What Diabetes Awareness Month Means to Me

In my coaching practice, I have the privilege of working with individuals who strive to live well with their chronic illness. November is Diabetes Awareness Month. Diabetes is a chronic illness (a long-lasting condition that can be "controlled" but not cured). I happen to have type 1 diabetes. Here are my thoughts and feelings about Diabetes Awareness Month 2015:

When I started to write this post, it felt reminiscent of an elementary school writing prompt. 

"Tell the reader what Diabetes Awareness Month means to you." 

Well, November was never primarily Diabetes Awareness Month to me. It has always been the month of my brother's birthday, and my birthday, and Thanksgiving. Up until last year. Last November was the first November to follow my diagnosis of type 1 diabetes in March 2014.

Last November, you wouldn't have recognized me. I was a shell of my former self. I thought this was just the way I was going to be from that point on, but it turned out I was going through the torturous, yet necessary step of shedding old skin to expose my new self to a life I did not yet fully know.

Physically, I was still weak from the extreme DKA (Diabetic Ketoacidosis) that nearly ended my life at diagnosis. Mentally, I was a bit fragile; my experience post-diagnosis had left much to be desired, with a lack of care and education available for an adult diagnosed with "juvenile" diabetes, and a workplace that could not provide compassion and would not accommodate my illness. It was difficult for me to care about much besides giving my all at work and keeping myself alive, let alone an awareness month for a disease that entered my life like an uninvited guest that immediately declared the intent to overstay their welcome. The November days were short and dark, and so was my vision. With the support of my family and a few friends, I was able to pull together a team for the JDRF Orange County Walk to Cure to Diabetes. We called ourselves "The Bear Down Type" (inspired by the fighting words of my alma mater, the University of Arizona). It was a small gesture, but that was the extent of my formal recognition of Diabetes Awareness Month in 2014. 

This is my second year of being an unwillingly recruited, yet purposefully engaged first-person beneficiary of Diabetes Awareness Month. Things in my life look much different now than they did 12 months ago. Physically, I am stronger than ever. Mentally, I've come to embrace the challenges (and opportunities) associated with life with type 1 diabetes. I look at this month as an opportunity to highlight the things I endeavor to accomplish every day of the year, as a coach, advocate, and patient. 

Things like:

-Educating people about the cause of, and differences between, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It is frustrating to deal with people who treat me as though I deserve to be sick and brought this disease upon myself. It doesn't matter what type of diabetes you have; that behavior is never acceptable. This is one of the reasons it is so important to educate people on the unique challenges that people with type 1 and type 2 face on a daily basis. There is no way to determine if someone does or does not "look diabetic", unless someone can see through our bodies with x-ray vision to witness the lack of naturally produced insulin. We can fight stigma and misinformation together.

-Showing the world that we are able. We can look to public figures like Nick Jonas and Mary Tyler Moore to see all that can be accomplished while living with type 1 diabetes, yet our neighbors, coaches, and bosses may still be unaware of how capable we are when it comes to just about everything someone with a functioning pancreas can do. We know we are strong and capable not simply despite diabetes, but because of the knowledge and strength gained by living with diabetes.

-We can eat that. There is no such thing as a "diabetic diet". A diabetic diet is anything someone with diabetes chooses to eat. Personally, I will often choose not to eat something because I don't like the way a food makes me feel or how my blood glucose levels will react, but the key is that I make that choice. Thorough nutrition and self-management training enables people with diabetes (or their caregivers) to make autonomous choices for a balanced diet, so there's no need to tell them they "can't eat that", because they are fortified with education and the benefit of past experience, so they have it under control (and if you have genuine concerns that they do not, expressing your concern outside of mealtime will go much farther than giving them harsh directives at the table). 

-In an emergency situation, sugar saves lives. Despite what you may have seen on TV or in a movie, giving insulin while someone is experiencing hypoglycemia is a deadly decision. There aren't enough people (medical professionals included) that understand how to handle diabetic emergencies involving hypo or hyperglycemia, so raising awareness on this topic is actually a matter of life or death. 

In summary, what Diabetes Awareness Month means to me is having the opportunity to have my voice, and the united voice of the diabetes community, amplified for the sake of raising awareness of life with diabetes as we know it today, and raising money to fund the cutting-edge research being done so we can live in a world without diabetes tomorrow. 

If you have thoughts on what Diabetes Awareness Month means to you, shout it out in the comments section below. We're all in this together!