The title of this week’s entry makes it sound like a real downer. But it’s not as depressing as it sounds. We might start in the mud, but we’ll end on a high note, I promise. With that out of the way, I want to talk about how we handle the pain and suffering that comes with diabetes. Even if you’re well controlled and complication-free, diabetes has caused you pain and suffering, and will continue to do so in the future. If you’re dealing with complications of diabetes, that pain and suffering is much deeper, of course.
I think the thing that really sets diabetes apart is its relentlessness — that is, the unending nature of it; the fact that we never, ever, ever get to take a break from it and (as of now) we will never, ever, ever be cured of it. That puts it in another category from other sources of pain in our lives. A study I read while I was getting my master’s degree made an important point: Chronic, repeated stress, even if it’s “low-grade” in nature, is far more predictive of things like depression and severe mood disorders than one-time traumatic events, even if those events are very severe. Diabetes, being the magician that it is, can give us BOTH kinds of stress — the daily, unending stress of managing the sucker, and the intermittent traumatic events many of us have faced at various points — severe hypoglycemia (waking up in the ambulance on the way to hospital after passing out — happened to me twice in my 23 years of living with Type 1, and it wasn’t fun), emerging complications, and so on.
We can’t change any of that. We can’t change the fact that we have to manage it every day. We can’t change the risk of complications. We can’t change any of it. We can prepare and manage to the best of our abilities, but we all know that managing diabetes isn’t simple, and there are plenty of times when all the “right” actions lead to poor blood sugars. But we do have some power over how we process the pain that comes with diabetes, and it’s incredibly important that we use that power.
The first thing we need to do is let go of the idea that things “shouldn’t be this way.” It does us no good to fight against reality and insist that we “shouldn’t have to have diabetes.” We have it. There is no “should” or “shouldn’t” about it. And the tension and inner turmoil that comes from fighting against reality doesn’t ease our pain; it amplifies it and prolongs it. Think back to when you were a little kid, and you had to get a flu shot from the doctor. Remember all the worrying, crying, pain, and anguish associated with it? Now, think back to the actual shot — I mean, the actual moment when that smallish needle punctured your arm for a grand total of three seconds. What caused you more pain — the struggle against the reality of that shot, or the actual shot? Of course diabetes is much more severe than a three-second shot, but the principle holds true no matter how severe the object of our struggle is. Whatever pain we’re facing is amplified and multiplied when we fight against it rather than let ourselves simply experience it.
Once we have learned to let ourselves experience the pain without pushing it away, we need to understand how to work with it and how to make peace with it. We’ve already taken the first step by letting ourselves directly experience it. But it’s also pretty easy to overdo it and simply “wallow” in our suffering. We can become that insufferable party guest who talks about nothing but our struggles with this “horrible, oh-so-tiresome, unfair disease.” I’ve known a few people like this, and I do everything I can to avoid sustained conversations with them. You probably do, too. I myself can be guilty of this if things get too stressful. But it’s not helpful. And really, it’s obnoxious.
So what can we do with our pain? We can let it go. We can simply acknowledge it (yes, this is painful), and then let go, like letting go of a balloon and letting it drift up into the sky. It’s a remarkably simple act, but we have a habit of making it seem complicated and hard. Think of all the excuses your mind gives you for holding onto that pain a little longer — “but I’m so tired and overworked,” “I just can’t seem to catch a break,” “well YOU don’t know what it’s like to live with diabetes,” and on and on and on we can go. And frankly, pain and sadness can be strangely addictive. We can start to “loop” the stories in our minds and relive the pain over and over. Perhaps we’re searching for meaning and that’s what drives it. I’m still not sure why that strange addictive feeling can surface with pain. But regardless, the cure is simple: just stop. The hard part is catching that feedback loop. The mind creates all kinds of reasons that “this time is different” or “this pain is too intense.” But those stories are just that — stories. Learning how to meditate is a marvelous tool to help you see through the stories. Family and friends can be our monitors sometimes — my mother very recently called me on this and I’m so grateful she did! Sitting down and spending time with beloved pets can snap us out of it — think of how often pets are brought to hospitals and other places where folks are facing intense pain. There are a thousand doorways out, you’ve just got to use them.
So, there you have it. I told you it would end on a high note. Diabetes is painful. But it doesn’t have to be any deeper than that, and we don’t have to drag it out. Have a wonderful day, everyone!
Want to learn more about letting go of emotional pain? See “Meditation and the Art of Diabetes Management,” by psychotherapist Joseph Nelson.