Let’s not sugarcoat it

Living with diabetes does not equal suffering from diabetes. Photo by Faith Delamarter

ANNA GRITZENBACH | OPINION COLUMNIST | agritzenbach@butler.edu 

“If you eat that candy bar, you’re gonna get diabetes.” “God, I ate so many sweets over the holidays — I bet I have diabetes now.” I bet you 20 bucks that you have made or heard someone make jokes like these. 

The only thing laughable about these kinds of jokes is how bad they are — plus, they aren’t even true. 

Let’s be real: a single candy bar or a big meal over a holiday is not going to be the reason you are diagnosed with a chronic illness. 

In 2011, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: I was a 7-year-old girl who had just entered second grade, and I didn’t fully understand what the diagnosis meant. Quickly during my grade school career, my diagnosis bore the brunt of many jokes and comments. In sixth grade, the cops drove by the school with their sirens blaring while I pricked my finger in the back of the classroom. A classmate retorted to me, “Oh Anna, they’re here for you — you better hide your drugs!” 

I began to understand that not only did my diagnosis mean needles, constant monitoring and the ever-looming burden of medical responsibility, it also meant that I would need to field comments like these. 

There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. 

Type 1, also called juvenile diabetes, is considered an autoimmune illness in which the body attacks insulin cells in the pancreas. Because the pancreas does not make its own insulin, the individual must manually distribute it via shot or medical pump to survive. Type 1 is most often diagnosed in kids, hence the name juvenile diabetes and the vast majority of the time develops due to a random genetic mutation — not unhealthy eating, lack of exercise or excess sugar intake. 

Gestational diabetes occurs when a pregnant woman’s hormones cause the body to not use insulin effectively; most of the time symptoms disappear when she gives birth. 

Type 2 diabetes is probably what you think of when someone says the word “diabetes.” Stereotypically, it is diagnosed in older individuals who may be overweight or have unhealthy eating habits. Often, it is diagnosed in people over the age of 45, but that is not to say that younger people aren’t at risk. With type 2, the pancreas still produces some insulin and needs some extra help, or the body can’t process insulin as well. Type 2 can be treated in many different ways. 

There is a large genetic component to type 2, not just lifestyle and age factors. So before you make a joke about a meal giving you diabetes, remember that no one thing will result in a diagnosis of diabetes, of any type. 

Dr. Kevin Tuohy, an associate professor of pharmacy practice living with type 2 diabetes, reiterates the idea that just because someone has diabetes does not mean that they brought it upon themselves. 

“The perception that if someone has diabetes that they are somehow unhealthy or that they can’t enjoy things normally [is wrong],” Tuohy said. “Just because someone in some cases has to take insulin, sure, it’ll impact their life, but it doesn’t ruin their lives.” 

Tuohy brings up a good point: just because someone might have an extra bag to carry does not mean that their life is over and abnormal — it just takes some time to adjust. 

Diabetes is not just insulin and counting carbohydrates. For most, it means checking their blood glucose levels via a blood finger test or a continuous glucose monitor, shoutout to Nick Jonas, doctor’s appointments and grown-up conversations before you turn 18. But, above all, it means being hypervigilant of your body and planning for the worst-case scenario. 

Monica McKnight, a sophomore speech, language and hearing sciences major, lives with type 1 diabetes and believes accessibility in care is essential. 

“You need all the supplies and [the ability to] travel,” McKnight said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much care you have to [do to] take care of yourself.” 

I’m sure that you have heard about insulin prices — it’s a hot-button issue in most political campaigns. Though the government has capped insulin costs at $35, there are numerous other expenses that patients have to juggle: doctor’s appointments, blood work, continuous glucose monitors, insulin pumps, glucose meters, etc.. For those who don’t have insurance and can’t pay out-of-pocket, diabetes is expensive, and the healthcare system is not always the kindest to everyone. 

Not only does diabetes take up a lot of time and money, but it takes an emotional toll as well. 

Chronic illnesses can be incredibly isolating, especially for younger people. Your preteen and teen years are already some of the roughest roads one has to endure, and all you want to do is fit in. Diabetes is a surefire way to feel like you stick out. 

Junior strategic communication major Samantha Plumridge also lives with type 1 diabetes and talks about how after the COVID-19 shutdown she has learned to embrace sticking out. 

“With time, I’ve definitely learned to become less self-conscious of myself, and to realize that everybody has something going on,” Plumridge said. “Some might be invisible illnesses; some might be visible illnesses. The most important thing is keeping myself healthy, not to put on a persona for other people. I just keep myself healthy and do what I need to do.” 

When everyone around you operates a certain way, it can be very easy to override your own needs to not displease the people around you, and that is something that I actively work on as I get older. That’s not just a mantra for people who live with a chronic illness, but for everyone. 

Now, I know I have mostly talked about the negatives of diabetes but it would be dishonest of me to not highlight some of the good it has brought me. 

For one, I have learned a lot about the medical world and how the body functions. 

There is a strong sense of responsibility and self-governance that I have settled into over the years growing up with type 1, and I am very thankful for that. 

I have made many wonderful connections because I have a visible sensor on my arm or my pump beeps in public. A month or so ago, a little girl about 8 or 9 came up to me at Bibibop and pointed to her Dexcom that she was wearing on her arm, matching with me. She had the biggest smile on her face, and her parents did too. I’m even smiling writing this. 

“When people talk about almost any chronic disease state, you hear people say ‘So and so is suffering from diabetes:’ I have not suffered a day in my life,” Tuohy said. “If we could change the perception that patients with disease states are, quote-unquote ‘suffering,’ and think of it more as living with [something] … The disease state doesn’t define who you are. It’s just that it’s something that you have to live with.” 

Yes, it is something that I will live with for the rest of my life. Yes, I can eat a piece of that cake. No, you won’t get diabetes from eating too much Halloween candy. And no, I don’t want your dieting tips. 

Making jokes about diabetes — or any chronic illness — is insensitive and unnecessary. They only showcase your ignorance and lack of knowledge about diabetes. 

Most people think that a chronic illness diagnosis is the end of the world, and that the individual won’t be able to enjoy their life. This is not the case with diabetes. I am still able to live my life to the fullest despite diabetes: I dance, go to college away from home, have fun with friends and anything else you’d expect a typical college student to be able to do. 

Though I live with diabetes, it doesn’t define me and I don’t suffer from it. I am not a diabetic, I’m just a girl living with it. Though it is a rather sh*tty roommate.


Related posts