Why I Wince When People Say They Won’t Let Diabetes Stop Them

People with Type 1 diabetes are under no obligation to inspire others.

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Commentary

As Insulin Nation’s editor and as someone who doesn’t have Type 1 diabetes, I sometimes can observe trends in the Type 1 diabetes community. Once in a great while, I can find instances when what people say about life with Type 1 diabetes diverges from their behavior.


Over time, I’ve become aware of a contradictory behavior – many people affected by Type 1 diabetes post on social media that they or their loved ones are diabetes warriors, ones who “won’t let diabetes stop them”; but when I post stories of elite athletes with Type 1 who fit this bill, few people read them. Conversely, when I post accounts of when people were scared, made a mistake, or admitted uncomfortable truths about their Type 1 diabetes, those stories are often the most shared.

I recently read an essay in The Walrus called “Illness isn’t a Battle”, in which a mom of a child with a rare genetic disorder discusses her discomfort at watching a hospital ad campaign where children conquer chronic conditions. Children with disabilities and their families are seen as warriors who do violence to the devices that stand in for their chronic conditions; they are pictured standing on top of a mountain of wheelchairs or smashing apart a dialysis machine. All the while, there are flashing neon signs with messages like, “Sick isn’t weak.”

The author, Louise Kinross, argues that while the message is meant to inspire, its certainty leaves out those who can’t overcome their illnesses, or who have setbacks in their health:

“‘But what about the messages it sends to kids and families who aren’t on the winning side?

When you define things in simple terms, you also imply that those who don’t beat their illness or disability are ‘losers.’ Were they not as tough as the kids wearing the super hero costumes in the video? The ad begins with the line, ‘Sick doesn’t mean weak.’ In the video, the word ‘defeat’ flashes. Does that mean some kids ‘surrender?’”


Kinross says she doesn’t want to discard the notion of courage in the face of chronic illness, just allow for times when one also feels defeated:

“We are fierce, but we are also afraid. As parents, we often feel inadequate to the enormity of our child’s illness or disability. And that’s okay.”

I want to keep a space open for times when people with Type 1 diabetes or their families don’t feel like proud warriors. This doesn’t mean that I don’t find those affected by Type 1 diabetes courageous – as someone who has never had to stay up all night to wait out a bout of hypoglycemia, I can assure you that I am inspired by the way people with Type 1 and their families confront this chronic condition and find joy in everyday life. But being an inspiration should not bury the moments when you are panicked by a reading on your meter, and I want to honor those moments, as well. I believe that courage includes allowing yourself, and others in the diabetes community, the space to admit fear, weariness, and even momentary defeat.

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Craig Idlebrook is managing editor for Insulin Nation and Type 2 Nation. He's written about health policy, environmental health, community health, and maternal health for over 25 publications. You can reach him at cidlebrook@epscomm.com.