Learning From Diabetes

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If diabetes were a college professor, nobody would sign up for his class. But those forced to take it might learn things that would help them succeed in other areas. What does diabetes teach, and how are you doing in your class?

Based on my experience and the stories of scores of clients, there are five important units in the chronic illness syllabus. I describe them in my book The Art of Getting Well, but many other texts are available.

For me, the first lesson was to get help. Growing up, I learned the value of independence, of never having to ask for help. In our culture, everyone is supposed to go it alone. But with a chronic illness, extreme self-reliance doesn’t work. The ability to find, ask for, and accept help was the first exam I had to pass.

A client named Mary was taking care of her 8-year-old developmentally disabled grandson, and she was completely exhausted and stressed. Her glucose levels were way out of whack until she signed up for a grandparents’ support group, found a new friend in a similar situation, and started sharing childcare. Her A1C came down significantly, and she feels her life is much more in control.

If I were writing a textbook for this course, the second lesson would be “relax”. This society is just too fast-paced, and too many of us are driven to work, worry, and work some more. You can’t heal or even take good care of yourself if you’re stressed all the time. Studies consistently show that relaxation reduces blood pressure and glucose.

Some of the other lessons would be:

But in my personal class — in which I’m the only student — the final exam has been about balance. Perhaps it’s similar for you — diabetes self-management is all about balance. At a basic level, it involves balancing carbohydrates with insulin, activity with rest, and exercise with intake. At a deeper level, we have to balance self-care with other responsibilities and desires, balance living for ourselves and living for others, and living for the moment with planning for the future.

There’s also living with the hard emotions such as anger, fear, and grief that illness brings with it. We have to learn to accept these emotions and balance them with joy, gratitude, love, pleasure, and other positives.

It’s a challenging course, that’s for sure. I’ve included links above to some articles (mostly mine, I’ll admit) that might help.

Some other lessons I learned from clients:

“I learned that people are well-intentioned when they give me advice, but they usually don’t know what works for me. That’s true of doctors, too.”

“I learned not to believe everything I read in the newspapers or see on TV about health. Those stories about new treatments used to make me crazy. Now I realize that if a new discovery works out, I’ll hear about it later.”

“I learned to stop putting everyone else’s needs ahead of my own.”

“I learned that if I take time to care for myself, people I care about will still love me.”

So what have you learned from diabetes? There are no grades in this class, so tell us what you know. What’s the best thing, or two things diabetes has taught you? And how has it helped you in your life?

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