A woman I know through the diabetes community contacted me recently and asked for help. She has a friend whose daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 14. Her friend’s daughter is struggling. She’s frustrated and angry about having diabetes and the mother feels helpless. My heart hurts for this family. I want to tell the mom that everything will be OK to make her feel better, but I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to give her false hope, because it’s very likely that her daughter won’t be OK for weeks, months, or even years. In my experience, being diagnosed at 14 years old was really hard. So what can I say to encourage this mom? How can I reassure her that once her daughter gets through this stage of life, things will get better?
One of the chapters in my book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Diabetes: Authentic Advice on Everything From Eating to Dating and Motherhood, is called “Managing Adolescence,” and it’s filled with stories from women who managed the challenges and frustrations, and even rewards, of living with diabetes during this stage of life. One of the women profiled in the book is Stella Biggs, who was 16 years old when she was diagnosed. Stella said most of her friends and family had no idea what diabetes was. “I was mad about having to change my lifestyle, along with all the other pressures of being a teenager. I didn’t tell everyone. I think I was in denial for a long time. I still wanted to be able to go to Dairy Queen with my friends and eat a blizzard after school… My biggest frustration as a teenager was not being able to act what I thought was normal. I now see that was not true and insignificant, but to a teenager ‘fitting in’ is [high on the list of priorities].”
Nearly five years have passed since the publication of my book, so I decided to follow up with Stella to ask if she had any additional advice to offer. “Being a teenager is hard enough without having to deal with health issues too. Try not to focus on your limitations, but focus on being able to control your disease. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to tell people you have diabetes. It’s not something to be ashamed of. You didn’t cause this by eating the wrong foods. If you manage it yourself, and don’t let it manage you, your frustration should ease. Also, if you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up, but deal with it and learn from it.”
It’s been thirty-one years since I was diagnosed, and I am now a mother of a 14-year-old son. When I look at him, I see a boy who is on the cusp of everything. Soon, he will be driving. Soon, he will be shaving. Soon, he will be taller than me. He is too big to buy clothes in the children’s department, but not yet big enough for the men’s department. He’s pulling away from me, but he still kisses me goodnight. I think about this mom, and I try to imagine my own 14 year old with Type 1 diabetes. I try to think about how it would change his life. He loves baseball, and if he had diabetes, he would have to test his blood sugar before, during, and after every game. He would have to carry Life Savers or Starburst or glucose tabs with him everywhere he went. He would have to give himself injections or wear a pump. He would have to be more cautious, more organized, and more responsible than his friends, so with that in mind I would tell mothers and teenagers that it’s OK to give into the sadness and frustration.
There are days when diabetes sucks, so when you’re having one of those days, give yourself a pity party. Change out of your clothes and into your pajamas. Climb into bed. Grab your favorite book or magazine or turn on a TV show or movie and escape for a few hours. It’s OK to feel sad and frustrated. Don’t fight it. Sometimes giving into these emotions makes them less powerful and overwhelming. Allow the pity party to last for a few hours, and then get up out of bed or off the couch. Take a deep breath and draw on your inner strength, because living with diabetes has made you strong.
I haven’t worn a medical bracelet in years, but this year I bought myself a string bracelet from MyIntent Project, a company that creates customized jewelry. Each bracelet has a small coin-sized charm attached, featuring a single word or phrase. The word I chose for myself was “Warrior.” I chose this word because I was training for a half marathon. I wore the bracelet on my arm every day, and when the running was particularly challenging and I was stopping to check my blood sugar and drink Gatorade or eat glucose tabs when I was low, I repeated the word in my head like a mantra and I believed it. I believe it. I think all of us who are managing life with diabetes are warriors. I would tell this mother that her daughter will get through these rough patches, because she too is a warrior.
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