I felt an array of emotions the day my primary care physician told me I had type 2 diabetes: mainly shock, confusion, fear, and shame. It was the shame that took me by surprise. The diagnosis filled me with humiliation, and I didn’t know why. I was so mortified that I hid the news from all but those closest to me.
Overcoming the first three reactions was fairly easy. I cleared the hurdle of shock because diabetes had been in my family; I knew I might develop it even though I wasn’t overweight and ate healthfully. I tackled the confusion with a lot of reading and a diabetes education class I took with my husband. The fear eased when I was able to control my blood sugars with diet, exercise, and a minimum of drugs.
But vanquishing shame was a real struggle. At first I couldn’t even say the word “diabetic” without feeling as if there were a 10-pound sack of wet sand in my stomach. I could hardly bring myself to tell my supervisor at work that I had diabetes, even though I knew I needed to have someone near me who could help in case of highs or lows.
I read much about guilt and depression with diabetes but nothing about shame. I felt very alone in my shame. Was I the only one struggling with it?
Something about being different embarrassed me. I feared pity or criticism from others if they knew I was “disabled.” My endocrinologist told me I should wear a medical ID necklace or bracelet. I couldn’t. It would mark me as different, and I wanted to be normal.
I had to face the truth: I was no longer normal. I had a chronic disease that demanded my constant attention. I could hide it but not escape from it.
It took two years, but I came to understand my underlying problem: I was a perfectionist, and now I wasn’t perfect. My body had pulled a dirty trick on me. Over 50 years of life I had done everything right—exercised regularly, watched my weight and what I ate—and still ended up with the disease I had dreaded. The diagnosis was a crushing blow of defeat. A personal failure. My pride was bruised. I wanted no one to know.
Then I asked myself: Would I be embarrassed if I broke a leg? Clearly, no. Would I be ashamed to have cancer? An emphatic no. I gradually came to realize that developing diabetes wasn’t a defeat or even a deficiency. It was the result of a simple throw of the genetic dice.
Now, after a dozen years of coping with diabetes, I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed. Today I wear a medical ID bracelet. I will give myself a shot of insulin in a public place. I talk about diabetes and do my best to educate people around me. It was a battle, but I got past my pride and sense of failure.
I am sure others are fighting a feeling of shame about having diabetes. Please know that you haven’t failed and need not be ashamed. Don’t let your pride or your desire to be perfect inflict an undeserved blow on your life. Your body may be broken, but you’re fine.
Dee D’Haem lives on Washington State’s Kitsap Peninsula. She recently retired from a career as a librarian and branch manager. She is married and has three grown children.
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