Last Friday night, I was at a work dinner. The event followed a very full day of meetings and as we sat down for our meal, I was concerned that my brain was so drained I wouldn’t be able to focus on the guest speaker.
However, when he started, the speaker (one of Australia’s leading diabetes health professional experts) gave an eloquent and articulate talk about the state of diabetes in Australia and the world.
He spoke for a relatively short time – about 15 minutes – and then sat back, continuing to chat with other people seated around him.
He noticed my CGM on my arm, but didn’t say anything. However, later on as he was speaking about realities of living with diabetes, he stopped and said directly to me: ‘You know this better than anyone else. Why am I talking?’
I was grateful for the acknowledgement, but I did want to hear more from him. One of the things he focussed on in his talk was about how HCPs often don’t truly understand diabetes or how to speak to people with diabetes. He identified stigma as a real issue for people living with diabetes – and how the way diabetes is presented and spoken about in the media is damaging. But several times, he came back to his concerns about healthcare professionals and their approach to dealing with people with diabetes.
‘You are so right,’ I said, agreeing with him. ‘I’ve found – and have heard from many others – that often HCPs don’t get diabetes at all. There is this weird concept that diabetes is a matter of insulin (or other meds) – food – check BGL – adjust accordingly. And go! It’s not that easy. It’s really not.’
He nodded at me. ‘You know; I think we made a really big mistake about 30 years ago when we started saying that people with diabetes can live a normal life…It’s not true.’
I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that comment all weekend. It was startling to hear the words, but I think that was because I realised straight away that it was true.
When I was diagnosed, I was told that diabetes would not prohibit me from living a normal life. Sixteen years ago when I started using a pump, I was told that it would make me feel normal again. When I started on CGM, I was told that I would feel normal when I could easily see and adjust my glucose levels. When I’ve started any sort of new eating plan, I’ve done it because I’ve heard that it makes people feel more normal.
I spend so much time convincing people – convincing MYSELF – that diabetes hasn’t prevented me from living a normal life. I check off on my fingers the things I’ve done, one at a time proving that I can do anything, I have done everything. I am normal! Look!! I work; I travel; I have a kid; I eat what I want; I stand up in front of people and talk; I write and get published. Look how normal my life is!
But the truth is – it’s not normal. My life is not normal. And it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
It’s not normal to for my body to not produce insulin. It’s not normal to have to think about every piece of food I put in my mouth, (how many carbs are in there? Are there too many? Are there not enough? What is my BGL right now and do I need more/fewer carbs?) It’s not normal to be terrified that I am going to develop complications that will be debilitating, limiting, scary. It’s not normal to be so worried about my health all the time – to be so focused on my health all the time. It’s not normal to have sensors and pumps and devices stuck to my body as I try to mimic a human organ. And it’s not normal to think this is normal
Humans are incredibly adaptable. We modify and make changes to suit to new environments, circumstances, challenges.
And when we are diagnosed with a chronic health condition that impacts on pretty much every part of our life, we adapt. It may become our new normal. But it’s not normal.
I agree with the esteemed professor from the other night. It was a huge error to start saying that we can live a normal life with diabetes. It undermines, and negates, the constant effort we need to put in to appear normal and to be healthy; it makes us feel guilty – and incompetent – when diabetes does stand in the way. It makes us fell less than we should when we need to seek special consideration or dispensation to help manage situations.
I have diabetes. My life is not normal. And it doesn’t diminish me in any way to admit that.