I wrote in this blog once that diabetes can inspire a lot of fear about what might happen in the future. Diabetic complications can hang over us like a storm cloud on the horizon, thinking about raining, thinking about coming our way, but with nothing set in stone. Those storm clouds might shift direction and move away, they might intensify and cause a monstrous storm, or they might turn into a mild rain. We simply don’t know. And that “not knowing” can be excruciating sometimes.
In my former life, I was employed as a therapist for an agency working with children and adolescents who exhibited emotional issues (after five years in the field of social work, I returned to music full time and am much happier for the decision, but that’s another story). After years of working with my clients, I came to one very fundamental conclusion: It is our fear for an imagined future, and not pain from our real past, that sinks us. Now, let me unpack that a little, because I know it can sound almost cold on my part to say that, as if I’m suggesting serious trauma really isn’t so bad. That’s not what I’m suggesting, however.
Time and time again, I saw the same pattern. A client would come in having experienced some kind of pain in his past, sometimes very recently, sometimes years previous. In his current day-to-day life, he would be running into difficulties caused by this past event, usually in the form of depression, severe anxiety, or other intense emotional blockage. This would be true whether that past event was ongoing, or completely in the past. And that was the giveaway. In every case, clients were operating as if the past event were happening today, and even more importantly, as if the past event were the only possible course for the future. And so of course depression, anxiety, and anger ruled the day. If the future has no possibility but more pain, you’d be depressed, anxious, and angry, too.
A lot of the work, therefore, was not so much to help clients minimize or “get over” the pain from what happened. In a very real sense, the feeling of pain wasn’t the problem. The work was to help clients contain those past events in the past — to help them stop putting what had happened in their past into their imagined visions of the future. And it was miraculous to witness when clients were able to do this — when they were able to drop some of those projections into the future and rather let the future be open, a blank slate that could contain any number of possibilities.
For those already living with diabetic complications, it’s probably no different — the pain of past complications can be projected into the future. For those who are not living with complications, we’re not taking past experience and placing it in the future. We don’t have a definite past experience to put into our future, we have a more amorphous “what if” waiting for us — a collection of “what ifs”: a “what if” named neuropathy, a “what if” named kidney failure, a “what if” named stroke, and so on.
But even if our anxiety is inspired by a set of imagined possibilities rather than a projection of past events that already happened in real life, the process is no different. In my clients, it was not really those past events that were hurting them. It was their imagination of future events. In just the same way we can be traumatized by our imagined future with diabetes. The only difference is that for my clients, their imagination was inspired by actual events. In many of our cases, it’s inspired by seeing way too many pamphlets about complications in our doctor’s office waiting rooms, on commercials trying to raise money to cure this “terrible disease,” or elsewhere.
Living with diabetes can and does involve some pain. If you are already living with complications, that pain is very real, and what I’m saying is not meant to diminish the validity of that pain or to suggest that your suffering is “all in your head” — it’s not; your suffering is very real. But for all of us, it’s important to understand that we do have control over how we envision our future, and the extent to which we fill that imagined future horizon with horrible storm clouds, or an open blue sky.
Ultimately, the real trick is to drop the act of projecting anything into the future, good or bad. Life will happen, the future will become the present, and when it does, we all have to deal with it. It might be fun, it might be painful, it might be a little of both. But when we dread our imagined future, we suffer twice. We suffer once for the real pain we might have in our present (and that suffering cannot be avoided), and then we suffer again for the imagined pain of the future (and that suffering is needless).
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