Overcoming Diabetes (Revised)

This is a revised version of this story that has been written for a creative nonfiction university class as a final project.

Out of all the different times the call could have come, it came at 8:30 in the evening, while I was in the bathroom.

“Brendan?” said my doctor, sadness and concern in her voice. “I’m sorry, but you have type-2 diabetes. Your bloodwork just came back from the labs now, and I wanted to let you know right away.”

I was in complete shock. My vision began to blur, and I could feel my insides twisting into a tight knot. Attempting to muster some form of composure, I slowly took in a deep breath to try and calm myself as much as I could.

“A-are you sure?” I asked, well aware that she wouldn’t be calling me in the last few hours of the evening if she wasn’t. I knew it was a stupid thing to say, but there was a part of me that wanted to believe it was all just faulty bloodwork.

“Yes,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Is your mother there? I’d like to speak with her about some of the details. You should listen to them as well, they’re important. Make sure to put me on speaker.”

“She is,” I stammered out. “I-I’ll go and get her.”

I stumbled out of the bathroom, still stricken with the news, and noticed that my mother was nearby already, cleaning our kitchen countertops. All it took was one look at my face, and she knew something was wrong.

I handed her the phone.

For a minute, she spoke with my doctor privately, and watching her expression fall slowly after hearing the news of my diagnosis sunk my heart. Then, as I sat down at one of the counter stools and buried my face between my arms, she set the phone down and turned on the speakerphone.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Okay, you two. Here are some important numbers for you,” she said in a serious tone, drawing in an audible breath as she prepared to list off a large amount of information. “Your A1C test came back with a reading of 12, which means that your average blood sugar is 300 milligrams. That’s way too high, so we need to find a way for you to lower it…”

I felt a fresh wave of nervous shock smash into me. How could I let it get this poor?

“…I’m going to prescribe you Metformin to help you control your sugars, and you need to look into going to a diabetes class and changing your diet. Also…”

She continued on for a few minutes, but half of my mind was elsewhere, still struggling to grasp just how poor this aspect of my health had become. Only the other half of me was attentively listening to my doctor’s advice and instructions.

After my doctor hung up, I began to cry. I was upset, angry, and confused all at once.

Through the tears, I managed to apologize to my mother for the situation.

“I’m sorry for being so irresponsible…”

She leaned closer to me from across the counter, placing a consoling hand on one of my arms. I could tell that she was worried, too, but she was making an effort not to let that show.

“Oh, honey…it’s going to be fine. I won’t lie, your sugar is pretty terrible. But we’ll find a way to manage it and find you a healthier diet.” She let out a small laugh then, saying, “To be honest, it’ll be a good motivator for the entire family to start being healthier. We could all do more to stay in shape and watch what we eat.”

I looked up at her, now coughing in the wake of my emotional breakdown. “Yeah, but this wouldn’t even be a thing we would have to deal with if I hadn’t eaten so poorly for so long, or had made exercising more of a priority!” The sadness was completely gone from my mood at this point; I was pissed off at myself.

She smirked slightly and gave a small shrug at that. “It is what it is. You’re not the first person in America who hasn’t chosen the best of diets, and part of it is my fault for not cooking better meals for the family anyway. We go out to eat way too often. It’s too easy for you — for any of us, really — to always choose the french fries or the fried rice over better stuff like side salads when we do that. If we eat at home, we can make sure we eat right.”

As I was about to respond to that, she cut in again while she moved to get me a glass of water. “And also, by the way, it’s not entirely something you can control,” she said, pressing the empty cup against our fridge’s water dispenser and letting it fill with the icy liquid. “Both your dad and your grandfather have it, and my aunt did. Part of it is genetic.”

I was confused by that completely.  “What?” I said, reaching out to take hold of the water glass that my mother was handing to me. “That’s not how type-2 works. You’re thinking of type-1.”

As I raised the drink to my lips, she answered, “No, type-2 can be influenced by genetics. Type-1 is the one that is completely from genes, but if someone in your family had type-2, you’re at a higher risk. I know because my doctor told me this several years ago because my aunt had it.”

Hearing that what had happened wasn’t completely due to my failures was comforting, and my rage was starting to come down now. My mother, with her parental instincts, could sense this.

“Look, Brendan. It’s not the end-of-the-world. We caught this early, and yeah, it does look and seem pretty terrible now, but if you’ll try new diets and cut down on your carbs hard, you can take care of it before things even get that bad. And you’ll have me making those foods for you.” She smiled and rubbed my shoulder then, saying, “Like I said, it benefits everyone in the house anyway.”

I took another gulp of the frigid water, savoring the shivers it sent throughout my body as I swallowed it. Then I stood up, gave a big sigh, and just…relaxed for a minute.

She was right.

“You’re right, ma,” I said, feeling somewhat better now. “I can take care of this. I’ll give up the bad ways that I eat and make the effort to be more active.”

I had seen what diabetes could do to people who didn’t take care of it early while they could, and I knew that insulin was extremely expensive. I was going to fix the problem before any of that happened.

She nodded. “Good.” She let out a sigh of her own, grabbing her now-dry cleaning rag and placing it near the sink. “Probably ought to tell your dad now…”

That night was two years ago, back in 2017. I was 19 then, fresh into the world of adulthood, and being diagnosed with a disease that could wipe away several years of my future terrified me then, and it continued to do so for a long period of time after that night, too, as I embarked on my personal journey to take care of it.

It started with learning how to eat better. Up until that point, I had been eating pretty much every type of carbohydrate-saturated food under the sun. Everything from fried potatoes to fettuccine alfredo had become a regular meal in my diet, and it was undoubtedly one of the main factors that led to my diabetic diagnosis. So, I visited a nutritionist, and she explained exactly to me how many carbs per meal and per snack session I should be eating, as well as which types of food were healthier than others.

Making this adjustment was difficult, to say the least. Many of the foods I had to either eat much less of or cut out of my diet completely were some of my absolute favorites, such as the aforementioned fettuccine. What really got me, though, was the fact I couldn’t snack on what I used to. Pizza rolls, potato chips, pretzels ⁠— all of these were things that I had grown so accustomed to consuming regularly that not eating them often would make me cranky and frustrated. This withdrawal continued for months until I finally was able to break out of it. Once I did, I learned how to find more enjoyment in healthier and cleaner types of food.

There was also the matter of getting myself to exercise on a consistent basis. During my late teenage and early adult years, I wasn’t an active person at all, so it was far from an easy habit to get into. Getting up to go jog on a treadmill or take a walk throughout my neighborhood wasn’t some simple thing that I could easily just make myself do — not when I had become so accustomed to spending nearly all of my free time reading books, playing video games, or writing for pleasure.

It was something that I had to create systems to annoy myself with in order to make me do it. I would set reminders and alarms on my phone that would constantly buzz off until I did my allotted exercise amount for the day. I put up several pieces of paper on my bedroom and bathroom walls that had “Remember to exercise today!” written on them in large bold text so that it would be impossible to forget about it. In time, however, I began to feel much better. When that happened, getting exercise became less of a chore and more of a normal part of my routine that I didn’t mind too much, and even ended up liking. 

The final part of the challenge was forcing myself to check my blood sugar on a consistent basis. Since doing so is a simple process, this wasn’t as hard as learning how to eat cleaner and work out, but it was still difficult for me because every time I did it, it would remind me of the situation I was in. There was never a day where I could just pretend I wasn’t diabetic, because I needed to record my sugar every day so that I could keep track of how much progress I was making with my dieting and exercise strategies — and also to ensure that nothing was ever seriously wrong. As I did with those things, though, I eventually figured out how to deal with it.

Ultimately, diabetes is a part of me that isn’t going to ever truly go away; even though I stopped my bad habits and became a healthier person in the months following my diagnosis (and have stuck to those habits since), I’m always going to be a diabetic now.

But it’s something that I’ve learned to manage. I learned how to enjoy myself with snacks and at mealtimes without choosing carb-laden food all the time. I learned that taking a walk or going out to the gym for awhile on a consistent basis is something I enjoy. I learned to watch my blood sugar closely, and have made checking it with a glucometer part of my regular routine. This, thankfully, has worked very well; my sugar readings have consistently remained around 100-120 milligrams since the tail end of 2017. For someone who is diabetic, my doctor tells me that’s excellent.

I look back at the night of my diagnosis now with a mixture of humor and pain. It’s funny to me to remember just how upset I was over something that I’m taking care of without issue now, just three years later. At the same time, reliving those moments in my mind brings me a great deal of sadness and discomfort.

In the end, though, I think this is a story that was important to share with the world. What my mother said that evening was absolutely true, and I think it’s something that everyone should realize. No matter how bad your situation is — or how bad you think it is — you can work towards improving your life for the better. Although I felt hopeless in that moment, I wasn’t helpless at all. Realizing this is the first step in the long, painful process of overcoming a problem.

Is it easy? No. Far from it, in fact — in my case, I miss eating whatever I want, whenever I want. I miss being able to do the things I love in my free time more (despite the fact I’ve grown to enjoy exercise, too). I miss being able to have a normal day where I don’t need to check on my blood sugar. Building these habits for myself was very hard.

But you can do it.


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