The Gifts of Diabetes
Last spring, I "celebrated" my 40th anniversary with type 1 diabetes. Celebrate? Hardly. Every single person with diabetes would rather not have it. That certainly includes me. Forty years of taking insulin. Thousands of shots and now an insulin pump attached to my body, keeping me alive. Living on the tightrope of control. Yes, I absolutely wish my diabetes would disappear. Looking back, though, diabetes has also given me a number of gifts. Without it, my life would have been different and not necessarily better.
I was diagnosed during final exams of my last college semester. I was devastated and believed I was going to die. The Vietnam War, which I had protested, was going on at the time. After graduation, I planned to go to business school. That summer, my local military draft board called me in for a physical. I looked at the other young men who would be sent into the armed services. Some would die. But my medical condition would save me from this fate: This was the first gift that came of my diabetes.
So, I went to graduate school and then began a successful career in investments and finance, in which diabetes was thankfully never relevant. Over the years, I decided that I also wanted to help people with diabetes. In 1980, I volunteered to work with the local office of the American Diabetes Association. I ended up chairing the New York City, New York state, and, ultimately, the national board of the ADA. Later, I chaired the board of the newly created ADA Research Foundation. Those fulfilling years of volunteer leadership were a huge, unexpected gift of having diabetes.
My ADA experience led me to leave the for-profit world and embark on a new career. I was hired as chief financial officer of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, a job for which
I was qualified in great part because of my experiences with ADA.
Then, in 2000, I decided to use the creative side of my brain, and started taking acting classes. Five years later, I quit my job, enrolled in a conservatory, and since then have acted in off-off-Broadway plays and independent films. One of my goals has been to join the major acting unions—no easy task. A public service announcement about diabetes was the job that qualified me to join the Screen Actors Guild.
When I was diagnosed 40 years ago, feeling terror and despair, I couldn't have anticipated how diabetes would enrich my life. Do I wish that I had never gotten it? Of course. But having diabetes opened me up to dimensions of myself that I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. It has connected me to a community of dedicated, caring people working to eliminate diabetes, and working to help the people living with it.
Alan Altschuler is the former chair of the boards of the American Diabetes Association and the ADA Research Foundation. He and his wife, Donna, live in New York City. They have two grown children, Sari and Daniel.