Photo courtesy of Sierra Sandison.
AM: Tell me about your Type 1 diabetes diagnosis. I was 14 when I was diagnosed and I always tell people that diabetes is so much easier to manage as a grown woman, and that in my opinion, the most challenging time was when I was a teenager. Do you agree?
SS: Eighteen was definitely a difficult time to be diagnosed. It was halfway through my senior year of high school, and I was about to go to college. People always say “don’t let diabetes hold you back from anything,” so I feel guilty about that first year because I hadn’t gotten the hang of diabetes. I quit the track team that spring because I was so frustrated with lows during practice and stayed in my hometown for my first couple years of college because I was terrified of living alone and/or with a roommate who didn’t understand diabetes (at this point, I didn’t even understand it very well myself). It has definitely gotten much easier now that I’m an adult. I wish I’d had a little more time to get used to diabetes before it interrupted my college plans, but everything worked out great in the end!
AM: Diabetes is such an invisible illness. Tell me about your decision to wear your pump on the Miss America stage.
SS: During that last half of my senior year of high school, I refused to discuss getting an insulin pump. I liked the fact that diabetes could be so invisible, and the suggestion that I should attach a machine to my body 24/7 was completely ridiculous. In addition — as an adolescent woman — I think I had (and probably still have, to some extent) a habit of comparing myself with the beautiful, unrealistically perfect, photo-shopped models on the cover of magazines and in the media. Combining that habit with the feeling that I didn’t fit in at school meant there was NO way I wanted to wear a machine that would make me feel more weird and different than I already did.
Eventually, I met a woman named RoseAnna (Miss Idaho 1993) who told me about Nicole Johnson. I Googled her, and when I saw this beautiful Miss America who also wore an insulin pump, it blew my mind. The thought of a “model” wearing an insulin pump was amazing to me, and also made me reflect on how silly it was to be constantly comparing myself to the “conventionally beautiful” women we see in the media. Reading about Nicole’s story helped me gain the confidence I needed to wear an insulin pump, and knowing that she had lived so well for so long with this disease gave me hope and encouragement to take care of myself. That same day, I told my friend, “Someday, I am going to go to Miss America and wear an insulin pump to be Nicole Johnson for someone else.” At the time, my friends and family thought it was kind of a joke, but a few years later, I fulfilled that dream!
AM: You are such a wonderful role model for young women and you travel the country speaking to different groups about living with diabetes. If you had to choose one piece of advice to share, what would it be?
SS: My message to everyone — with diabetes or not — is that we ALL have those things that make us feel weird, different, ugly, etc. So first of all, understand that you are not alone in feeling that way. Most importantly, I want to encourage everyone to not only accept and tolerate those things about themselves, but learn to love, embrace, and celebrate them. They make you, YOU! They make you unique. The world would be so, so boring if everyone was exactly the same; our differences should be celebrated, not hidden. However, I do understand that it is much easier said than done. There are still things I struggle to even accept about myself, let alone learn to love. I like to provide the example of how I learned to love my insulin pump.
AM: You have written a book called Sugar Linings and started a business called Sugar Linings Swag. Can you tell me when you first came up with the idea for these projects?
SS: I have met so many incredible, strong people who live with diabetes, and I am so proud to identify as one of them (they are the inspiration behind the first shirt I designed for my company). Living with diabetes is hard work and requires a lot of perseverance. The fact that I deal with blood sugar roller coasters and an endless amount of needles is something I am actually very proud of. My insulin pump is a physical, visible symbol of the struggle and triumph I have to go through daily.
So again, I know it is much easier said than done, but learn to love yourself fully, including the things about you that society deems as “weird.” It is the most empowering thing you can do for yourself.
I wrote my book at a time where I needed it. I was going through a bit of a burnout in the middle of my year as Miss Idaho. Normally, I am very positive and optimistic about life and diabetes, and at this point I was forgetting how to maintain that attitude. I forced myself to write down and reflect on all of my “sugar linings,” which helped me pull through the burnout, and have now — hopefully — helped others do the same. As for SugarLiningsSwag.com, I loved the idea of embracing my identity as someone with diabetes, rather than seeing it as a disability. Diabetes is terrible to live with, but the fact that I do means I am an extremely strong person. The first design I created was the “Diabadass Defined” shirt, which has my own dictionary definition of what being a diabadass means to me:
1. one who never stops fighting the never-ending
battle against diabetes. 2. one who is brave, has
determination and perseveres throughout the literal
‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of life, and is also one of the
“sweetest” people you’ll ever meet. 3. me.
© 2016 Sierra Sandison
The shirts sold out immediately, so over the past year, I have bought my own screen-printing equipment, rented an office space, and come up with more shirt designs and greeting cards. It is a lot of fun and can seem kind of silly, but that is exactly what life with diabetes needs sometimes. The mission of the company is to empower people who are living with diabetes through humor, positivity, and community.
AM: Finally, where and how do you find humor in living with diabetes?
SS: The diabetes shirts that I make bring humor, positivity, and community into life with diabetes in many ways. My favorite example is seeing a kid get excited about wearing his or her new shirt to diabetes camp or an upcoming conference. It’s an instant icebreaker, and symbolizes the special connection we have to others living with the same disease. A lot of the shirts use plays on words or other jokes that only people with diabetes (or those who know someone with diabetes) will fully understand. I never want to discredit the struggle we all deal with on a daily basis while living with diabetes, but I love that I have been able to create the shirts as little bits of humor and positivity that bond us together through our inside (diabetes) jokes, and the experiences that only we can fully understand.
Water is vital, especially when you have diabetes, notes nurse David Spero. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.