Coming to Terms with Chronic Illness: Diabetes & Beyond

ARCH is offering a 6-week series dedicated to life with diabetes.  More info: diabetes/  Anyone struggling to manage diabetes has likely heard plenty about what to eat, what to do, what not to do, and why aren’t you doing that?  We aim to look beyond the how & when of diabetes management & focus, instead, on the person instead of the disease.

Of course, the growing need among the diabetic community is one reason we developed this opportunity.  If I may, I’d like to share glimpses of another motivation: my experience with chronic illness.

First off, I’m an “arthritic,” not a “diabetic.”  However, as our series will show, the type of diagnosis is not very important.  It’s learning to live with the inconvenience, fear, pain, heartbreak, and, yes, unexpected kindnesses and lessons that go along with.  I started having problems nearly 10 years ago, so I’m a little ways along in my journey.  How I think of my health and how this fits into the rest of my life (at times, how it’s consumed my life!) affected not only the disease itself but the rest of me, too.

Health care providers will tell you that, once you learn to manage the symptoms of your illness, “you’ll be fine.  You can live a normal life.”  Confession 1:  It sure doesn’t feel that way!  Having something for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE loomed large, especially in that early slice of time where they weren’t even sure what it was I had.  The implications – real & imagined – of what my problem meant for me, work, hobbies, what I wanted out of life were so big that I didn’t even want to think about it.  Too scary.  And, am I going to dread brushing my teeth or turning off faucets for the next 60 years?  (That magazine ad with circular saw blades on a shower tap really struck a chord!)  Oh, & thanks, body, for letting me down at the most inconvenient times!

Most people hate taking pills & getting needles.  Many will take pills for a week if something crops up or a daily vitamin – but if you miss it, oh well.  Confession 2: It’s easy to resent being dependent on what most people avoid if they can.  And, after the gazillionth time, it’s even harder to remember!

After a few months, I started to think of my illness as “the world’s worst houseguest.”  It shows up unexpectedly and without invitation, stays way too long, creates inconvenience in the weirdest & least expected ways, and, even if you spend all your energy trying to get rid of it – it won’t go away.  You try being nice – still there.  You try getting angry – still there.  You try nothing – still there.  You try following what the doctor said – still there.  You rebel & do the opposite – still there.  You tire of bargaining with every little choice – should I avoid that or just enjoy myself (or get it done) & pay for it later?

Chronic illness is nearly invisible.  People can’t see what’s wrong with you & assume that, since you haven’t mentioned it in months that you’re all better or you’re managing well.  They don’t see the cover-ups, slogging through a day because you haven’t slept all night, the frustration at things you used to be able to do.  People who are “really sick” get to stay in bed & rest.  They are forgiven & comforted.  They aren’t told to “get over it” or “get on with life” or “shut up” when they voice discomfort.

Sounds pretty depressing, eh?  In the midst of all this, there were oases of comfort & the gift of getting my priorities straight.  At the oddest time, the last person you’d expect would notice a grimace and offer a pillow to sit on (I guess I wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought!).  And, trite but true: adversity builds character.  You learn not to “sweat the small stuff” and “count your blessings.”  You learn not to waste your time with people who reek of negativity.  You learn some good jokes to put others at ease about your “little secret.”  You lose the nagging feeling that you’re “old before your time” and a “sick-y” to   re-emerge as “just one of many human beings (with a health condition).”

When I think about my health now, I actually figure I’m in reasonably healthy – bizarre!  And, for the most part, I’m pain-free.  Pain-free.  Pain-free.  Pain free!  (That is so amazing to be able to say!)  It was a brutal journey, but – oddly enough – I wouldn’t trade it.  Can you imagine?  There was a time when I couldn’t either.

My hope is we can “walk beside you” for a while on your journey with diabetes.  (And I don’t mind waiting while you check your levels after exercising – just kidding.)  Maybe my walk isn’t just like yours.  But, in sharing your experience and looking at your health in a new way, you might find an oasis, too.

More information on the diabetes series “Are you managing diabetes or is diabetes managing you?” at


About tanya.spencer

Dr. Spencer has worked with families, schools, and residential treatment settings using an evidence-based framework and cognitive-behavioural perspective. She specializes in learning problems, attachment, mood disorders, teen self-harm and the autism and fetal alcohol spectra.
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