Throughout July, we’re featuring excerpts from Ginger Vieira’s new book, Dealing with Diabetes Burnout. In this first of four edited excerpts from the book, the longtime life coach and diabetes advocate describes the pressure everyone with diabetes feels to be perfect:
Have you ever wanted to be one of those perfect diabetics? Me too. As people living with diabetes, we can’t help but compare ourselves to that “perfect patient” our doctors, parents, boyfriends, wives, strangers, and friends all want us to become. There is an unspoken expectation to be flawless in all things despite the fact that such perfection is impossible.
Since the day I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1999, I have never met one of those elusive diabetics who gets it right all the time. I’ve met people with diabetes who work really hard to have the tightest blood sugar control possible, but even they haven’t attained perfection. Even they have moments or days when their blood sugars are higher or lower than perfect, when they eat something that a “diabetic shouldn’t eat,” when they forget to check their blood sugar before a meal, when they can’t find time to exercise, or when they
miscount the total carbohydrates in their grandmother’s all-natural, whole-grain, homemade bread and, thus, take too much insulin.
From the moment we are diagnosed with diabetes, we begin a part of our lives in which we are constantly graded. Constantly tested. Constantly told whether we’re doing a great job, a good job, an okay job, or a really bad job based on the numbers that show up on our glucose meter and A1C test. We are graded on what we eat or on how often we exercise. We can’t help but tell ourselves that we’re “good” or “bad” based entirely on how well we are able to accomplish this neverending to-do list throughout every single day. And that is exhausting.
It can go something like this: I’m “good” for checking my blood sugar at least four times a day, but I’m “bad” for going too many hours, or even days, without checking. I’m “good” for drinking water. I’m “bad” for drinking a martini. I’m “good” for eating steamed chicken and vegetables. I’m “bad” for eating ice cream and cookies. I’m “good” for being able to accurately count the carbohydrates in my dinner, and dose my insulin for that meal, but I’m “bad” if my estimated carb-count is off by even 5 or 10 grams and my blood sugar is high as a result. And I’m definitely a bad, bad, bad diabetic if I eat a chocolate peanut butter cup. But hey, I also really love asparagus, chicken, strawberries, and almond butter, but high-fives for making good decisions don’t seem to be nearly as forthcoming as raised eyebrows and gasps for “bad decisions.”
Everything we do or don’t do, choose or don’t choose, inevitably leads to criticism of how well we are taking care of our diabetes. Sometimes the criticism comes directly from our own heads, and sometimes it comes from our doctor or the people who love us. But we don’t need to do everything perfectly in order to be doing an amazing job in life with diabetes. Seriously.
Even though we may intellectually know that these expectations are unrealistic, we still blame ourselves for our mistakes and shortcomings over and over and over. We still feel that constant, unspoken pressure to be flawless. This pressure sits on all our shoulders—all day long—and it can effortlessly transform itself into guilt, blame, self-sabotage, and hopelessness. Wrap all of those things together and you’re left feeling totally burned-out. Totally ready to give up.
On a daily basis, I am trying to balance three things: diabetes, life, and happiness. Life doesn’t stop just because my blood sugar is suddenly low. And my blood sugar doesn’t care that while it’s inconveniently low I’m actually trying to work out in the gym or speak at a conference or enjoy a movie with my fella or hike in the woods with my dogs. Diabetes does not care.
And then there’s happiness. Is attaining that magical state of “diabetic perfection” worth it if my entire existence revolves around trying to have perfect—and I mean perfect—blood sugars… even if it comes with endless stress and overwhelming pressure? I don’t think so. Part of the balancing act is about learning how to “roll with the punches” of diabetes, like forgiving myself quickly for the high blood sugar I had yesterday morning because I treated a severe low blood sugar in the middle of the night with two juice boxes (30 grams of carbohydrates, instead of just 15). Correct the issue, learn the lesson—a 35 mg/dL in the middle of the night does not actually need two juice boxes despite how scarily sweaty and shaky I was at the time—and move on.
The balancing act is also about knowing when it’s time to ease up on diabetes management for the sake of enjoying something in life that wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I was overly concerned about having perfect blood sugars. You really think I’m never going to eat cotton candy again at the state fair just because it’s not “ideal” for people with diabetes?
Now believe me, I have days, weeks, and sometimes just overwhelming moments when diabetes makes me mad, frustrated, and sad, but those phases of burnout don’t stop me from living the life I want to live. And I want to show you how to create that balance for yourself. To feel burned-out and not only be okay with it, but move through it at your very own pace.
Okay? Okay. Let’s do it. You are not in this alone!
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