I have lived with diabetes for the last 22 years of my life. I have, for the most part, maintained good control over that time, but like anyone with diabetes I have had those periods when my control wasn’t as sharp. I’ve always understood that the risk of complications comes with diabetes. But when I was younger, things like “risk of future complications” were seen as far off possibilities, abstractions that had no real substance. That’s how it is for all of us when we’re young.
But now, I am entering a period of my life when complications, if they are in my future, could begin to appear. In fact, the reason for this post is that I’m currently experiencing something that is probably a benign, passing thing but has the potential to be related to diabetes (I won’t go into details). And I’ll be honest — that scares me. It scares all of us to think we might be facing a complication.
Even though the odds are against “complication” here, the possibility of a connection is real. In another week I’ll see a specialist, who will probably run some tests, and give me a clearer picture. Or… the bug passing through my system will go away, I’ll feel just fine in a few days, and will bounce back to my blissfully unaware daily life of non-pain.
Regardless, I am left with my own fear and the choice of what to do with it. And that is the topic for today — how do we deal with the fear that comes with diabetes? Everyone faces fear, but for most people fear is about abstract, vague possibilities. Living with diabetes, we have very clearly real and detailed monsters to fear — kidney disease, neuropathy, heart disease, amputation, and on the list goes. Diabetes isn’t just an abstractly scary condition — it can be a concretely, directly scary condition. So what can help us better face that fear in our daily lives? Here are some ideas and suggestions that I have gathered through the years, some from my personal life, and some from my experience as a therapist and teacher to young children (where it’s not uncommon for the content of a lesson to have to take a backseat to the immediacy of an emotional block for my student).
The difference between fear and pain
These two phenomena seem to go hand-in-hand, and they are often found together. But that doesn’t mean they’re actually the same as each other. As one client pointed out years ago, “pain is real; fear is imagined.” She was right about that — pain is a direct experience, either emotional or physical. At its most basic level, it is something that happens below language. We don’t need to label anything to experience pain — there is no “mental construction” of the experience of pain, it simply happens. Fear, however, is a mentally constructed. Fear is inherently about our imagination of the future, not the direct experience of the present moment.
A good example of the difference between the two might be a trip to the dentist where you know you’re going to have a cavity filled. I know I have always hated the Novocain shots — a needle in my mouth is just a creepy idea. In the past, the fear of the appointment would cloud my thinking long before the actual visit. For hours, even days, the fear was just lurking in my mind, coloring all of my perceptions. But the actual pain involved was a mere 10 or 15 seconds (at most) of an unpleasant needle prick. What a waste of energy that was! As long as I was stuck in my fear of the future, all of the wonderful moments in the present were clouded and inaccessible. But recognizing the pattern helped immensely. Once I realized that the pain would be real (though, in this case, very short and very mild), but the fear was imagined, I was able to stop letting an appointment like that rob me of the time before it.
We can apply the same lens to diabetes complications. Of course, the pain here is potentially much worse, and much longer in duration. But that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear. It just means we need some strong coping skills to pull it off. So what tools can we use to help us overcome fear when the pain involved is deeper?
Faith is a loaded word, often meant to convey dogmatic belief. I don’t mean that kind of faith. Your faith might be deeply religious, it might be deeply humanist. That distinction is not important here. Faith here refers to our ability to see past our own lives into the greater life of the universe, the greater good, and the impermanence of the self. The simple version? We’ve all got to die someday; we’ve got to face pain. But just because we’ll face pain doesn’t mean that’s where our hearts need to reside. Pain can feel so all-consuming, and in those times it is to our advantage to have a feeling of connection to the something much larger than ourselves that can be a source of comfort and joy in stormy waters.
Love and service to others
This is very related to faith, of course. But while faith refers to a deeply personal, inward experience of connectedness with what is larger than the self, love and service are outwardly directed. I always advised clients who were feeling sad to look for opportunities to be of service, because it would take the focus off the self and at the same time give them a sense of purpose and meaning. It takes focused effort, though. In the midst of overwhelming fear or sadness, the temptation for inaction is strong, and we often need a push.
Love can be that push we need. Love is our family, our friends, our allies, even our pets. And those sources of connectedness, warmth, and love can push us forward even when we don’t have the strength to do it ourselves. Love draws us out of our imaginations and into the moment. I have often found that I might go to work feeling depressed or angry, fearful or anxious, only to see those feelings melt away the minute my first piano student walks through the door of my studio. I love my students, and in the face of my concern and care for them, fear hardly has a chance. In the end, faith, love, and service are choices to be made moment to moment. Fear is a trap that is always set, but not one that we must fall into.