Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on how to share your experiences living with diabetes with those around you. Check out the first installment here, and stay tuned for the final chapter on May 16.
The Invisible Diabetian
The relative invisibility of diabetes is a fortunate thing in many respects. We are lucky to have a condition that does not draw unwanted attention to itself 24 hours a day. Very few of my coworkers know I have diabetes. And how could they? It’s not like I go into their offices to inject my insulin or I check my blood glucose in the middle of conversations with them. Aside from being off-putting, it would be impractical. It’s much easier to check my glucose and do my shots in the comfort of my own office.
But the invisibility of diabetes also has some drawbacks. Before I went to that summer camp, I had a vague feeling of being different. But it was a vague feeling, and it was extraordinarily easy to ignore it or push it to the back of my mind. And while my friends were supportive, the human reaction to challenges is to want to fix them, minimize them, and make them go away. I knew this, and so I instinctually reassured my friends that diabetes was really not such a big deal. “Oh, the needles are so small you barely feel it”; “I can eat most things, I just have to take enough insulin — no big deal”; “I just gotta wait a little for lunch. My number was high, but it’ll come down.”
The result of all of that minimizing, however, was a feeling of being alone in my situation. I didn’t want to share all of the thoughts I had going on in my head. I didn’t talk with my friends about my blood glucose and the fear I felt when it ran high. I didn’t have conversations about my latest A1C, and whether I was happy with it or nervous because it was a little higher than I had hoped. I kept all of this internal, because I could. Diabetes could be cloaked, hidden away, and never talked about. And it was so easy I didn’t even realize I was doing it. But minimizing a feeling does not make it go away.
Working as a therapist over the years, I have seen over and over how minimizing a problem can have the opposite effect — the problem simply grows larger. It seems the more we try to pretend something isn’t there, the more it tries to get our attention. I often use the analogy of an impatient, yapping dog. If you’ve ever tried to skip dinnertime with such a pet, you know what happens. Fido will bark, whine, and yelp until you feed him. If you continue to ignore him, the barks will simply get louder. If, however, you just take a few minutes to feed him, the problem is solved. The same is true for us. If we simply take the time to acknowledge our feelings of “being different” and share some of our struggles openly, they seem to diminish. When we hide them, they seem to grow.
The Drama Junkie
The majority of us take the path of hiding diabetes to avoid feeling different. Clearly, my instinctual response was to minimize it, sometimes bending over backwards to keep my friends comfortable (though that was an assumption on my part; the truth is they would have felt just fine with me sharing more of my experiences). But there is another extreme some of us fall into: overindulging in our “different” status. In fact, some of us can become so wrapped up in “being diabetic” that we start to drive everyone around us a little crazy.
Think about Fido again. We know that ignoring him will only make him bark louder. And we know that feeding him at his regular dinnertime will keep things running smoothly. But what if we feed him every single time he barks? What if we are so overindulgent that every time Fido even thinks about barking, we’ll feed him? Fido becomes the boss. Similarly, we can become so wrapped up in our condition that we get lost in it; diabetes becomes the boss. We can become so preoccupied with our own perceived “special suffering” that we lose sight of everything else in our lives. We cease to be a whole person, and instead become “diabetic.”
Once again, the invisibility of diabetes can push us further toward the extreme. If diabetes were obvious on the surface, the “drama junkies” among us wouldn’t have to consciously draw attention to it all the time. But diabetes is invisible. So if we’re trying to make “diabetic” our whole personality, we’ve gotta bring it up continuously.
The social consequences of this are apparent; at some point, our friends will get tired of constantly hearing about it. People tend to have a level of natural empathy and concern for others, particularly their friends. But there’s a limit. We’ve all hit that point with a friend who goes beyond sharing his feelings with us and keeps going into wallowing and seeking attention.
The great thing about this extreme is that it’s wildly simple to correct. In fact, it may be the most easily implemented piece of advice I’ll offer, so listen up: stop talking. That’s it. Stop feeding Fido. Don’t worry that you’ll go into hiding or that people will forget you have diabetes. If your personality tends to fall into this extreme, you don’t have to worry about becoming the “invisible Diabetian” that I was. You know how to share. Your task is to calm yourself, slow yourself down, and stop attaching yourself to every feeling. Invisible Diabetians react to feelings by pushing them away. Drama junkies react by attaching to them.
As always, the wisest approach lies in the middle: Acknowledge the feeling, share what needs to be shared, and then let it go.