Five Lessons from Diabetes
By Kerri Sparling
What I wanted to do most with this article was provide a list of tips for keeping diabetes well controlled and essentially boxed up, never causing a glitch of any kind. But I was at a loss, since the learning curve of diabetes is lifelong, and I’m still a long way from having anything “figured out.” (Also, I couldn’t find a box big enough.) I have found some “tricks of the trade” over the last twenty-six years with type 1 diabetes that are worth sharing, and they’ve played a part in keeping me healthy, happy, and moving forward. Maybe they’ll help you? Or perhaps jump-start a little “Hey, this works for me!” list of your own?
Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Living with diabetes encourages a packrat mentality, in that your bag or glove compartment or desk at work is sure to be crammed with “just in case” supplies of a wide variety. Life with a pancreas that decided to go rogue all of a sudden will do that to you, I suppose. Personally, I’m prepared for the Big Three at all times: low blood sugar, high blood sugar, and pump failure. My purse contains glucose tabs, an insulin pen, a spare infusion set, and a pump battery, with all of these items in my glove compartment. Some of my fellow PWDs (person with diabetes) think I’m over-doing it… until their pump battery needs to be replaced on the fly, or they need a quick glucose tab. Then I don’t seem so crazy. Diabetes chaos can be a little scary, and I like to be best prepared for moments that jump out, even if it means packing heavy for short trips.
Always test before taking insulin. Having lived with type 1 diabetes for over two and a half decades, I’ve come to really appreciate and have a healthy fear of the power of insulin. I know how quickly it can make my blood sugar drop, and I’ve had my share of hypoglycemic episodes that left me feeling vulnerable and uneasy. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that I need to know what my blood sugar numbers are before dosing any insulin. For a while, I thought that I could guess where my blood sugar was by “how I felt,” but I was quick to realize this was a crummy approach, and I needed more than just “a feeling” to help me make a dosing decision. (Because sometimes those “feelings” can be tied to entirely different issues, like exhaustion being mistaken for a high, or hunger as a low.) Knowing my numbers gives me more power to act precisely in response, or in projected anticipation, when it comes to making decisions about my insulin. To be blunt: guessing got me nowhere, and I needed the cold, hard numerical facts when calculating my insulin doses.
Seek support when you need it. You don’t have to do this whole diabetes thing alone. You don’t. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed emotionally. An unsettled emotional state makes tending to the day-to-day needs of diabetes harder, and you deserve to give your health the best chance you can manage. If you feel depressed, or discouraged, ask your friends and family for help. If you need assistance making sense of blood sugar numbers or talking through the pros and cons of different management options, lean on your medical team. And seek out the information you need when you need it. And know that you aren’t alone. Diabetes can feel isolating, and overwhelming at times, and the support of your local community, the online community, and your well-educated medical team can make a huge difference in how you handle your disease.
Exercise. Can I add an exclamation point to that? Exercise! I’m not an elite athlete, and I won’t ever be known for my grace or athleticism, but I am not lazy. Even though I’m not the fastest runner or the swimmer with the best form, I make a point to move my body, and my health thanks me for it. (Even when my legs sometimes don’t and would rather lounge on the couch.) Rough day of blood sugars? I’m revived by a workout. Plagued by a stubborn high blood sugar? A nice, long walk goes a long way in helping me even things out. And the weight that seems to pile on with more ease as I age? Exercise helps keep it controlled. It’s good for my blood sugars. It’s good for my muscles. It’s good for my weight. It’s good for me. Please – when you make a list of important diabetes tips of your own, add exercise to it.
Don’t let yourself be bullied. Diabetes management varies from person to person, and from community to community. There is not a “set way” to best deal with diabetes, and you need to do what works for you as far as diet, medication, and all the other health-related bits that require juggling. But there are people – fellow PWDs, medical professionals, sometimes strangers you end up talking to on the subway – who want to weigh in on your management decisions. And everyone’s results vary. If you are taking your insulin by pen or syringe, are satisfied with the results, and don’t have any desire to use an insulin pump, then why should you switch? Are you content to prick the pads of your fingers instead of the outside edge? Keep doing what you’re doing if that’s what keeps you checking your blood sugar. Are you happy with your current diet, and it’s yielding good results for you? Then don’t let yourself be pressured to switch to a Paleo diet, or a gluten-free one, or a low-carb, or a high-protein, or a mostly-air-and-sometimes-a-peanut diet. Don’t let a member of your medical team make you feel like you don’t have the right to ask questions and get answers. Don’t let a family member make you feel judged for the food on your plate.
And you know what? Make a point not to bully yourself – so long as you are doing your best, continuing to try, and constantly learning, you’re making progress towards the best health possible. You know your body best, and you know what works: empower yourself with that knowledge and follow the management path that earns you the best results. Take control!
Kerri Morrone Sparling has been living with type 1 diabetes for over 25 years. She writes a much-trafficked diabetes blog, Six Until Me (SUM), and is an active member of the diabetes community. She is known for her tagline, “Diabetes doesn’t define me, but it helps explain me.” Dexcom is currently a sponsor of SUM, and through that relationship, the company provides her Dexcom sensors free of charge. For Kerri’s full disclosure, please visit http://sixuntilme.com/about/2010/03/disclosure.html.