited house guest we call “diabetes.”

Supplementation with aloe vera may improve blood sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, according to a new study. Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more.