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Making a career of the betes (or, a meditation on platitudes)

August 21, 2013

Many platitudes come to life when diagnosed with an illness. “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade” is one, or as Kelly Clarkson evangelized in her hit song, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

For 3 years, I’ve been walking a fine line between letting diabetes enrich my life and letting it define me.

Or to work with the metaphor here, I’ve been walking a fine line between making lemonade for the occasional Saturday morning lemonade stand to make some extra change, and quitting my day-job to buy out a giant corporate bottled-lemonade processing plant.

(Somewhere along that fine line is the third option – the one where I say “this shit sucks and I hate it, it’s so unfair, I give up on life.” I haven’t yet found a home within the metaphor – or in my life – for that scary feeling to be expressed safely.)

During my three years with diabetes, I have cycled in and out of involvement with advocacy/support/fundraising groups for other Type 1s. Having taken a “break” from that scene a bit this past year, I now find myself wanting to cycle back in to being involved.

I worry though that by becoming too involved in diabetes advocacy stuff, I am giving diabetes too big of a voice in my life. How do I let diabetes give me opportunities to kick some ass without giving it too much podium time in the Grammy Acceptance Speech of Me?

Diabetes helps me be a better therapist. Diabetes has given me many perspectives on social justice issues. Diabetes has given me a lot to write about, and gave me an excuse to start running longer distances. It’s introduced me to some magical people. Good stuff, no? I ride the pendulum: on the one hand I want to maximize my experience, knowledge, perspective, and capacity for empathy that diabetes gives me and apply it to my work, hobbies, and friendships. On the other, I want to say say “enough already. Diabetes has taken up more than its share of airtime. Back to the stuff I used to like before this shit happened.”


One of my first experiences of Well-Intentioned-Insensitive-Things-to-Say-to-a-Diabetic (WIITSB) was from, of all people, my partner at the time of my diagnosis. Two weeks into my life with diabetes, he said to me one day, “you know, you’re not Sarah-the-Diabetic, you’re still Sarah.”

I was not wanting, or ready, to hear that. It was said with love; also probably said with a bit of fear, and for that I feel a lot of compassion (lord knows the lack of emotional support for caregivers is arguably even more tragic than the lack of it for patients…at least we patients get a doctor’s note for time off work). As scary as it was for me to be taking on diabetes full-swing, it was probably scarier for those who love me, to see Old-Sarah disappear.  I’ve grieved the shift in friendships when dear people in my life become parents, changing the relationship forever. I’m not a parent, but I think it’s reasonable to compare being diagnosed with a chronic and time-consuming illness with becoming a parent.

So my reaction when my ex-partner told me this was: Correction, I am Sarah-the-Diabetic. And being “diabetic” was in fact one of the most certain, non-negotiable identities I’d ever inherited. As a person with a classic artistic temperament, I’ve spent much of my adolescent and adult life “searching” for meaning, reinventing myself, overly-questioning choices I make, and digging unhelpfully deep for that golden compass, that thing that might point me home, the answer to that question “who am I?” I have pursued self-exploration to a fault. Diabetes, however, was simply a fact. My pancreas was down. No insulin. Simple, organic matter dictating a simple, non-negotiable identity.

Two years later, when I was working with a counsellor who specializes in clients with disabilities, she was helping me come to terms with my unaddressed grief and trauma surrounding my diagnosis. One day, after listening to me talk for awhile, she made a gentle suggestion. “What if, instead of calling yourself a ‘diabetic,’ you tried calling yourself a ‘person who has diabetes?'” I froze. “I don’t think I’m ready for that,” I said quietly, defensively. The counsellor laughed warmly: “I can see that.”

It must have been written all over my face.


So there is that fine line between clinging too hard to being “Sarah the Diabetic” and being “Still Sarah.”  As I explained it to someone recently, I feel like for the first 18 months post-diagnosis, diabetes was the most interesting thing about me. I’d find a way to mention it within three minutes of meeting someone new. I hit a period last winter of anger about that. I wanted Old Sarah back, didn’t want to talk about the diabetes or get involved or anything. So I just quietly carried on with the blood letting and ‘slin pumping (quietly being the operative word: I would actually leave class to go test, despite every one of my colleagues knowing about and supporting my diabetes. I was simply tired of drawing attention to it.).

Now the challenge is to give it a healthier place within my palate of identities. And part of that means that it will influence my personal and professional interests.


I think of my friends who, by having children, have opened themselves to completely new ideas about their career goals. There was the old classmate who changed careers to open a baby-boutique because she realized, from her own experience, that there was a need for it in her baby-ridden neighbourhood. A dear friend who experienced a lot of post-pardum challenges now is considering switching careers to become a post-pardum doula. Another gal pal, now on her second mat leave, is considering leaving her academic position to pursue midwifery. Through becoming parents, these women have been exposed to new possibilities that they never would have predicted. Life events change people. It’s natural.

Letting diabetes influence my hobbies and career interests seems similarly natural. It is a part of who I am, so I will discover new things I never new about before. The difference is that diabetes is a Bad Thing. While, according to cultural standards, parenthood is something to be embraced, illness is something to be ashamed of. Diabetes has invaded enough aspects of my life, so why give it more room? Ah, the eternal dilemma.

All in all, I’m happy to see my interest in diabetes advocacy reigniting. I like that, as a therapist working on multidisciplinary health care teams, I have a strategic advantage as someone also living with an illness. I like that, since the first month of my graduate degree, I’ve been told by many professors and supervisors how much my diabetes will serve me as a therapist. I like that I get to have cool conversations with cool people organizing cool diabetes conferences and support groups and think tanks and programming. It’s a world I never thought I’d be a part of, but it sure is full of rich and interesting stuff.

All in all, I guess I like lemonade. I will try my best to continue to make lemonade with the Lemon of a Self-Destructed Pancreas, but also make room on the table for other beverages (like…diet root beer…good GOD diet root beer). And try to remember that while lemonade might be delicious, there are many other fruits in the fruit bowl of life on which to feast. And some of them don’t even need to be doctored into sweetened beverage form. They’re just awesome on their own.

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