Author Kerri Sparling Shares Insights From Her Life With Diabetes in ‘Six Until Me’
By Hope Warshaw
Sparling speaks out about the motivation behind her heartfelt, yet humorous collection of essays. She discusses growing up with diabetes, 'mentalbetes,' the power of community, and more.
This compendium of essays from the heart that author Kerri Sparling wrote over the years is divided into eight chapters including Growing Up with Diabetes, Diabetes Community (of which Sparling played an important role in the early days of social media networking), Mentalbetes, and Things You Eat and Things that Beep.
Sparling notes in the introduction that these essays were originally published on her blog “Six Until Me” before being compiled into a book. Her essays are sprinkled with humor, yet they pull at your (at least my) heartstrings.
I have known Sparling since my early engagement in social media networking as a dietitian and diabetes care and education specialist. I don’t have diabetes and have always found Sparling’s blogs (now essays) valuable. They provide me with insight and understanding into the breadth of ways diabetes impacts all aspects of life.
Sparling was diagnosed with diabetes in 1986 and wrote her first blog in 2005. “I have been immersed in a digital community of people who understand all the nuanced moments of diabetes life,” she writes.
Hope Warshaw: Can you please share a bit about your diabetes story?
Kerri Sparling: I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of seven, just as I started second grade. My diagnosis came and went without too much chaos, as my pediatrician caught the signs very early. September 2022 marked 36 years of living with diabetes.
Warshaw: Why did you compile these essays written over the last couple of decades into a book? What’s your goal?
Sparling: I wrote on my website, SixUntilMe.com, almost daily for 14 years chronicling all the “life stuff” that happened alongside all the “diabetes stuff.” I wrote about dating and pursuing a writing career. I wrote about traveling and work, getting engaged and married, and figuring out how to be an adult and raise a family. I also wrote about what it was like growing up with diabetes, and how those experiences added color and context to who I was becoming. It meant the world to me to share those stories.
When I turned 40, I decided to stop writing for my blog but I didn’t want those essays to end up lost in the internet archives. Pulling out some of my favorites and compiling them into a book gave them another opportunity to be discovered (or rediscovered) by new and seasoned readers, confirming for past friends and new ones that they are not alone with diabetes.
Warshaw: Can you share more about the title of the book, “Six Until Me,” and your tagline, “Diabetes doesn’t define me, but it helps explain me.”
Sparling: The first symptoms of diabetes presented when I was six years old, by way of wetting the bed. Months later, I was diagnosed with diabetes. “Six Until Me” refers to the time before diabetes, with the “me” being diabetes. And yes, I should have thought about a much more straightforward title for my blog at the time, since “Six Until Me” didn’t say anything directly about diabetes. SEO be damned.
The tagline of “diabetes doesn’t define me, but it helps explain me” came from a conversation I had years ago with my brother. Diabetes isn’t the entirety of who I am, but it does give me purpose and perspective in really specific ways. I’m almost grateful for it…almost.
Warshaw: I know you were an early adopter of using social media to connect with other people with diabetes. Why did not being alone with diabetes anymore make a difference? Why were these connections so vital to you and your diabetes care, and how has this changed over nearly two decades?
Sparling: Growing up, my parents were excellent about making sure I felt supported and understood, but they knew that their empathy could only go so far. They sought out a camp for me to attend a year after I was diagnosed, where all the campers also had type 1 diabetes. Finding my peers made a huge difference in how I felt about life with diabetes. I didn’t feel alone. Feeling less alone made me feel empowered. And that empowerment fueled me to go out there and get all the good stuff from life.
After I started blogging in 2005, I connected with people affected by diabetes from around the world. And now, almost 20 years later, I have so many friends who are living with diabetes that any feelings of loneliness are quickly tempered by the community. I’m really grateful for what this community has done for my health.
Warshaw: How did you set the book up for people to gain maximum value from it?
Sparling: The book is set up in sections – like Parenting, Mentalbetes, Highs and Lows – and other overarching topics. I think this helps transition the essays from their linear narrative to essays that feel more episodic. It makes it easier to skip around and read what moves you in whatever order you’d like. I hope that people gain insight and community from these essays. It’s why I wrote them in the first place.
Warshaw: Do you have a favorite essay in the book? If so, which one and why?
Sparling: I favor a lot of the essays in the Mentalbetes section because they highlight a part of life with diabetes that isn’t always talked about: the mental load. Blood sugars and doctor’s appointments are only a small part of life with diabetes; it’s also all the thoughts, feelings, motivation, and determination in motion that keep me emotionally capable of making the effort and managing the workflow.
Warshaw: Over the years, when you’ve gotten into a dark place or developed diabetes burnout, how have you dug yourself out of it?
Sparling: That’s a really good question. I’ve been in the mental health weeds with diabetes several times, and admittedly, the last three years have been especially difficult. But when I am down the emotional well with diabetes, there are a few things I keep going back to that lift me out.
I really like going for long walks on the treadmill while watching a good TV show. I spend a lot of time journaling my thoughts in order to make sense of them. And I immerse myself in my family, getting and giving as many hugs as I can. Over time, these three things help me re-center, and I find myself a little bit readier to deal with whatever diabetes has for me. That, and finding some levity in the chaos helps, too. A little dark humor goes a long way for me in making diabetes feel less crappy.
Warshaw: What’s the best thing about "diabetes in the wild" spotting?
Sparling: I love seeing diabetes in the wild – that’s a whole section of my book! Over the last decade or so, I’ve done a lot of traveling, and there’s nothing like spotting the snake of insulin tubing or the small CGM bulge on a stranger’s arm. I always want to say hi or introduce myself.
Those strangers know something about my life that even the people who live in my house can’t fully understand. They get me in a very intimate way. And we don’t even know one another’s names. But we get it, you know? There’s a connection.
Warshaw: How do you think diabetes has impacted the way you parent and your children’s lives?
Sparling: Diabetes sometimes makes me have to put my own needs first in order to take good care of myself. That might mean asking my kids to wait patiently while I treat low blood sugar or making sure that I get enough exercise or sleep. Putting my needs on the same level as my kids’ feels selfish on some days. But I hope it teaches my kids that parents have needs that require attention, too, and that it’s healthy to make sure your own needs are met – no matter how old you are.
Warshaw: Over time, how do you feel having diabetes has benefited your life? You have a couple of essays that look back over your years with diabetes and particularly poignant is the essay, A Letter to a Younger Me.
Sparling: I don’t know what life without diabetes is like, but I do think that living with diabetes has made me more aware of how short life is, and how health is not something to be taken for granted. Growing older is a privilege, and I’m grateful for the chance to become an old, moldy lady with diabetes. When I was a kid, I didn’t think this was going to be possible. Now, with every passing day and every new wrinkle, I’m like, “Wait … it’s happening!” Weird to find glee in these moments, but here we are.
Warshaw: Do you have any complications of diabetes? If so, how are you dealing with these physically and emotionally?
Sparling: I have some non-proliferative retinopathy, dental woes (or whoa’s, if you want to hear about my root canal), and chronic dry eye. These complications are closely monitored and do not cause too much chaos in my day-to-day life. But screening is very important, and while I know it can be scary to “find out,” I encourage every person with diabetes to screen for issues regularly. The earlier we find them, the earlier we can address them.
Diabetes-related anxiety is also a complication I’m managing, and it’s much more intrusive than the physical ones. I feel like the mental health implications need a lot more attention because lots of people with diabetes are dealing with these issues in silence. Through our shared stories, we can put a spotlight on mental health concerns and help people find their footing through the community.
Warshaw: How do you suggest that people with diabetes and their loved ones play a role, if they choose, in the diabetes patient advocacy space?
Sparling: Deciding to advocate is a personal decision, and people should do whatever fits their needs at the moment. But if you do want to become involved in the diabetes advocacy space, a great way to get started is by telling your diabetes story. It doesn’t have to be fancy or professional, but it should be honest and real.
The more that people (including caregivers) share their experiences with diabetes, the more the world learns about what living with this disease is really like, and our collective community benefits from an educated, informed society.
Warshaw: How have you learned to not beat yourself up about not always managing your diabetes as well as you’d like to? You write: “There’s always been an ebb and flow to the measure of grace I’ve approached this disease with, and perfection hasn’t ever, and won’t ever, be achieved.”
Sparling: Perfection is not a thing. It can’t be. And spending the last 36 years with diabetes has proven that to me over and over again. My job, as a person with diabetes, is to try. To keep trying, and to do my best in as many circumstances as possible. And in the moments when it’s overwhelming to try? That’s when I lean on my support system – friends, family, the diabetes community – to help me keep trying.
Warshaw: You have seen so much change in diabetes care and management over your 36 years of type 1 diabetes. What are the pros and cons?
Sparling: I prick my finger about 10 times a year now, instead of 10 times a day. Insulin courses through me by way of an insulin pump that is connected to my continuous glucose monitor, and it takes 15 minutes to take action on my blood sugar.
I count carbs and use my insulin-to-carb ratio to calculate my insulin dose. I sleep through the night more often now than I ever did before, thanks to these advancements. But it’s still diabetes. I worry often about having access to the medications I need. I worry about what the next few decades might hold in terms of my health. It’s a weird space to be in, knowing how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.
Warshaw: What are some words of wisdom in finding and working with healthcare providers who get you and how you want to manage your diabetes?
Sparling: Finding a clinician is like finding a friend. It’s smart to know what you want to get out of the relationship – and it’s especially helpful if this friend takes your insurance! I think it’s a good idea to be as honest as possible with your clinicians about the moments when you feel triumphant, and the places where you could use some help. That helps them get a real sense of what your goals are, what your hurdles might be, and how they can use their clinical experience and expertise to get you where you want to go.
Warshaw: How do you think the changes we’re currently witnessing with social media are going to impact the way people with diabetes connect using social media over time?
Sparling: The online diabetes community existed long before I started writing a blog back in 2005. There were Usenet message boards and online groups that exchanged stories and ideas back when the internet was new. Then there were blogs. And now there are micro-blogs, image-based sharing platforms, and podcasts. It’s awesome how many ways we can share our diabetes experience.
Over the last few decades, the rate of information exchange has sped up so much that new stories and new ways to tell them change so fast that it can be tough to keep up. But at the end of the day, no matter how we tell our stories, it’s important to keep telling those stories. Every diabetes story matters.