Improvising With Diabetes

They say that diabetes management means living a routine. Food, exercise, medicine — same times, measured quantities, day after day. But life rarely stays routine. Sometimes we need to improvise.

In fact, it sometimes seems life becomes one big improv show. Improvisational theater (also known as “improv”) is working without a script. You make it up as you go along. Some improv approaches can make our lives better and probably healthier.


In improv, the cast often solicits shouted suggestions from the audience, such as “Give us an animal and a household appliance.” Then they make up a show using the audience’s idea.

Health is the same way. At some point, life shouted out “Diabetes!” and we had to go from there. Now life may be shouting, “You get the flu” or “Your insurance changes” or “Your feet start hurting,” “You get a new roommate,” “Your child flunks two classes,” or a thousand other things. How do you respond?

In improv, the number one rule is to say yes to everything. If your partner yells “Let’s climb that mountain,” and you say, “No, I’m afraid of heights,” you won’t have much of a show. Instead, you say “Yes…and,” and you work your fear into the performance.

Saying yes to diabetes might sound crazy, but it’s the life you have. It’s the instruction you were given. You are going to change things about yourself and the way you live. Maybe those changes start out being about food and exercise, but they end up involving your whole attitude about life.

If you say “yes” to what life and diabetes throw at you, your life becomes an adventure. You may have been focused on work, responsibilities, or entertainment. Now you have to think about what’s really important to you. How will you live with diabetes reminding you, “This won’t last forever”? Nothing stays the same, so go with the show as it changes. Self-management may be a routine, but it won’t be a rut. It may take you to surprisingly good places.

One warning: Saying yes to life doesn’t mean saying yes to every idiotic idea someone brings us. We still have to think for ourselves and weed out the crazy suggestions that our culture pours out.

Understanding improve
According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, improv models healthy living in several ways.

• Like life, improv is unavoidably social. It’s an ensemble, not a solo show. You have to work with the others in your cast (family, coworkers, health-care providers, everyone in your life). That might mean communicating about food plans or deciding how to tell your work about diabetes, or finding a new romantic interest, or a host of other important things.

• Like improv, life with diabetes takes practice — working without a script is scary. At first, we want to find out everything we can about our management so we can “do it right.” But no script can cover all the challenges that come up. Over time, we build up confidence and skills to improvise, while still asking for help when needed.

• Improv, like diabetes, takes courage and mutual trust of the actors. The more honest we are about our feelings and our life, the better the rest of our cast can respond. Example: Your doctor needs to know if you are taking your medicines or not. Telling the truth is an important self-management skill.

How much can you improvise?
Diabetes self-management is all about structure, but that’s not the same as a script. There is plenty of room for creativity, as our readers tell us in their comments all the time. Different things work for different people at different times.

Think of diabetes management as part of the props or instructions from life on which you base your show. The meaning and value of the show are not about glucose numbers. They are something different and bigger. Your life may be more about love, or more about accomplishment or enjoyment or spiritual growth. Saying yes to diabetes, being enthusiastic about your management, can enrich those more important elements of life.

You can see that improv doesn’t apply only to diabetes or to health. It’s about everything that life throws at us. I like to say that living is doing improv with God (which you can think of as Life, Nature, or the World if that’s more comfortable). It’s an adventure; the idea is to learn, to grow, to love, and to enjoy. It goes better if you say yes to what comes, as I’m learning in dealing with my mother’s death last month. It’s a new direction for both of us.

Good luck with your improv. Looking forward to seeing your show!


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