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Diabetes and Prejudice

Originally published 7/16/2009

Hi, my name is Phyl and I am a diabetic.

Hi, Phyl.

No, Diabetes is not alcoholism.  But some people treat diabetics with similar prejudices.  “It’s your fault.  You ate too much sugar as a child.”  Sure I have a sweet tooth, but I rarely go overboard and always compensate with few carbohydrates at the next meal, extra insulin and a longer stint of exercise.  I grew up in a different era.   We did not keep soda pop in the house.   That was reserved for special outings at the state fair or possibly a church picnic.  Candy only crossed the threshold on Halloween and Christmas.  Desert came with dinner maybe once a month.  Cake only on birthdays.  Compared to today’s children, I had hardly any sugar at all growing up.

Eating sugar as a child does not cause diabetes without other factors involved.  Type II diabetes, or adult onset, is usually genetic.  True the only way you can give yourself this disease, if you don’t have the genes for it, is to be morbidly obese–more than 100 pounds overweight–and live a totally sedentary lifestyle.  I have never carried more than twenty pounds than I should and I have always been active.  Ballet, hiking, biking, fencing.  Type I, or juvenile diabetes, is always genetic or caused by pancreatic damage due to extremely high fever or sometimes injury.  It manifests in childhood, usually by the early twenties.

Diabetes makes you stupid.”

Wrong.  Low bloodsugar events make you dizzy and clumsy, you slur words, and lack judgment.  All can be corrected within about 15 minutes with a glass of juice or a half dozen crackers followed by careful testing and monitoring over the next few hours.   A diabetic who maintains good control over their diet and exercise, tests often and takes their medications on schedule has no reduction in intelligence or judgment.  Balance and clumsiness are other problems.  I’ve been a diabetic for 13 years, on insulin for 3.  I’ll match my IQ against almost everyone I know.

Let me illustrate these prejudices with a couple of examples.

I had a tatting student, a teenage girl brought to classes by a much older aunt.  The aunt had warned me ahead of time that the girl was diabetic and therefore had poor spatial relationships, clumsy fingers, and dwindling eye sight.  Then I met the girl.  Certainly she had problems, but they were from Downs Syndrome, not diabetes.  She was diabetic, but the two don’t necessarily go together, nor do they cause each other.  I applaud her caregivers for giving her opportunities to find special interests.  I just wish I’d had the time and the skills to find a way to spark an interest in the girl for lacemaking.   If I’d known the true cause of her problems I’d have done some research, talked to professional special ed teachers, come to class better prepared.  She didn’t come back for a second lesson.  We didn’t make the right connection.  We might never have.  There is no way to tell for certain now.  Her caregivers did her no favor blaming Diabetes for her problem rather than the truth.

The woman who taught me lacemaking was diagnosed with diabetes while I was taking lessons.  One week she offered me chocolate frosted chocolate cookies as a snack and real sugar in my tea.  The next week she offered crackers and cheese and had only artificial sweetener in the house.  I asked “Are you diabetic?”

Yes, but don’t you dare tell anyone.”  Said with great vehemence.  I deferred to her request but didn’t understand why.  My mother was diabetic and I’d attended education and nutrition classes with her.  “Well, they’ll think I’m a bad person if they know.”

How many times has Uncle Joe’s bad behavior when drunk been explained away as a reaction to medication or epilepsy?  Anything but admit there’s an alcoholic in the family.  Same association with diabetes.

This woman was so afraid someone would find out about her condition that she skipped her medication and ate what everyone else did if she was anywhere but home alone.  She ended up losing both her legs, several fingers, and her eyesight to diabetic neuropathy before her heart gave out from other complications due to failure to control her condition.

My own experience with this kind of prejudice came last autumn when I attended a gathering I’d been looking forward to for months.  Before lunch I excused myself to a small lounge by the restroom.  The room was empty.  I sat in a chair and spread my glucose meter and insulin kit on a magazine table.  In the middle of the process an acquaintance walked in on me.  She took one look at the syringe and started screaming about her needle phobia.  She made such a fuss that others came running to investigate an emergency.  One woman had her cell phone out and had begun dialing 911.  The entire issue became about my provoking this woman by playing upon her phobia rather than her invasion of my privacy.  I considered leaving the gathering.  But then she would have been able to justify her reactions.  I stayed and refused to take note of her near fainting every time we passed each other in the crowd.  She never apologized.  And neither did I.

A few months ago I read in a Diabetes newsletter the increasing tendency among diabetics to skip a dose of insulin rather than take a chance someone outside the immediate family would find out they are diabetic, or endure the over-reaction of a selfish few.  They won’t even excuse themselves to the restroom to take a shot.   This is dangerous and totally unnecessary.

Since reading that article I make a point of not excusing myself from the group if I need to take a shot.  I don’t jump up and down shouting “Look at me, I’m taking a shot.”  I aim for discretion, trying to keep the syringe under the table.  But I don’t hide it. 

And if anyone asks, “Yes I am diabetic.  What of it?”


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