A Child of Diabetes
As a child of a person with diabetes, it can often feel as though the odds are stacked against you and those you love. Terrisha Buckley shares her experience learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle from her parents with diabetes and how she learned not to be scared of diabetes.
I remember the exact day that my mother was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I was 8 and my mom was 43. I had gone with her to the doctor. She received the news and we were immediately sent to the clinical dietician for counseling. I remember seeing the old version of the food pyramid that placed grains, breads, and rice at the bottom and sweets at the top in the “sparingly” space.
Much has changed since then. The food pyramid has changed drastically. The Atkins Diet has been replaced with Keto as the current popular diet to alleviate symptoms of diabetes and excess weight. Yet, diabetes is still a thing.
My father was diagnosed with diabetes before I was born. He struggled a little more with his diabetes than my mother did. He also had heart disease. Although he was very active, maintaining his glucose levels was difficult for him. Because we lived in a food desert, finding fresh, healthy foods wasn’t always the easiest option. Produce in grocery stores was often overpriced and of low quality when available.
In addition, my grandmother and quite a few of my aunts and uncles also had diabetes. Needless to say, the genetic component was obvious. Plus, my family has a history of other medical concerns such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, prostate cancer, and glaucoma. My sisters and I aimed to take care of ourselves as best we could, as early as possible. So far we have succeeded, but it wasn’t always easy.
As a child in a family that lived with diabetes, we had to be conscious of a lot of things. I remember having to be mindful of what we left on the floor so as to not cause any cuts to the feet because people with diabetes may experience something called peripheral neuropathy that affects their sensation. Even a seemingly small cut could result in a serious infection, become septic, and in severe cases lead to an amputation.
We had to be mindful of what we cooked for the holidays. There were some dishes that were meant for everyone and others that were more for the family members that were watching their glucose intake. I learned how to use a glucometer and take blood pressure at an early age. My mom was also a nurse, so I would have learned about this either way. As her daughter, I knew the basics of how our bodies worked and how to communicate with any health professional.
I would be remiss not to mention my race. I am a Black woman with Black parents. The majority of my family is also Black. There is not only a genetic predisposition, but a “more likely” aspect because I am Black. As a Black woman, I know that the odds are higher for me to have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, some type of arthritis, uterine fibroids, certain types of breast cancer, and many more things. Adding this to the mix put me in a place of wondering when I would become sick, not if.
It was very disheartening that with every doctor’s appointment, when I would fill out the family history, I had to check a majority of the boxes. Talking with certain healthcare professionals meant they would look at my form and look at me as if I were a ticking time bomb. It meant receiving all of the pamphlets about diseases that I was “more than likely to have” even though I showed no signs of illness. It meant having to see my relatives deal with their health conditions and wonder if I was glimpsing into the future. Finally, it meant visiting relatives in the hospitals and going to funerals and hearing about how a person died and what their doctors’ appointments were like.
It took a long time to cope with the statistics, the realities, and the facts and the ever changing new information that was coming out. My consistent exposure to medical information from my mother, as well as seeing how these disparities were affecting my relatives, is what pushed me to study biology during my undergraduate education. I ended up graduating from Tuskegee University where studying cancer and health disparities is a rite of passage for every successful biology major. My first research project dealt with prostate cancer and drug resistant cancers. Other smaller projects dealt with bioethics and racial healthcare disparities. My experiences became curiosities which later became passion projects.
Because of my upbringing, I’ve learned the importance of portion control and choosing the right foods. I learned the necessity of supplementation when you live in a food desert, like we did. I learned basic first aid and many other things. I learned the importance of being physically active and looking at my body holistically as opposed to one specific aspect. Above all, I learned how to take responsibility for my own health and make choices that would permit me to be healthier longer.
Here are a few tips:
When it comes to diet, the only credibility I have are the human nutritional science courses I took during college. That puts me at a slight advantage over the general population, but the most important asset was learning from the experiences of my relatives as to what works and what doesn’t work. My mother had access to a lot of information and studies as a nurse. I read all of them along with her. We tried different techniques and dietary plans. At one point, I began to hate grapefruit because of a diet that involved eating it or drinking the juice before every meal. We experimented with recipes and sugar alternatives. My aunt reduced the amount of sugar in the desserts she baked for the holidays by at least half, and they still tasted good!
As I grew up and moved out on my own, I knew that I had to start making my own food decisions. I chose to stick with more clean eating and made moderation my mantra. I buy more produce, fresh meat, and whole foods. I avoid processed foods as much as possible. I am hyper aware of my genetic predisposition. In that same breath, I am also very aware of my present condition and health status. I am in my 30s, and I don’t have diabetes. Therefore, one slice of cake will not push me into a disease. I don’t have to avoid all of the foods I like. I do, however, have to have self-control and use moderation.
I’ve learned to adapt my caloric intake to suit my lifestyle needs. In other words, when I am doing work that is more labor intensive (i.e., working outside), I increase my caloric intake to include more complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, for energy. If I am doing more sedentary work (i.e., office work or a classroom setting), I reduce the amount of carbohydrates (outside of my fiber intake) and increase Omega fatty acids. Instead of eating meat for just protein, I incorporate more fish to give me what I need. Also, I have grown to love avocados.
While I’m not entering any competitive eating rounds, I don’t deprive myself. I take care of myself. I eat clean and well. I use as many wholesome ingredients as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of my best nutritional practices are dependent on my budget, so variety may be an issue but not quality. Regardless of how anyone feels about food, it is an absolute necessity along with water. Quality food is beneficial for quality health.
2. Physical Activity
Physical activity is definitely important to me. Many people that work in jobs where they have to move around a lot already meet their quota for exercise within a day. I used to have a job where I walked at least three miles per day, and I worked two to four days per week. When you are working in an office, you have to be more intentional. Timed stretching and doing a more regimented workout program are the best for me in these situations.
I find that if I maintain these habits, my overall health and general disposition is in a great place. I can also focus on doing more of the things I love instead of constantly being concerned about an impending doom. It’s worked for me thus far.
3. Other “Tips”
I am not a coffee drinker, at all. It is strange, I know, but I’ve never enjoyed it nor found it necessary. I am more of an herbal and green tea drinker. Because of that, all of my energy is derived from the food I eat, and my alertness is dependent on how much rest and sleep I receive. All of which are conducive to a healthier lifestyle even though it is quite contrary to “hustle culture.”
I also make sure to take care of my mental health. As a child, I used to be a mood eater. When I was sad or anxious, it was easier for me to crave snacks even if they weren’t always the healthiest. Going to counseling and getting help for my anxiety and depressive episodes were a huge help in maintaining my weight and possibly reducing my likelihood of developing diabetes. Also, decreased stress reduces cortisol levels, which has a number of benefits.
Growing up as a child of parents with diabetes was not the depressing black hole experience many think it might be. I was fortunate to have family members, including my parents, who were very cognizant about their health and took steps to stay healthy. Unfortunately, my father died in a car accident in 2009, but my mother is still alive and managing her diabetes very well. I am fortunate that so far neither I, nor my sisters, have been diagnosed with diabetes, and I attribute that to what we’ve learned. We learned to take care of ourselves from our parents.
We know that diabetes is not the nail in the coffin that is often portrayed as being. People live with diabetes and make healthy choices. They take their insulin, exercise, eat well, and still have time to live the lives they want. It isn’t always easy, but few things in life are. Regardless of what happens to us health wise, the facts are that my sisters and I are well prepared to manage our health and make the right choices.