I Think, Therefore I Am

In preparing to write this blog, I made an important linguistic decision. It’s a decision that I think holds some significance for anyone affected by diabetes, and so I thought it might be an interesting topic to explore a little on these virtual pages.


The decision I made is this: rather than saying I AM diabetic, you ARE diabetic, they ARE diabetic, and so on, I choose to say I HAVE diabetes. You HAVE diabetes. We all HAVE diabetes. Not an earth-shattering difference on the face of it, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see some very important distinctions.

We have all heard DesCarte’s famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” It’s a simple statement, but filled with tremendous meaning and implications that reach to the core of what it means to be a human being. “I think, therefore I am.” I take it to mean that who we are, WHAT we are, and how we experience this world, comes from within us. And because our experience comes from within ourselves, we have the extraordinary power to CHANGE our experience simply by changing our thinking.

That was the message of Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, who suggested that the root of our suffering is not the events, conditions, or injuries that happen TO us, but our own attachment and aversion TO those conditions. Remove the attachment and learn to simply live in the moment with what IS, the Buddha said, and suffering will be extinguished. Even Shakespeare agreed, when he wrote that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

It’s not hard to see examples of this kind of power of the mind in the world, either. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a prison cell in South Africa, emerging as a kind, forgiving, and hopeful leader. I have a hard time if I can’t get my morning coffee. When a recent music project broke up, I spent a solid two months wallowing in hopelessness and self-pity. What’s the difference? I don’t have the mind of Nelson Mandela, I haven’t developed the power of my own mind to influence my experience to nearly the extent he did to endure those 27 years.

OK, returning to the topic at hand, how does all of this relate to diabetes and my little linguistic decision? When I introduce myself as being diabetic, I am identifying my innermost self with this disease, wrapping up my own identity with my condition. It all becomes tangled up internally. But when I say I have diabetes, it’s quite different. It remains something I must deal with, relate to, and manage. But, it is not who I am.

We all decide, moment to moment, who we are, and who we are is who we decide to be. If we are angry, no matter how much we might want to blame something outside of ourselves, we are choosing to be angry. “I think I am angry, therefore I am angry”; “I think I am sick, therefore I am sick”. Now rephrase it. “I have anger, therefore I need to deal with this anger and move forward”; “I have diabetes, therefore I need to deal with this diabetes and move forward.” It’s a huge distinction, and it can mean the difference between getting ourselves stuck in depression and learned helplessness, or working with diabetes but not letting it overtake us.

So, do you tell the world “I am diabetic”? Or, is there more to you than that? Think carefully about what you want to be, and understand how much power your own thoughts and words have in defining who you are. Don’t give diabetes undue power — you are not diabetes, and diabetes is not you. All of us who have diabetes must make peace with it, live with it, manage it, and accept it. But that doesn’t mean we need to let our identity as a human being be shaped by it.

I am Scott Coulter. I am a musician. I am a writer. I am a therapist. I am a husband. I am a Denver Broncos fan (who still can’t believe Peyton Manning is wearing the orange and blue). I am a Buddhist. I am a human being. I have diabetes.

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  • Joe

    Interesting insight. My first inclination was to think about how people with other diseases label them selves (or more often are labeled by the pharmaceutical and legal industries.) The words “sufferer” and “victim” come up a lot. “Attention hemorrhoid sufferers!” or “Are you or a loved on a mesothelioma victim?” These go beyond identifying the person as their affliction and cross over into presenting an image of a person who is being punished by a much bigger foe against whom they are relatively powerless. I’m seeing three potential positions: I have a disease, I am my disease, and the disease is my master. I have diabetes, I am diabetic, I suffer from diabetes. Each implies a lesser degree of control over oneself and one’s destiny than the one before.

  • Barbara

    The psychology of these differences is very important. Self-labels do a lot to influence how we think about ourselves and our overall mental health. “I am a diabetic” (and can’t do much about it) is a lot more depressing than “I have a blood sugar control problem” or “I have diabetes’ (and control it most of the time).

  • Ms Willie

    It was so uplifting to read Scott Holter’s perspective on having diabetes. I totally agree with his philosophy that we have diabetes, arthritis, or whatever condition, but our reaction and identifying with it, colors and drives how we deal with it.

    I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes with my first gestational pregnancy and heeded the doctor’s orders to exercise and eat healthy. I following those orders until 42 years later, I decided that I would drop the 30 minutes of exercise from my daily routine before going to work, and within a few months, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I am taking oral meds, exercising, and eating so that I can remain healthy.

    I have people remark that they would not suspect that I have diabetes because I am not complaining and calling attention to my conditon. I make the distinction that I have diabetes and it does not
    control me, and I do not see myself as the “victim”.