People with type 2 diabetes write back to their younger selves, to share personal insights and reflect on their experience of living with diabetes and starting on insulin therapy. In this post, Heather reflects on living with diabetes.
It would be easy to call Heather, 42, a perfectionist. In college at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, USA, she had to have straight As. She had to have the most community service hours. “I couldn’t just be in the Honor Society,” she says, “I had to be president of the Honor Society.”
But she isn’t a striver because of her temperament. Unlike many super-achievers, Heather’s fear of failure developed as a survival tool. A difficult family situation caused her to be homeless in New York City starting at age 12. Figuring out how to be on her own required constant vigilance and strategising. “There was no room for mistakes, because a mistake could mean you would get shot or raped. There was no middle ground, you succeeded – or you failed utterly,” she explains.
The need to prove that she was legitimate and that she belonged became ingrained. And perfectionism became the answer. Heather put all of her energy into demonstrating her worth to other people – but very little actual care for herself.
When she was 27 and a fulltime student at UC Berkeley, she saw a doctor for the first time in decades at the school’s medical clinic. After diagnosing her with type 2 diabetes, he put her on pills to control her blood sugar, but they made her quite ill. At a follow-up visit, the doctor wanted her to take insulin in addition to pills, healthy diet and exercise, but she was deathly afraid of needles. She also felt like a total failure for not controlling her body better. People had told her for years: “If you don’t lose weight you’re going to end up with diabetes.” She wasn’t used to failure and hated the feeling.
As Heather was driving home from the doctor, she tried to convince herself that she needed to take the injections. But fear of pain and fear of failure won the argument. She didn’t want to accept how vitally important it was that she regulate her blood sugar. And she didn’t understand that many of the bad feelings in her body were connected to her sugar levels.
It would be four more years before she finally began to take insulin. Heather is writing to herself at 27, after visiting the doctor.
You have just learnt that your diabetes requires insulin. I know that this makes you feel like a total failure, but you are not.
Perfection is how you have thrived, despite life’s many challenges. And perfection means not showing any flaws, such as having diabetes or needing insulin. So, right now you are not accepting the facts.
You have always had a hard time putting yourself first. But now it is time to. You must make yourself the object of attention, care and love. This will not go perfectly. It isn’t just about what you eat – it will take years to get your dosage just right. In addition, you will have to learn about new ways to deal with stress and the pain from a chronic pelvic disorder.
Needles are scary, and the first few times are terrifying for you. Everyone will tell you that they don’t hurt, but sometimes they will, and you will get through it just fine.
Diabetes is a disease and you did not get it because there is something inherently wrong with you. Don’t be ashamed, you are about to learn many new lessons in self-care that will help you way beyond simply managing blood sugar levels.
You will understand how to relax – not to catastrophise – when things don’t go right. You’ll realise you need to go to the doctor when you are in pain. You’ll figure out how to continually assess the state of both your body and mind, because food, pain, stress and panic can all affect your blood sugar levels.
This will help you become a better you.
Be kind to yourself and don’t give up. Every time you remember to test your sugar or take your insulin as prescribed by your doctor, you are looking after yourself. Each time you stop long enough to take a deep breath you are breathing life back into yourself.
You will stumble. It is part of the journey. Keep going. You are worth it.
With unconditional love,
This story has been edited by Ellyn Spragins and shared with support from Novo Nordisk Canada. The views and opinions expressed are not representative of Novo Nordisk, and should not be considered treatment advice. Novo Nordisk has permission to share this letter and included personal details.