What I’ve Learned From Diabetes After 22 Years

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 15. I was at my doctor’s office for a routine checkup before starting the school year, and my doctor noticed a slight elevation in sugar levels from my urine sample. They drew some blood, and saw that my blood sugar was also somewhat elevated — somewhere in the range of 180, I believe. And that began my journey into living with diabetes. That was 22 years ago. I’m now 37.

In those 22 years, I’ve had my ups and my downs (just like everyone living with diabetes). I’ve had a few hypoglycemic episodes that I was unprepared for and required emergency intervention. For most of those 22 years, my control has been good, but I’ve certainly experienced the frustration of seeing my treatment regimen fail to manage my blood sugars and need some serious adjustment. I’ve experienced that deep sense of frustration when my actions don’t lead to predictable blood sugar results. I’ve been angry, sad, shocked, and frustrated with diabetes. I’ve also learned deep lessons from diabetes and grown as a human being with the insights diabetes has allowed me to access.

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Whatever else I might feel about living with diabetes, I’ll say this: Whether through positive or negative experiences (or both), I have learned a great deal about life, and about myself, living with diabetes for 22 years. None of us would choose to have diabetes if we could opt out, but since we’re all pretty well stuck with it, let’s take a moment and reflect on what we’ve learned. Here are the lessons diabetes has taught me.

We are not shaped by the blood sugars that happen TO us, but by our reactions TO them!
The old Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” This is a simple idea, but a hard one to really live into. Think about this very simple sentence for a minute: “I’m mad because my blood sugar is high.” I’ve certainly said that; we all have. But the truth is this: “I’m mad because my reaction to my high blood sugar is making me anxious/scared/feel out of control/ashamed of myself and that deep-seated fear is manifesting itself as anger.”

The anger really is a reaction to the deeper feelings of fear that might be TRIGGERED by a high blood sugar; but they aren’t CAUSED by it. There is no chemical pheromone in the test strip containing the blood droplet that travels through the air, into the nose, into the bloodstream, and causes a physiological reaction that results in increased “anger cells” that then overwhelm the body. The reaction is entirely INSIDE OURSELVES. That doesn’t mean that the consequences of chronic high blood sugar aren’t real. It doesn’t mean the pain that can come with diabetes-related complications isn’t real. But it’s not a one-to-one causal relationship.

Living with diabetes means we’ve either got to learn to understand our emotional selves and emotional reactions on a deeper, more contemplative level, or risk becoming lost in an ocean of reactivity. It forces us to grow or become lost. And in that way, diabetes can be a harsh, but also wise, teacher for us. In Buddhism, a human life is considered to be blessing because 1) we have the capacity for reflection, and 2) we experience suffering. That’s right, the fact that we experience suffering is a blessing. That’s because spiritual growth happens when we must confront hardships and we take that moment to dive more deeply into ourselves to understand what’s really happening. Without any kind of suffering, we simply float along and never examine who we are, why we are here, or look for deeper truths. Diabetes forces us to look deeper.

Editor’s note: Tune in next week to learn the second important lesson Scott has learned from living with diabetes.

A brief online and in-person program can reduce episodes of severe hypoglycemia and significantly reduce hypoglycemia unawareness, according to research presented at the American Diabetes Association’s 76th Scientific Sessions. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.

  • Beautiful column, Scott. I wrote about these lessons in my first book, The Art of Getting Well, but I have to admit, you say it better.

  • Tossaway

    Some people may argue with suffering being a blessing. I fell at the Grand Canyon 25 years ago. I believe the arthritis I’m enjoying right now is a direct result of that beating (which miraculously did not break any bones). The pain reminds me of what happened, and that there is an alternative. I happen to think that, for the most my, my life is pretty good, so I’m glad the pain reminds me I’m still alive (although I could stand not to be so constantly reminded). My diabetes is an annoyance, but the same year I fell I was diagnosed with it, and I’m still here and reasonably healthy. I had an Internet friend who was diagnosed several years after me, eventually lost both legs, and recently died from complications of diabetes. So I’m not going to complain about a little suffering, because it means I get to play GTA 5 with my son, who would not be here had the Grand Canyon had an alternative outcome (I don’t say I beat the Grand Canyon, I call it a draw).