Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on how to share your experiences living with diabetes with those around you, along with a discussion of some of the ways the condition can affect self-image. Check out the first installment here and the second installment here.
Being “different” is not the only feeling we must confront in social situations. Diabetes can also make us feel dependent. Case in point: In my adolescence, I took a trip to Montana to participate in a Cherokee Vision Quest ceremony. A traditional Vision Quest is a rite of passage for Cherokee youth. When the time is right, young men venture out into the wilderness alone to meditate, pray, and commune with the spirits. They do this without food and with very minimal water. Traditionally, they will remain in the wilderness until they have a profound vision. It is a rite of passage into adulthood.
The experience of my group, of course, was milder. We camped alone in the wilderness, while fasting. However, we didn’t wander miles into the wilderness, but only far enough that we would not be tempted to spend the time simply hanging out with each other (though some did this, anyway). We camped for a period of two days. And we brought along plenty of water.
My own vision quest was modified a bit further to accommodate my Type 1 diabetes. I didn’t fast, of course. I didn’t leave behind all technology — I obviously took my blood glucose meter and insulin. And I had periodic “check-ins” to make sure I was OK. The modifications weren’t drastic, but the experience wasn’t the same for me as it was for my friends, and I resented that. It brought up the familiar feeling of being “different,” and along with it the feeling of being dependent.
This experience drove home the fact that without technological intervention, I wouldn’t be alive. And while I was certainly thankful for the intervention, I also resented the fact that I needed it. I resented what I perceived as the biological independence of my friends. I resented the fact that they could “remove themselves from the grid” if they chose, while I could not. I began to feel inextricably tied to “the system.” I felt weak, unable to truly stand on my own two feet. At an age where I was trying to establish my own place in the world, a place of independence from my parents, teachers, and societal establishments, this overriding feeling of dependence was hard to live with.
I continued to struggle with this into my 20’s (though it was at its peak in my adolescent years). I never let it overpower my resolve to take care of myself, but it bothered me. And it has shown up in my friendships. Most people have a hard time taking advice from others. We tend to react poorly, either attacking the person offering the advice, or feeling bad for needing the advice and attacking ourselves. But I have noticed in myself an unusually strong reaction when someone is offering me health advice (or any kind of advice I perceive as “caretaking”). When a friend is concerned and offers suggestions, something shifts. An incredibly strong feeling of resentment comes over me. It is the feeling of dependence, the feeling of somehow being weaker than my friend and less capable than my friend.
If you notice a similar “bristling” reaction to friends’ offers of help, here is an exercise that I’ve found helpful for myself and for my clients. Write down a list of all of your accomplishments. Then, write down a list of all of your friend’s accomplishments. Once you have at least five of your own and five of your friend’s, take a breather and spend five minutes centering yourself.
Now, come back to your list and slowly go through each one of those accomplishments and think about what had to happen to make them possible. For instance, I might write down “played a show at the Trocadero Theater in Philadelphia” for myself. If I wrote down how that happened, I might write, “played with a band that was popular enough to land that gig. Had a manager who made some deals to get us that gig. Had lessons from a number of great teachers throughout my childhood and young adulthood to learn my instrument. Grew up in a household that could afford those lessons. Had parents who supported that interest.” And the list would go on. The point is that my accomplishment was not solely “my” accomplishment. It was only through a web of interdependent actions that it happened. The same is true for all accomplishments in this life.
We live in a society and a time period that puts an extremely high value on the idea of independence. But the truth is independence is an illusion. All people, and all accomplishments, are dependent on the world around them. Individuals can strongly influence the course of their own lives, but no successful journey is made without some support, some luck, and some assistance from others. And so the goal is not to work toward feeling less dependent because you live with diabetes. To the contrary, the goal is to recognize the universal truth of interdependence. Having diabetes doesn’t make you dependent, it merely makes you more aware of the interdependence that supports every one of us.
You’re not that special
Over the years, I’ve come to realize something: I don’t have a monopoly on suffering because I have diabetes. I am not some lone victim among my friends, bearing a burden so unique that nobody else could handle it. And at the same time, diabetes has caused some suffering in my life, and that suffering doesn’t need to be hidden from anyone. In short, I’m human. I have challenges and gifts, strengths and weaknesses, abilities and disabilities. Nothing about having diabetes makes me special, or more dependent, or wildly different. We are all part of the same interdependent web, and friendship is our way of experiencing the gift of that interdependence.
Understanding this can help us avoid falling into the trap of either hiding our condition or letting our condition run our lives. Knowing that we are all given unique challenges and gifts means we can stop worrying that we’re “weird” for having the challenge of diabetes. And it means we lose the right to claim that our challenge is so much greater than everyone else’s and let ourselves become consumed by it. In the end, we must understand that we need to talk to our friends about our challenges, and we need to support them in facing their challenges. That’s interdependence; understanding that suffering in one person affects all people.
So to the “drama junkies”: stop indulging, and try listening. To the “invisible Diabetians”: stop hiding, and try sharing. We’re all human, we’ve all got problems, and we’re all gonna be just fine. Really.