For the Recently Diagnosed
I started playing the violin badly when I was about 10, and I’ve been playing badly ever since. As a result, I sometimes have trouble remembering what it’s like not to know how to hold the bow or how to curve my fingers over the strings. When I want to remember, I try playing the violin by holding the bow in my left hand and fingering with my right. "Wow This is really hard," I think to myself. "How does anyone do it?"
The same is true of my type 2 diabetes. I sometimes have trouble remembering what it was like when I had just been diagnosed and everything seemed so hard, but I’m going to try.
One thing I do remember was the sense of panic. All the popular press articles about diabetes mentioned losing legs or going blind from diabetes. This was scary.
Then there was the diet. On Monday for breakfast I had orange juice and a poached egg on white toast and butter. On Tuesday, after the diagnosis, all these foods were supposed to be bad, either too sugary or too much fat.
What could I eat?
Like most people at that time (1996) I started out with the low-fat American Diabetes Association diet, although I modified it a bit to eat three vegetables (5 g of carbs) for each starch (15 g of carbs). It just didn’t make sense to me to eat a lot of bread and rice when I had a disease in which I couldn’t process starch.
But the diet allowed only 2 oz of lean meat at every meal, which made me feel very deprived, and I was ravenously hungry most of the time. I did lose weight, but I decided I didn’t want to live if I was ravenously hungry all the time, so I gradually switched to a low-carb diet. My hunger disappeared.
My weight loss slowed down too, but over the years it’s slowly continued because I’m now satisfied with a lot less food, and as a result I now have a normal body mass index.
With time, I came to realize that the horrible side effects of diabetes aren’t preordained. It’s not diabetes that causes blindness and kidney failure. It’s poorly controlled diabetes that has these terrible side effects. As William Polansky, diabetes educator and author of Diabetes Burnout, says, "Well-controlled diabetes causes nothing."
Still, it takes time to come to terms with it all. So if you’ve recently been diagnosed, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and start learning as much as you can about this disease. It’s not going to kill you right away. If you control it well, it probably won’t even damage you.
In fact, as one person said, the secret to good health is to get a chronic disease that forces you to take care of yourself. You may be healthier in 5 or 10 years than you are now.
Without diabetes you could live on junk food and never get any exercise except getting up occasionally to change the TV channels when you misplaced your remote. Then one day you’d probably drop from a heart attack. With diabetes, you’ll eat a healthy diet and get as much exercise as your age and physical condition allow. You may lose a lot of weight and feel much better about yourself as a result.
When I was diagnosed with type 2, I’d been trying to lose weight for about 30 years, the usual way. I’d eat less, especially fewer desserts, and I’d lose some weight. Then I’d think I was a thin person and stop dieting, and all the weight would come back, plus a little more. So in those 30 years I’d managed to put on an extra 30 pounds, a lot when you’re only 5 feet tall.
When I was diagnosed, I knew I couldn’t yo-yo diet anymore. This was serious. This wasn’t vanity. This was health. So I took it seriously and stuck to a diet even when my weight was down to an acceptable level. Weight isn’t everything. Blood glucose levels are also important, and diet plays a big role in what your glucose levels are.
Today I sometimes wonder why I ever liked some of the foods I used to eat. They’re really pretty tasteless, mostly sugar and salt and artificial flavorings.
Yes, type 2 diabetes can be a burden. But it can also be a blessing. It can be the kick in the pants you need to transition to a healthier lifestyle.
I know it’s hard to accept this at first. It takes time.
As you learn, remember that you have many "diabetes colleagues" who have gone through what you’re going through now and understand. With the Internet, we can now be in touch with these people. Reach out to them. Ask questions. Learn from their experiences as well as from your own.
As with my trying to play the violin left-handed, you may think, "Wow! This is really hard. How does anyone do it?" Yes, it’s very hard at first. But know that it does get easier.
So hang in there! Like many people with type 2 now getting normal blood sugar levels and enjoying active pursuits, you can do it too.
Gretchen wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Diabetes.