Why I’m Not a Diabetic

I am not a diabetic. I’m a person with diabetes.

I was diagnosed with Type 1 in 1993. I thought my year of exhaustion, weight loss and crazy mood swings were the result of a bad marriage and the stress of parenting two active boys under 6. One day, after drinking my umpteenth glass of water which did nothing to quench my thirst, I called the doctor. In 24 hours I had my diagnosis.

A week later, I was staring at a crumpled and much-copied piece of paper titled Diabetic Diet with boxes and columns for food and how much they weighed. There were other pieces of paper, like the Diabetic Eating Guidelines and Diabetic Food List. The diagnosis was traumatic enough, but these guidelines and sample diets shrank my world into one miserable, tunnel-visioned focus––I was a diabetic–walkers and blindness, amputations and kidney failure loomed on the horizon.

From the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. ©Valerie Spain From the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. ©Valerie Spain

But I gamely followed the guidelines and life began to feel more balanced. I gained weight, which was good though not initially appreciated. After months of uncontrolled high blood sugars, I had lost quite a bit of weight from an already thin frame. A few months before my diagnosis, friends finally began saying, “You look gaunt. Are you OK?” They said “gaunt” but I heard “thin” another reason it took me so long to see a doctor. I was eating what I wanted and loosing weight how could this be a problem? For an American woman with a history of an eating disorder this was bliss.

But in those initial months I faithfully followed the diabetic diet. I ate the suggested amount of food from the suggested food groups and took the suggested amount of insulin. Several months after diagnosis and after gobbling down half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to stop plummeting blood sugars (I still had no idea how much to eat to offset a low) I was hit by a bolt of insight . At that point I knew I would fit diabetes into my life not the other way around. In other words, I would define what I ate and when, and how I lived my life, not diabetes.

images-1It’s taken years to develop heathy self-care practices. I’m not rigid but I have routines–routines I’ve created not routines imposed upon me. I do my best to pay attention and amend things as needed. I believe wellness has 3 interactive practices: knowledge, creativity, and mindfulness (or spiritual practice). The word practice is used deliberately to mean an activity that is part of life, essential to life and life affirming. Only through life-affirming practices can we hope to heal ourselves and our planet.

My blood sugar control can still be erratic and difficult. Sometimes I still feel irritated and discouraged–feelings can’t be avoided but they can be handled with skill and kindness. Creative, meditative practices focused on self-compassion help develop those skills.

I hope anyone reading this blog feels encouraged to take care of themselves with the utmost kindness and compassion, using knowledge, creativity and mindfulness. There are no quick fixes. Sometimes situations turn around rapidly after a diagnosis but deep and lasting change is the work of a lifetime.

Think about whether you want to use the label diabetic for yourself or someone else. Words are powerful. You may be dealing with a condition or illness but you are not the illness or the condition. The word diabetic defines you as a disease or condition. You’re neither. Sometimes groups or individuals claim a noun or adjective as a way to re-claim power, but I’d rather nix labels altogether, which in this case is diabetic.

This blog explores topics typically connected to diabetes like nutrition, food and exercise, and links health and healing to creativity and empathy and addresses the question: what does it mean to be truly healthy?

I’m a coach and nonprofit consultant, a health writer, artist, parent, and so much more… I also happen to have Type 1 diabetes. This blog is for anyone with a chronic disease who wants to drop the labels and think more deeply and expansively about health and disease.

I welcome your comments.

7 Responses to Why I’m Not a Diabetic

  1. thulerose says:

    “Not a diabetic”- excellent point. This is so well written. Do you mind if I share it with a friend who dropped out of teaching and has found her new passion as a nursing student? She’s all about everything you’ve said!


    • vspain says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words- and yes, please share- that’s what this wonderful social media stuff is all about. 🙂


  2. thulerose says:

    I will. Don’t know if you have a way to tell but this is the other Valerie from PAFA.


  3. vspain says:

    No I didn’t know it was you! Are you still in AK? And remind me what PAFA means… 🙂


  4. thulerose says:

    I left Ketchikan June 2010, now renting a 100 year-old farmhouse on 200 acres plus a 5,000 plant organic strawberry patch. Between teaching jobs currently and pondering my next plan. PAFA = PA Academy of the you know what!


  5. Espirational says:

    This is an important lesson. I was taught this years ago by people with developmental disabilities. Keep on spreading the word. We all need to be reminded.


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