Learning From Diabetes

If diabetes were a college professor, nobody would sign up for his class. But those forced to take it might learn things that would help them succeed in other areas. What does diabetes teach, and how are you doing in your class?


Based on my experience and the stories of scores of clients, there are five important units in the chronic illness syllabus. I describe them in my book The Art of Getting Well, but many other texts are available.

For me, the first lesson was to get help. Growing up, I learned the value of independence, of never having to ask for help. In our culture, everyone is supposed to go it alone. But with a chronic illness, extreme self-reliance doesn’t work. The ability to find, ask for, and accept help was the first exam I had to pass.

A client named Mary was taking care of her 8-year-old developmentally disabled grandson, and she was completely exhausted and stressed. Her glucose levels were way out of whack until she signed up for a grandparents’ support group, found a new friend in a similar situation, and started sharing childcare. Her A1C came down significantly, and she feels her life is much more in control.

If I were writing a textbook for this course, the second lesson would be “relax”. This society is just too fast-paced, and too many of us are driven to work, worry, and work some more. You can’t heal or even take good care of yourself if you’re stressed all the time. Studies consistently show that relaxation reduces blood pressure and glucose.

Some of the other lessons would be:

But in my personal class — in which I’m the only student — the final exam has been about balance. Perhaps it’s similar for you — diabetes self-management is all about balance. At a basic level, it involves balancing carbohydrates with insulin, activity with rest, and exercise with intake. At a deeper level, we have to balance self-care with other responsibilities and desires, balance living for ourselves and living for others, and living for the moment with planning for the future.

There’s also living with the hard emotions such as anger, fear, and grief that illness brings with it. We have to learn to accept these emotions and balance them with joy, gratitude, love, pleasure, and other positives.

It’s a challenging course, that’s for sure. I’ve included links above to some articles (mostly mine, I’ll admit) that might help.

Some other lessons I learned from clients:

“I learned that people are well-intentioned when they give me advice, but they usually don’t know what works for me. That’s true of doctors, too.”

“I learned not to believe everything I read in the newspapers or see on TV about health. Those stories about new treatments used to make me crazy. Now I realize that if a new discovery works out, I’ll hear about it later.”

“I learned to stop putting everyone else’s needs ahead of my own.”

“I learned that if I take time to care for myself, people I care about will still love me.”

So what have you learned from diabetes? There are no grades in this class, so tell us what you know. What’s the best thing, or two things diabetes has taught you? And how has it helped you in your life?

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  • Natalie Sera

    I learned I’m not immortal () and that I do have to pay attention. I’ve learned to navigate the medical world, not without some mishaps, but at least I’m still alive to tell about it!

  • Calgarydiabetic

    I feel super stressed that some of my findings go against the grain of ADA beliefs. Cutting out grains makes my blood sugar control much better. There are a lot of veggies that are diabetic friendly. Even an occasional navel orange but 1/2 cup of oatmeal spikes me.

    Even worst my lipid profile HDL, TRIG, and LDL was better on a high saturated fat diet than on a low one.

  • Disillusioned

    I am like Calgarydiabetic. I tried the diabetic diet they gave me and my A1c shot up l.5 points. I do much better on a higher protein, fewer grains or fruits diet. Veggies are great.
    I am also shocked at how doctors don’t keep up with the latest info–such as that metformin impacts B12 absorbtion; that diabetics do better with slightly higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels than the ones pushed to extremely low levels; that people with some transfat levels are up to 60% less likely to get diabetes (they didn’t give statistics on heart attacks). My doctor didn’t even beleive me that I woke with with blood sugar levels of 140 but would drop to 115 within 30 minutes with about 12-15 grams of carbohydrates–yet a third of the people in my diabetic class had the same experience of blood sugar RISING during a fast.
    All diabetics need an internet connection and training on how to find medical information, because you sure aren’t certain of getting it from your doctor.

  • Mbright

    I have been trying to maintain a very low carb diet for years. Every time I succeed for a while, my numbers improve dramatically. But this way of eating does not only go against the ADA, but all of American food practices. It is difficult to maintain when everyone around you (like your kids) does not subscribe to the same habits.

  • Mark

    I have learned that I am unique. What works for someone else may not work for me. I have to be in charge of my own health.

  • Cathy A.

    I agree with Mark. Totally.

  • Beth

    I learned that I need to focus my energy, my time, and my life wisely.

    Along with diabetes, I have fibromylagia/chronic fatigue. I understand that every day the time during which I have enough energy to do what is important is limited. I have the time I need for everything that is really important, but only if I know what is important and focus on that.

    So, for example, I know it is important to give my time and love to my family. I know it is important to cook nourishing food for myself and my family. I know it is important to engage in the physical activities I can do. I know it is important for me to work to improve my local community through activity in local government. I know it is important for me to make my contribution to the world through my work as a nurse. I know it is important to meditate and pray by myself, and to worship with my worship community.

    Each of these is important in my cycle of days, for its own sake, whenever I do it. Each of these is also important as a gift to my future self, who will live with the results of today. And each is also a gift to the people I love — my family, my worship community, my neighborhood where I live, and the world at large. Focusing each day on what is important gives me a sense that my life has meaning and value, and it gives me great freedom within the limits imposed by having diabetes and fibromyalgia.

  • John_C

    The first thing I realized when being instructed about diabetes is that I wasn’t getting very good information at all… and the results were VERY disappointing.

    That’s the point were you really need to start searching. I remember that my first reaction (way back when) was how come nobody agrees with each other??!! That did drive me to search all possible treatments, and you do learn what really gets results.

  • Cathy

    I have learned to rely on myself to dig and find answers that work for me to dilemas having to do with my disease. I have learned it is a real disease. Not everyone’s advice is equal not even my doctors. I have learned that I matter and I need to speak up for myself. I have learned to demand the care I need and deserve. I think the most important thing is to keep learning and researching this thing called diabetes because not only is it for real but it is forever changing and you have to try to keep up. I have learned that my family loves and respects me more than I knew. My family is always ready to help me manage my disease and to encourage me. Going it alone is much harder with any disease but I am lucky not to have to do that. Had I relied upon just the information I got from my doctors and educators I would not be in the healthy range I am in but would be in much worse shape. I too have excellent health care and it does make a difference. I am dreading the day when I have to rely on medicare and supplemental insurance and am always looking for ways to save money.

  • jim snell

    Cathy’s comments dead on. Our mentality and medical system negate against getting Diabetes nder control on a set of fixes and having it hold for some stability.

    Our technical and cultral mentality of dam the torpedoes and full speed ahead flys in face of the kitbag of mushy rules, meds, diet and exercise that one needs to apply to keep all the weeds in the fenced in area one sets up as my diabetes on a daily basis.

    It takes time – researching info, collecting data consistently and making swags horly to keep the monster caged.

    How can a doctor who needs to see legions every day and 3 minutes per person cope with this mess and is forced to make his best educated guess. If he’s lucky, he really helps you and sually not clear that sggestion really helps.

    It is not that I want to go it alone, a kitbag of good consultants is a blessing and help, bt in the end, the person who has the time and opportunity to mine and work the data collection and analysis. is oneself. Internet is a blessing and curse.

    Due to the variance of aging degradation among the endoctrine system – no two people have the same idiosynchronies and peoples response to meds, the idiosynchronies drive one absolutely nuts on a daily basis.

    Fortnately; the diet and exercise issues are relatively reasonable with the real mandate to manage carbs very carefully, otherwise devil take the hindmost.

    Learning exercise – you bet. One learns to manage a multi-front war where things are always in motion and learn that “Eureka I found it solutions” while most satisfying – fixed done and gone DO NOT APPLY to Managing ones diabetes of a daily battle making the best swags and keeping weeds and monster in the best fenched area one can manage albeit always in state of flux.

  • Cathy

    I also wanted to add that sites like this one are especially important in the fight for a good life with diabetes. Whenever I learn of a friend or loved one who is newly diagnosed or having problems staying within guidelines the first thing I do is recommend this site and a few others. I would be in so much worse shape if it were not for the information found here. Also the support and a place to vent is invaluable to me because I live alone and do not always have someone to talk to but your site fills the bill nicely. That is another thing I learned – know how to find answers and helpful sources. This is my favorite site for information. Thanks.

  • Cyndy

    Great article, David. As a diabetes educator for children, I try to keep all this in mind and actually educate the families on just what you are talking about.
    I am glad I can share this with my clients as another point of view.

  • Lucy

    I’ve had type 1 for 41 years & so far only complication is mild retinapothy. Not sure why, but at the young age of 14 when diagnosed, I decided to educate myself on diabetes and continue to do so. For me, exercise is KEY and thankfully, I like to exercise. I just went through a 21 day purification program and was amazed at how limitation of grains & carbs perfected my blood sugars.

    I have been in menopausal “land” for 2 years now, and menopause & diabetes do not mix. For 2 years, my A1C went up by 1.5 points though I was doing nothing different. Finally in Sept of 2010, the A1C came back down to my normal level.

    Diabetes is a difficult disease with a mind of it’s own. There are days when you do everything right, yet your numbers are high. You just have to “let it go” and keep on keeping on.

    And one last note, I am sick of hearing about Type 2 diabetes when the majority of those folks can change their lifestyle and get things under control…..those of us with Type 1….well, you never hear about us.