I Ain’t Going Out Like That!
By Robert Greene
For National Minority Health Month, the author shares his story of diagnosis with type 2 diabetes
My name is Robert, and I am a person living with diabetes. In many ways, I never anticipated saying these words; yet, in many ways, there was an air of “expectation” about my eventual membership in this health-compromised fraternity of African-American men. I am newly diagnosed as a person living with type 2 … three months and eighteen days as of April 30th. And I can remember so much, so clearly about the events that unfolded on January 12, 2020: it was my younger son’s birthday; there was an unrelenting exhaustion ravaging my body; the (false) hope that I could just slip into the ER and get some pills to allow me to continue ignoring ALL those raging signs and still catch that evening’s cross-country flight to my onsite with a client; the initial conversation with the ER doctor as I told him aloud, “I think I have Type 2”; the deflating realization that I would not make it back home to the celebratory birthday dinner for my 12-year old; the resignation that I would have to be admitted to the hospital and wouldn’t make it home or anywhere else for the foreseeable future; and the desperate determination to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could because I was going to kick diabetes’ butt!
Diabetes is often described as a progressive disease, whether auto-immune or metabolic or some combination thereof. And while the research and literature are growing in terms of the overlap in description and classification between type 1 and type 2, the progressive assumption about the nature of both types is less challenged than not. What that initial understanding sparked in me on January 12th, though, was a huge and immediate question about whether my type 2 manifestation of diabetes could actually be cured.
It sounds strange to say this aloud to you, but January 12th was unquestionably one of THE BEST days of my life. To be sure, there was no sudden onset to my health condition; I didn’t accidentally fall down the steps and break my body’s sensitivity to my own insulin. This disease had clearly progressed in me for years as I stopped consistently practicing health-promoting behaviors, as I continually ignored the numerous signs that my functional systems were deteriorating, as I continued to buy larger and larger sizes for my wardrobe, as I continued to move less and less and sit more and more because the joint pain and inflammation never subsided and only increased. My “Rome” was not built in a day or even a single year, yet January 12th became an “instant” that changed everything, not because of what I came to know but because of what I came to think.
“I ain’t going out like that, diabetes. I am going to kick your butt!” But does that actually mean that this condition, which had progressed in my body for years, which is often described as a progressive disease, can actually be cured? My fervent hope was, and sincere belief now is an unequivocal “yes”; and it starts with a comprehensive definition of cure.
Like many of you, my treatment protocol started with regular finger pricks for BG readings and numerous injections of exogenous insulin. Given my readings upon admission, I was all too happy to encourage the healthcare professionals to pound me with insulin to get my levels sufficiently in-range for me to be discharged. As they shared their strategy and described the standard management protocol, I was both curious and radicalized. I promised myself then and there and shared with family and friends (and healthcare personnel) as often as I could, that I was going to get away from insulin injections as quickly as possible and prosecute the first round of my recovery. In addition to the insulin injections, the continual finger pricks felt like a stinging reminder of my health “failure” and became another symbol I was targeting in my plans for victory, recovery and cure. Early in my hospital stay, I was told about a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that could revolutionize my ability to track my glucose levels, independent of the dreaded finger pricks, and manage my type 2, allowing me to claim another (hopefully quick) victory on my road to recovery. Motivated? Absolutely! Perhaps as much by fear as determination … Yet, in those early days I was actually more afraid of losing – twice – than I was deterred by the faint talk of cure.
More than that, I was fiercely determined to wrestle my agency back from the grip of my failure. I did view my current condition as a failure: a systemic failure in the quality of my choices to express my love of self and my commitment to family. I was saddened, in corners of my heart, that I had let things get to this stage; and I was pissed that I had become another statistic – another black male with chronic health conditions, more reflective of culture than (lack of) income and education. I was pissed and let that anger fuel me, drive me, compel me to search and search and incessantly search for my cure, my victory. I wanted a cure from a lifetime sentence of progressive degradation; I wanted the victory of restored control over the quality of my life. And I wanted to live my life on my own terms, free from the dictates of endless prescriptions and pill regimens. Was this too much to ask, even in the early stages of life with diabetes? Not at all; simply stated, I ain’t going out like that, diabetes!
Despite my diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, despite the IV lines in both arms – the discolorations from which I can still see, despite the routine insulin injections, which I quickly learned to self-administer, my fight that began in the hospital was waged not in my body but in my mind. I had to win the campaign for an unflinching commitment to my long-term health. I had to win the war for my long-term shift in habits and practices. And I had to win the battle over my resilience to losing the occasional skirmish in my daily and hourly choices. My deliverance didn’t come in a new medicine, though I am availing myself of new drug technologies, my deliverance actually came in an eventual decision to radically change my diet and eat only plant-based foods. Vegan.
Veganism is victory for me. It is a cure for what ailed me. It is the restoration of my agency and the radicalization of my hope. Veganism is my port in the storm. As President John Kennedy “paraphrased for me”, “I choose to go to the moon. I choose to go to the moon right now and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of my energies and skills, because that challenge is one that I am willing to accept, one I am unwilling to postpone, and one which I intend to win, and the others, too.” Recovered health is my moon, my victory and my cure precisely because it is hard. It is organizing the best of my energies and my skills to not only survive but to thrive and reclaim my love of self. That is the best expression of my cure from a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and the reversal of the progressive degradation of my body, my systems and the quality of my life. As Yolanda Adams sang, “I got the victory …”, not because my journey back to health has ended, but precisely because it has now begun. Veganism is my rocket! Diabetes, I ain’t going out like that!
I am actually moved by the catharsis of telling my own truth here; tearful, grateful, and hopeful as I write listening to the rhythms and power of Beyoncé and Yolanda. And I am still awed, however, in the gathering dusk of this National Minority Health Month, by the privileges that I already enjoy in claiming my personal cure from the ravages of hopelessness and discouragement. My alarm rang before it was too late for me to change; I enjoy a robust social safety net; I have my own health insurance thru the Covered CA marketplace and other states don’t enjoy the same; I even have the money to pay the still-frightening and deeply discounted out-of-pocket costs from my hospitalization; I have access to high-quality, progressive, radical and independent information; I have access to high quality food and plentiful vegan options; I have the freedom to be patient as I find my own way in this desert of confusion and new experiences; I have legions of family and friends and friends of family and friends wishing me well, encouraging me, praying for me; I am an entrepreneur and can exercise a great deal of control over my schedule, building my health focus as the foundation of most of my days; and I have a bountiful reservoir of hope and faith that buoys my enthusiasm to soldier on in my journey. These privileges and many more put me in a very different position from many in my family and my community and my culture in pursuing help to restore my body to health and reverse chronic disease.
However, sharing my experience (beyond my experience) across a broader pool of minority citizens, especially in Black and Brown communities as COVID-19 has illuminated for many in this country, is precisely what I’m hoping we can achieve sooner rather than later. Yet it will take a new victory over our apathy toward the longtime health for our brothers and sisters in distress. If women can do the mathematical calculations to send men into space, then we can surely find a way to build a comprehensive system of care for all people, not because it is easy but precisely because it is hard and will express our better angels and energies. Until that day dawns, however, I am still hopeful and still optimistic that my cure can be shared, and my victory can be won again, by 100s who find THEIR own rockets to take THEIR own journey to THEIR own moon. Each of us, finding our way to snatch personal efficacy from the jaws of our tears, is a universal journey that is as specific and unique as a fingerprint. Here are my fingers of choice …
First, I started my journey with the belief that a cure was possible and stand firm in the same. The power of the mind to hope and change and plan and resist discouragement is perhaps our greatest weapon in this fight. Begin there; the power of optimism is encouraging and restorative. This journey is not one bit easy. Second, once you are rooted in belief, go to one radical moonshot of a change, not because it is familiar or easy, but precisely because it is hard. Express your best energies and skills in this challenge that you HAVE to be unwilling to postpone. For me it was a vegan diet, because food is our best and most prominent medicine and a whole-foods, plant-based approach to eating has compelling history and evidence in supporting the remission and even cure from numerous chronic conditions. Finally, map out your help stations along the journey of this health marathon, for it is long past a sprint. To extend the metaphor in the language of The Boston Marathon, a race I watched for years in my longtime former home, I have broken clear of the starting line floating along in the shared and collective excitement of the thousands like me trying to climb their own mountain. Yet I am a long way still from the Heartbreak Hill of this journey, an inflection point for those marathoners, that often defines whether they will finish the race or stop somewhere along the way. The best marathoners – whether they are professional athletes or the thousands who just want to finish Boston – take great advantage of the hundreds of opportunities along the course to get water or food or hear a cheer or a shout of encouragement; because no one runs Boston alone. I have found some of my “help stations” along the way. I discovered that my joy in vegan eating is bolstered if I can maintain some familiar tastes and flavors from my days of eating meat and dairy. For example, using jerk seasoning or curry spice to flavor beans and rice or vegetables or tofu satisfies my palate and resets the bliss I thought I enjoyed from meat. Rich, bold tastes sustain me along this path, as much as the loud cheers in Hopkinton and Wellesley and Heartbreak Hill in Newton and the finish along Boylston Street sustain thousands of runners every year in Boston. I have done these three things precisely because they are hard and are the energy fueling my cure, my victory.
Diabetes, I ain’t going out like that; and I’m going to kick your butt!
As of January 2020, Robert Greene was newly diagnosed as a person with type 2 diabetes. The article above is his first contribution to diaTribe Learn. He is continually inspired by the courage of and giving credit to ALL those whose faces are in Teddy Roosevelt's arena, marred by the dust and sweat and blood of battling diabetes at all levels. And he is vigorously living his victory and continuing to claim part of his cure; Robert's doctor officially took him off exogenous insulin less than two months after his diagnosis, and he’s over the moon about it.
This article is a part of a series to support people newly diagnosed with diabetes funded in part by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.