Sisters and Friends
Andrea Thomas thought she was alone on her diabetes journey. Then she met her sisters
Andrea Thomas walked into the DiabetesSisters Weekend for Women all alone. The 42-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, was used to that. As an executive vice president of a community action agency in the District of Columbia, and single woman taking care of her type 2 diabetes for nearly six years, Thomas is more than self-sufficient; she’s the poster girl for “doin’ it for yourself.”
She didn’t expect that the three-day conference in April would change the way she managed her diabetes. But it did, and then some. Being with a group of women who just understood, who “got it,” made all the difference, Thomas says.
DiabetesSisters is a nonprofit organization that brings together women of all ages who have diabetes, through small support groups across the country called PODS (Part of DiabetesSisters) Meetups and through larger networking and education opportunities. Its Weekend for Women conferences, held on the East and West coasts (with a Midwest conference planned for 2015), are multiday events designed to offer support, education, and celebration for and by the women who attend. Their partners are invited to participate in a complementary series of sessions.
From the moment she stepped into her first session (a stretching class), Thomas knew she’d come to the right place. She had often worried about her diabetes and approached it with gallows humor. The stretching class instructor, who has lived with type 1 diabetes for 50 years, inspired a new view. “She was so energetic and fun,” Thomas says. “All these women who are on the go, into different things—as I am—and they’re still active and healthy, with eyes and limbs intact. They helped me embrace the fact that you’re going to live a long, healthy, wonderful life. And I’ve made that my mantra.”
That women can inspire women to achieve better health is one of DiabetesSisters’ key beliefs. Throughout the conferences, session presenters and moderators work to unite women with diabetes: young and old, veterans and the recently diagnosed, those with type 1, type 2, and other types. Sessions are designed to incorporate discussion between women with different types of diabetes. One session at the Alexandria, Virginia, conference specifically addressed misconceptions about type 1 and type 2.
Because the conference is designed to foster community, emotions can run high. More than a few tears were shed. A mother told the group that her family “blamed her” for her daughter’s type 1 diabetes. And Thomas shared some of her gallows humor, and a revelation.
“I was eating the wrong things and then saying, ‘I’m killing myself,’ ” Thomas says. “It’s so easy to say I’m contributing to my demise, which can then lead to depression.” Now she knows to avoid that type of thinking, which can sabotage efforts to manage diabetes.
Thomas also participates in a regular PODS Meetup, a new group of girlfriends who understand exactly what she’s going through when she has high or low blood glucose. They know what metformin is, and why she takes it. They keep each other accountable, going for walks together or talking about their meal plans. They have plans to go to another diabetes conference, Taking Care of Your Diabetes, together.
That’s the kind of empowerment that Brandy Barnes knows DiabetesSisters can spark. Barnes is the founder and CEO of the organization, and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a teenager. She envisioned DiabetesSisters, and the Weekend for Women in particular, to be a safe space for women to connect and learn from each other. “There’s a whole world to learn from,” she says. “A lot of times, women come in with this expectation, ‘I can only learn from women with type 1 diabetes, and I can only learn from people who have had it at least as long as I have.’ Once you open your mind to learning from women who are older, younger, who have had diabetes less time than you have, there’s no limit.”
Thomas agrees. She learns from her grandmother, who’s lived with type 2 diabetes for “a long while” and manages it through diet. And now she learns from her new friends in her PODS Meetup group, women from all walks of life who are on this journey together. That means everything to Thomas.
“I just want to underscore one thing,” she says. “When I was first diagnosed, it was very different. I was feeling depressed and ashamed.” But one thing she learned from her new sisters set her free: “To know you aren’t alone in this walk. There are people out there to reach out to. That was an important lesson for me to learn.”
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