Saturday, July 9, 2011

Diabetes and Depression: A Silent Side-Effect

One of biggest, and most silent, side effects of having diabetes is the toll it can take on your state of mind. The fact that it is a life long condition makes it a heavy burden to carry and some days it will weigh more than others. It's thought that a lot of diabetics go through some form of mental anguish or depression at some point in their lives and dealing with this often isn't spoken about or dealt with the same emphasis that is place on blood sugar control and insulin management.

I want to start by saying I am not a mental health professional, but I have had type 1 diabetes for more than a decade and I have experienced my fair share of highs and low (both glucose and mindset based!). I feel this qualifies me to speak on this subject in the hope that my experiences may help other people with diabetes who often find it's too much of a burden.

My diagnosis came at the age of 20, after a pretty near death experience with D.K.A. I'd never really considered my mortality at all before then and all of a sudden I felt that i was "sick" and I would be that way forever. It was a very low point. 4 or 5 times a day I would test my blood sugar and the number I saw would dictate my mood:

4-7 = happy,

under 4 = "annoyed but at least it's not high",

above 9 = disheartened, upset, frustrated, scared.

And that was the way of things for a while, to cut a long story short I managed to learn about my condition and how it affected me. I found out quickly that I could use exercise as a potent weapon to control my highs and lows and when I was finally prescribed Novorapid it began to make things a lot easier.

I consider my diabetes very well controlled at this stage, yet sometimes I still find it a heavy weight to carry. Those times when you do everything correctly and still can't get those high levels to come down, the days when you seem to get one hypo after another, that sense of it dragging on your energy levels even when your blood glucose is normal. The physical burden of the condition can bleed into your state of mind and make my life seem constantly uphill. Those are the bad days.

But I always try to see the big picture. An easy trap to fall into is to feel that diabetes defines you, mostly because it very quickly becomes a major influence in your decision-making. If you start to feel like you shouldn't do something because you have diabetes then you are making a mistake as by & large there are very few things that you can't do. That mindset is indicative of the disease having taken control of your life. Fight it with all the strength you can muster. Don't get me wrong, I know it is different for everyone, it's scary and it is often frustrating but I have always felt that everyone is given the weight they can carry and positivity is one of your most potent weapons.

My thoughts always come back to one simple fact: no matter what sort of day I'm having, no matter how difficult, how scary, how disabling this disease can often be, the truth is that if nature had its way I would have died just short of my 21st birthday. Medical science, and more to the point, insulin ensured that didn't happen but the fact remains that every day I have gotten since then is a day that nature never intended me to have. I'm now 31 and during those years in-between I have travelled all over the world,moved to a different country, met great friends, met & married the woman I love and become a dad to a beautiful (& bold!) daughter. These are experiences I was never intended to have so if I also have to take the rough edge of hypos, needles, testing and insulin adjustment then I'm OK with it.

People often say to me: "having diabetes must be a terrible burden?" and my reply is always the same: "sometimes yes. But if I have to suffer with something I'm almost glad it's this". Diabetes has also had a profoundly positive effect on me. I value my health in a way I probably never would have, I eat a healthy diet and exercise not just because it's good for controlling my sugars but because I really love doing it. These are habits and attitudes that are good news for everyone, diabetic or not. I would love to meet the "me" who never got diabetes and compare my quality of life I have now with what I may have had without the disease. At 21 I smoked, drank too much, ate badly and didn't know anything about taking care of myself. Odds are that might not have changed without diabetes coming into my life. Diabetes, to a significant degree, has made me who I am and I'm oddly thankful to it for that.

So if you are having a hard time dealing with diabetes, whether it's too many hypos, stubborn high blood sugars or just upset by the fact that you have it in the first place. First take a breath and decrease your testing to a for a day or two. I've often found doing this gives me a little "diabetes holiday" and gets it out of my mind so I can think clearly. Then when you're ready you can look at it with fresh eyes. And remember you are not alone. Talk to those closest to you, don't hold it in. Maybe they wont be able to offer anything other than a friendly ear but it helps to get things off your chest. There are multiple avenues you can explore for more specific help: from diabetes nurses, coaches and educators to counselors and diabetes communities/forums on the Internet. If you are brave enough to admit you need help, it is already at your fingertips.

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