I was reminded recently of just how overwhelming and scary those first few days, weeks, and months are with diabetes when I visited a newly diagnosed high-schooler in the hospital. Her face was still pale as her body recovered from weeks of rising ketones and hellishly high blood sugar levels. But most of all, her eyes were filled with worry.
I wanted her to see what life with diabetes could look like, 20 years later: normal, healthy, and wonderful.
My biggest complaints during the day aren’t about my diabetes! They’re about my 18-month-old who is trying to stick PlayDoh in her ears, and my 4-year-old’s inability to stop talking! Normal, real-life problems.
But, if I could go back and talk to my newly diagnosed self, I would say:
1. Skip the Sugar-Free Jello & Diet Coke. Eat Real Food.
Society, your healthcare team, and every other article on the internet are going to tell you that you should be eating the lightest, fakest foods possible. The fewer calories it has, the better it is for you.
Diet Coke may not directly raise your blood sugar, but it’s still filled with garbage ingredients and chemicals. Just because it’s “diet” doesn’t mean it’s harmless. And Sugar-Free Jello may not raise your blood sugar, but in addition to garbage ingredients and chemicals, it also doesn’t do any good for your body at all!
Skip the fake. Focus on loving the real food you eat. Learn how to cook, learn how to bake (and sure, even swap some of the sugar out for healthy non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia, erythritol, and allulose), and let food be a healthy, fun part of your life, rather than a constant mental battle.
2. Don’t Let Other People (Including Your Doctor) Tell You What’s Possible, and What’s Not.
In addition to my own doctor dismissing my aspirations to become a competitive powerlifter, I’ve heard newly diagnosed friends share stories of being told they couldn’t go kayaking anymore, they couldn’t do an IronMan competition, they couldn’t do this or that.
Those are lies. Don’t fall for them.
Sure, diabetes is going to make certain goals harder. But you can still crush them! If you put in the work to learn as much about your diabetes as possible, you can do anything. Powerlifting changed my life for the better -- and I’m so glad I fired that doctor!
3. Never Stop Studying Your Blood Sugars.
At this point, I’ve lived with diabetes for 20 years. And I’m still learning incredible new ways to balance my blood sugar around certain foods, certain types of exercise, or weight-loss goals, or trips to the playground with my children!
The learning never stops -- and that’s a good thing.
What you can achieve in terms of A1c levels and blood sugar management today versus 10 years from now will be drastically different if you view your diabetes as one giant science project. Truly!
You don’t have to learn everything at once -- and in all seriousness, you can’t. But if you keep your mind open to learning, instead of getting frustrated when things don’t go smoothly, you will be unstoppable. Never stop learning! Never stop experimenting. Live your diabetes life like a giant science experiment.
4. Remember That Nobody Can Manage Your Diabetes for You.
At the end of the day -- and heck, the beginning of the day -- living with diabetes is your responsibility. You are the one who makes choices around food, exercise, stress -- the list of variables goes on.
Nobody can do the hard work for you. They can help count your carbs or help you remember to take your long-acting insulin before bed, but diabetes is still truly your daily-duty, 24-hours a day.
Embrace that responsibility and let it empower you. Take a second to think about that: you have diabetes and you’re still waking up, going to school, going to work, getting your tasks done like everyone else without it. You are truly a superhero.
You don’t have to do it perfectly, you’ve just gotta show up and do your best that day.
5. Find. Your. Diabetes. People.
Some of my best friends on the planet are people with diabetes who live thousands of miles from me.
Sure, diabetes is what connected us. But the way we think and live with our diabetes is what makes us friends. While the day-to-day duties of this disease are my responsibility, knowing I can text a friend and say, “I’m 400 mg/dL, and rising!” provides an invaluable source of support.
Talking to people who just get it reminds you that you’re not alone; you’re not the only one who has to deal with all of this 7 days a week; there’s no need for a pity party because everybody has challenges to deal with. This one is yours.
6. Wear Diabetes with Pride — Others Will See It That Way, Too.
Never, never, never be ashamed to be a person living with diabetes.
That time in high school when you thought that new freckled-face boy might not like you anymore once he found out you had diabetes...that was ridiculous.
The way you present your diabetes is how others will see it. If you are embarrassed by it and try to hide it, others will see it as something worth hiding. If you carry it as something that makes you stronger, others will see it as a strength, too.
Wear diabetes with pride. Because it is incredible that you deal with the demands of this disease 7 days a week, 24-hours a day. It’s downright impressive.
(And by the way, the rare person you encounter who responds negatively to your diabetes isn’t worth having in your life. Get ‘em outta here.)
7. Always — ALWAYS — Stay in Tune With Your Own Physical Strength.
It’s easy to feel as though your body has betrayed you when you’re diagnosed with diabetes. It’s easy to feel like your body is weak, fragile, and sick.
The reality is, so much of you is still very, very, very strong. Embracing what your body can do will turn diabetes into a strength, rather than a weakness. Whether you like yoga or jogging or fencing or swimming, find that activity that challenges your muscles and your bones, and leaves you feeling stronger than the day before. You can be a person with diabetes and still be very, very powerful!
8. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.
There will be so many moments or days or even entire weeks when making the “perfect” choice for your diabetes isn’t easy. And there will be days when you take the “wrong” amount of insulin for a meal and your blood sugar is sky-high for hours, and you feel like it’s all your fault.
Nobody does diabetes perfectly. And in a disease as life-long as this one, you’ve gotta give yourself permission to screw-up, to get sick of it, to back-off in a safe way that gives you a little freedom to think about diabetes a little less.
Diabetes doesn’t care if your mother just passed away or if you’re facing a stressful week of exams or if your girlfriend just broke up with you. There’s got to be room to safely do the best you can with diabetes -- even if that means letting your A1c rise a little -- while making room for real life.
Forgive yourself for the imperfections and mistakes, and move on. Every day, every time.