Opening Up

By Joe Nelson | August 10, 2006 12:00 am

I don’t have diabetes, but it has played a major role throughout my life. My dad had Type 1 diabetes and had it before I was born. Some of my earliest memories are of him playfully spraying alcohol across the room before he would fill his glass syringe with insulin. That was 20 plus years before disposable syringes, blood glucose meters, and insulin pumps. Those days were also long before anyone was focused on their feelings about diabetes, so like everyone else in my family, I stayed silent.

I didn’t talk about my terror when my dad would be nearly unconscious and my mom and I would pour orange juice on his face trying to hit his mouth. I didn’t talk about the anger I felt when the need to treat his insulin reactions would interfere with getting to my baseball games. I didn’t talk about my embarrassment when my friends would see him act “drunk” from lows and not understand what was happening.


I didn’t talk about diabetes or feelings about diabetes until 25 years later. I had been working with individuals and families with diabetes for a few years, and my dad attended a class I was teaching about emotions and diabetes. Following the class, I worked up the courage to ask him how he felt about diabetes. My dad had always been stoic and rarely shared feelings other than anger. He also dutifully did what he was supposed to to treat his diabetes, so I was surprised when he started talking about his feelings.

He told me how much he hated the disease. He talked about how frustrated he would get with the lows and how crummy he would feel with the highs. He also talked about how scared he was of developing complications. I was amazed and quite touched.

Then he asked me how I felt, so I told him about all of those feelings I’d kept to myself all those years. He was really surprised by my feelings, but still respectful and accepting.

During that conversation we became much closer, no longer needing to ignore the elephant in our living room, connected by our honesty and openness and willing to accept each other’s emotions.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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