Explaining diabetes to friends, family, and strangers isn't always easy, but it can be a positive, empowering experience.
I was diagnosed at the age of seven and understanding diabetes has been a long road for me. Even now, 30 years later, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the "forever" of this disease. The journey is a long one, with many detours.
Explaining diabetes to my kids? That's a whole different journey entirely.
Diabetes is my everyday, and I'm familiar with all the beeping devices, carefully constructed meals, and nagging worries that come with it—but friends and family, and sometimes even strangers, have questions that they can't help but ask. Those moments can be uncomfortable, but there are ways to keep them positive and empowering. Here are some tips for talking about diabetes, from explaining diabetes basics to navigating the nuances of emotional health.
Most questions are well-intentioned, so consider these moments opportunities to educate. If someone asks you why you're checking your blood sugar before you eat, here's your chance to explain how knowing your blood sugar helps you make decisions about your insulin (or other diabetes-related medications). These small moments can help paint a picture of what "real life" with diabetes is like and how it includes a hard-to-quantify but impossible-to-ignore to-do list every day.
A very powerful question is, "What do I do if you need help?" The person asking knows that people managing diabetes might require assistance, and this is where you can explain things like symptoms of high and low blood sugars and what steps folks can take if you need a hand.
Take a minute to consider the source. Is it your seven-year-old daughter asking what insulin does? She won't latch on to a biophysical breakdown of the endocrine system, but she will be able to understand the human body as a car, food as the fuel, and insulin as the key to getting things started. The key is to be honest without creating fear, which can be a tricky balance. Keeping explanations simple and building off each discussion are good ways to stay grounded and realistic. You can also hug after each explanation—a parenting bonus!
Is it a stranger at the gas station asking about your insulin pump? The answer to that query might be shorter and sweeter: "Oh, I have diabetes and take insulin. This is my insulin pump" (and you probably won't want to end the conversation with a hug!).
Sometimes the questions and comments do feel rude, and they can put you on your heels. Questions like, "Should you be eating that?" can make it feel like you're being policed, even if the person asking means well. If you're feeling up to educating, you can explain how and why you choose certain foods. By educating friends and family, you are spreading good diabetes information and helping change the way the condition is viewed on the whole.
That's a lot of pressure on you, so if you don't feel like engaging, don't. There's no obligation to explain yourself if you feel like the questions are rude. You can simply say, "Yes," and continue eating—or ignore the question entirely. Living with diabetes doesn't mean you have to entertain every question about it.
Sometimes the questions are scary. When my daughter was two years old, she asked me how many birthdays I have left. I was driving at the time and almost pulled over. "So many birthdays! All of them!" was my panicked response. Questions can be scary, especially on days when diabetes feels a little overwhelming.
If someone asks you a question about your diabetes that frightens you, tell them exactly that. "Will you have diabetes complications?" is a question that scares me. "This question scares me," is my response, and then I tell them about how complications are not inevitable but also not guaranteed-avoidable, and that there's some genetic luck mixed in with hard work. The scarier questions remind me that diabetes is something I need to take seriously, and that my friends and family might have worries, too.
The blessing baked into these scarier questions is that the people who ask them care about us. Actually, that's a part of every question about diabetes, because the person asking wants to know more in an effort to be a more informed member of your support system. Each question can lead to discussions that are honest and empowering, making diabetes less of a mystery and more something we can manage as a team.
By Kerri Sparling
Kerri Sparling has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1986, when she was diagnosed at the age of seven. She is an internationally recognized diabetes advocate. Kerri is the creator and author of Six Until Me, which she established in 2005 and which remains one of the most widely-read diabetes patient blogs, reaching a global audience of patients, caregivers, and others in the industry. She has been featured on NPR, US News and World Report, CBNC, Yahoo! Health, LA Times, and The Lancet, among other national outlets.
Joslin Diabetes Center, Classroom Presentation on Diabetes for Elementary School Age Children
Diabetic Living, I Have Diabetes: How to Talk About It
diaTribe, How to Talk About Diabetes
These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise, or medication regime.