If you’ve checked articles on my blog over the years you will have only seen occasional mention of the fact that I have diabetes, usually in relation to topics such as needing to fit my medical supplies in my luggage. The fact that I have diabetes is not something I introduce myself as: it doesn’t define me. But if you’ve met me in person you’ll know that I’m rarely reticent about talking about my diabetes if someone shows interest.
This is one of the reasons I don’t like being referred to as “a diabetic”. I’m not defined by the disease: I’m just a person who happens to have diabetes. The phrase “person with diabetes” (PWD) is a reasonable alternative (which is also preferred by many other PWDs) although it can be a bit long-winded if you’re not careful. But I generally don’t introduce myself as “a person with diabetes”.
I’m much more likely to introduce myself as “a nature photographer”. Yes I’m also “a husband”, “a brother”, “an artist”, “someone who used to work in IT”, “a beekeeper”, and many more things. Yes these have all been formative components of my life, but I don’t regard them as defining me. Even the fact that I am “an accredited professional photographer” and “an Adobe Certified Expert” only really clarify part of my business life. For example they’re probably not going to feature in my introduction to someone I’ve met at a party unless the conversation heads in that direction.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about diabetes around, such as people who thought that when I said I was testing my blood glucose levels an average of seven times a day, that meant my diabetes was “severe” (they actually used the word “bad”). Just to be clear: I have “Type 1” diabetes which I developed as a teenager when the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas were killed off by an auto-immune reaction. Since then I’ve had to supply the insulin my body needs, and balance that against the food and exercise I get each day (along with a bunch of complicating factors). It’s not “bad” or “severe”. There’s no “mild” form of Type 1 diabetes: it just is. Testing my glucose levels often is just a tool in optimising my control (the point is that I need to consciously control it: my body can’t do it itself). Incidentally, today much of the time I wear a sensor which tests my glucose levels in the background almost 100 times a day.
I hear various other PWDs talk about their diabetes as being oppressive and intrusive, invading every moment of their lives and pushing out everything else. But I don’t feel that way. My diabetes is Just There. It’s part of my life. Sure, it’s going to complicate getting a pilot’s licence (but that’s not really on my list). It did stop me from getting an artist’s berth on an Australian Antarctic Division re-supply trip (however I’ve now been to Antarctica four times so far by other means, and am running another Antarctic photo workshop expedition in November 2017). It would stop me applying for a job as a train driver (if I wanted one). But it doesn’t stop me driving, eating, drinking alcohol, snorkling, scuba-diving, or sky-diving, although it obviously does play a part in how I do those things. I travel to the polar regions and to the tropics, although I’m also very comfortable at home in Melbourne!
I do remember struggling with my diabetes in the first few years, even wishing it would just go away, and worrying about how long I was going to live. But somewhere along the way I seem to have let go of that. I’m sure at times I was just on auto-pilot and basically wanting to ignore it, but I know that’s not a good long-term plan! Today I’m at a similar age to that of my parents when I developed diabetes, which is probably way beyond the age I could imagine at the time. Overall I think my health is OK and although eventually like all of us my body will break down in various ways as I continue to age, hopefully I’ll have kept good enough control on my sugar levels that this inevitable wear and tear won’t be overrun with breakdowns due to “diabetes complications”.
Going forward you will probably see more content mentioning diabetes on this blog and on my Twitter/Facebook feeds, but I don’t intend to let it overwhelm things. It’s just part of life.
If you’re curious about the power of language and examples of how you can talk about diabetes without offending people, have a read of the Diabetes Australia Language Position Statement.