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Healthy Life Lessons from a Type 1 Diabetic
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Photo by Pamela Hernandez

As I celebrate my D-Day Anniversary and 29 years with type 1 diabetes, I have been thinking about the lessons living with diabetes has taught me:

Always carry snacks with you.

Test don’t guess.

The body loves consistency.

Don’t deal with customer service agents when you have low blood sugar.

It’s easier to NOT tell TSA you wear an insulin pump.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that it’s okay to be different.

Type 1 diabetes has made me stand out in many ways, especially when I was a kid. When I was diagnosed in 1985, things were much different than they are now. The dietary prescription was DON’T EAT SUGAR. I didn’t count carbs. Instead I had a point system, similar to Weight Watchers, to help manage how much I ate. I learned to read labels early on to detect hidden sugar and how many points a food product might be. Diet products were great because they had no sugar and were very often low in points. I had no problem telling my friends’ moms that I had to have a DIET Pepsi instead of regular. If we went out for ice cream I  had no problem suggesting somewhere I knew  had a no sugar added flavor. For birthday parties my mom made sure we brought a sugar free treat for me.

Technology was much different too. I took my insulin the old fashioned way via twice daily injections. I mixed two types of insulin in each shot to cover me through multiple meals. I had a glucose meter that was the size of a shoebox. I carried it everyday to school with me in an insulated lunch bag and left it in the school secretary’s office. Before lunch I would be excused to take my blood sugar. Going to the office in elementary school was a bad thing so of course everyone wanted to know why I went every day. They also wanted to know why during class celebrations, like the Christmas party, I got a meat and cheese plate and a diet soda instead of the cookies and punch everyone else had. I learned early on how to handle these questions. My pancreas was broken, I would say, and I can’t process sugar like you can. It was a simplistic answer but it did the trick at the elementary school lunch table.

The art of saying no to food and being comfortable being different are skills that are much harder to learn as an adult. Standing out in social situations or the fear of hurting someone’s feelings drives most women to eat things they wouldn’t eat if they were dining alone. We’re people pleasers who don’t want to reject a hostess’ hard work or a husband’s effort at helping with dinner. We show great concern for making them feel appreciated to the detriment of our own feelings and goals. We seem more willing to suffer through the guilt of how we treated our own bodies than risk offending someone else.

If you’re an introvert the last thing you want to do is stick out by bringing your own lunch to an office meeting or asking the waitress 20 questions about the menu before you order. Despite being an extremely shy child, developing diabetes at the age of 10 helped me to be assertive when necessary. Standing up for myself and standing out were required to keep me well. I had to be my own advocate, especially as I got older. Mom wasn’t always there to ask about the food or when dinner was for me. When I got jobs in high school and college, I always told my boss there were certain times I needed to eat.

Now I have no problem pulling food out of my bag if I need to eat. I am perfectly comfortable asking about ingredients at a restaurant. I politely decline the cupcake knowing I am only rejecting a food item that will make me feel bad not passing judgment on the person offering it to me.

This isn’t to say I don’t indulge on occasion. I do but it’s on my terms. I won’t feel guilty about eating a delicious scoop of gelato anymore than I would about saying no to a piece of store bought birthday cake. I’ll adjust my activity, other meals and insulin. Diabetes helped me to not be afraid to stand out. It also has taught me about the importance of balance. Bringing all of it into balance is a lesson is I still work on every day.

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