Dear people who speak to (or about) people with diabetes

Hello! I write and speak a lot about language – see here and here for starters. I see people’s eyes roll and hear them sigh when I get back on my bandwagon. But it is an important issue, so please allow me to once again ask you to consider the words you use, the tone you employ and the message you are trying to get across. I am doing this having just returned from one international conference – EASD – and about to head to another – ISPAD – tomorrow.

Diabetes conferences can be a minefield when it comes to language. I can still feel my indignant response to a healthcare professional when, in his conference presentation, he repeatedly referred to the people who attend his clinic as ‘non-compliant diabetics’.

Language matters. It really does. You may think the words you use do not really matter and that once they are out of your mouth they are done and gone.

But that is not the case. Words last a very long time. They hang around for years and years. Don’t believe me? I am seventeen years into my diabetes journey (stupid word – is there a diabetes destination?) and I can remember things that were said to me at the start line.

I can remember the exact words muttered by my GP when she diagnosed my type 1 diabetes.

I can remember the fear my very first endo instilled when he (I am sure – I hope – unintentionally) scared the bejeezus out of me, with words of threat, warning what would happen if I did.not.look.after.my.diabetes.

I can feel the judgement in the words used by a nurse when she asked me why my blood sugar was so high as I was admitted to hospital with a frightful case of gastro.

I can remember choosing my words so carefully when I saw a diabetes educator so as to hide what was really going on because the words I wanted to use were so raw – I did not want to feel vulnerable in front of her and I did not want her to judge any of my diabetes management, or life, decisions.

I can remember zoning out when a healthcare professional was lecturing me about what I was doing wrong. Her words were making me start to second guess things that I knew were making some improvements to my diabetes management – mostly because they were making me feel better about myself, and making me feel okay about having diabetes.

But also…

I can remember the relief I felt at the kindness of the words used by my current endo when I first met with her.

I can remember the concern and genuine desire to help from the diabetes educator who found me crying in a stairwell the day after my diagnosis, and being so appreciative of her kindness.

I can remember a psychologist inviting me to tell my story by being open and non-judgemental, and then just listening. It made me feel validated and understand that saying ‘diabetes sucks’ is okay.

I can remember the cheeky – but incredibly respectful – humour used by a podiatrist when we spoke about my need to wear sky-high heels. And being thankful when she said that I didn’t need to throw out my boot collection!

I can still remember how pleased I was when a dietitian didn’t tell me off – in fact laughed with me – when I admitted that my breakfast that day had included two coffees and a doughnut.

Words have power. And they have staying power. You may not know that when you are in the middle of a conversation, or even afterward, but believe me when I say that they do hang around.

I can remember what people have said, the way they have said it, and the way I have felt about that throughout the last seventeen years, and some of those things still cause me to shudder. I know others feel the same way.

I am sure that you never, ever want to inflict any sort of pain from the words you use. But be aware that there is the potential for that to happen.

Choose your words wisely. Once they are said, they cannot be taken back.

Best,

Renza signature

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