This time last week, I was sitting on a plane, flying back from Friends for Life. As we’d booked this trip at the last possible moment, I was not travelling the long LA – Melbourne leg with Aaron and the kidlet. We hadn’t managed to all get on the same flight and my trip (booked though work) and theirs didn’t coincide.
So I had a lot of thinking time and kept trying to put into words what the Friends for Life (FFL) experience was for me. I found myself tearing up quite a bit, and kept touching the green bracelet that was wound around my right wrist. It’s still there, and I find myself glancing at it when I am sitting in meetings, or as my fingers fly across the keyboard typing these words.
I had an idea of what I was going to experience at FFL. I have spent enough time with FFL alumni and read a lot about it to have formed an impression about what the week would hold.
I knew what to expect.
Excect I absolutely didn’t. I had no idea.
I expected it to be all touchy-feely. I expected lots of hugs. I expected a quiet understanding – of all and from all who were there. I expected to feel included and part of something and welcomed.
And those expectations were all met. Ten fold.
But what I didn’t expect was the sheer, overwhelming emotion of the conference.
And I didn’t expect the science.
Make no mistake. Friends for Life is a diabetes conference in the truest sense of the word. It is not a support group meeting – of course there is support, but it is much more than that – it is a scientific meeting with the focus very clearly on providing up-to-date, evidence-based, important information to people living with diabetes. It’s not dumbed-down – absolutely not! The information presented at FFL would not be out of place at the ADA scientific meeting I’d attended the month prior, or ADS-ADEA conference I am attending next month.
I didn’t expect an exhibition hall that was bigger than what I know I’ll see at the annual ADS-ADEA conference.
I didn’t expect that there would be announcements like the one Ed Damiano made about his work on the (brilliantly named, iLET) bionic pancreas. And when it was made, I didn’t expect the outpouring of emotion, of gratitude, of understanding, of hope.
And running alongside it – as part of it – are the sessions where you sit, and breathe and cry and nod and share your story. Or say nothing and just fill up.
This is not a cult-like gathering of the pancreatically-challenged and our support people. There is no sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. Equally, it’s not a pep rally where we marched to the beat of the same drum, patting ourselves in the back. Every person at that conference has their own story and while there certainly are similarities, there are also differences.
Friends for Life challenged me. It made me feel uncomfortable at times. The discussions were not all easy and self-affirming. There were topics that I don’t regularly talk about, instead hiding them away in a chamber of my mind that I manage to keep locked away most of the time. I sat quietly in talks about how diabetes affects those around me. I struggled to share my story at times. But I did, often with hesitation, because talking about how diabetes impacts on Aaron and our beautiful girl hurts me in ways that make me feel like I am falling to pieces inside.
I didn’t walk out of all of those challenging sessions feeling great. But I felt validated and I felt less alone. And I understood better that it was okay to speak about those confronting issues, even if what I am feeling isn’t wonderful. I took away from those sessions the ideas and strategies other use and I feel better equipped to manage some of the more difficult aspects of living with diabetes in the family.
I attended FFL as a guest of Children with Diabetes (CWD). For years, I have been begging CWD President, Jeff Hitchcock to bring this event to Australia and while I did that with the idea that it would be great for people affected by diabetes to have the experience, I had no idea just what that experience would mean. I still am not fully cognisant of what the experience has given me.
My expectations weren’t met at Friends for Life. They were exceeded. And I hope that we can find a way to bring it to Australia so that as many people as possible can become part of the FFL family.
A huge thank you to Jeff Hitchcock and the CWD Board for covering my costs to attend Friends for Life 2015.