How Alcoholism Led to a Diabetes Diagnosis

Health Writer
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At his peak, James Cato Ferguson, a California attorney, was drinking 32 ounces of hard liquor in a 24-hour period.

“My name is Jim Ferguson. I’m an alcoholic. I was diagnosed as such on July 16, 2007 when I entered the Betty Ford Center,” says Jim.

The 58-year-old former mayor of Palm Desert was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes two months later.

“There is a nasty inner relationship between alcoholism and diabetes,” he says. “I’m not a doctor but I’m just a little over 10 years in garnering a Ph.D. in addiction studies.”

According to health experts, chronic use of alcohol is considered to be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. It can cause insulin resistance and pancreatic β-cell dysfunction, each of which is a prerequisite for the development of diabetes.

If you already have diabetes, alcohol is even more dangerous because it can damage your liver (the organ that stores your glucose supply) and your glucose levels may become unsteady and put you at risk for hypoglycemia.

“My liver was working at capacity,” Ferguson says. “My liver enzymes were off the charts. That’s an indication it was not doing well. Most people who die of alcohol-related causes don’t die from drunken driving or falling off the roof while trying to clean leaves out of the gutter or some other dumb thing. They die from cirrhosis of the liver.”

“There is no cure for alcoholism,” Ferguson says. “You can only manage it. Diabetes is the same way. It is a chronic disease.”

Ferguson started drinking recreationally in college to have fun and to forget his inhibitions and insecurities. He also says there was a “direct link” between his drinking and early childhood trauma, which he declined to specify. He stopped drinking in law school but began again while working 16-hour days as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., where he was courted with drinks and dinner. By the time he was in his 40s, he said, alcohol was “medically necessary to manage life.”

Today, managing both his alcoholism and his diabetes is constant work.

He has had no alcohol for seven of the past 10 years, says Ferguson, and has an “ongoing relationship” with the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, where he has sought both inpatient and outpatient help. Ferguson said he has also sought help at multiple other treatment centers.

The constant drinking took a devastating toll on both his personal and professional lives. It also began to rob him of his good health. His reputation was sullied, his marriage dissolved, and he lost longtime friends.

“I kept thinking I could understand this problem and take care of it,” Ferguson says. “I’m a lawyer. That’s what people pay me to do and I just assumed I could. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I can’t. It doesn’t matter how smart I am about alcoholism; unless I’m willing to give up control of my life, I can’t gain control of my life.”

He has lost feeling in his toes due to diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage often associated with diabetes. Symptoms include pain, a pins-and-needles sensation, numbness, and weakness. He receives at least two weekly massages to help ease the discomfort.

If that is the only physical damage the drinking and diabetes have taken on him, he says, he considers himself a lucky man.

“My alcoholism got to the point where it wrecked my life quickly enough that I did not get a lot of internal organ problems,” Ferguson says. “My liver enzymes went back to normal. My pancreas is now normal.  My systems are all back to normal except my brain, which still wants alcohol. I can drive by a beer truck and want to go get a beer because I love the taste.”

Most people who consume alcohol do not suffer damage to the liver, but heavy alcohol use over several years can cause serious injury. For women, consuming two to three drinks (including beer and wine) per day can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis; for men, three to four drinks per day.

Ferguson said he currently takes four oral medications to help control his diabetes. But, he freely acknowledges, he does not exercise “like I should.”

Ferguson repeats: “My name is Jim Ferguson. I’m an alcoholic.”

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