What Does a Diabetic Look Like?

“Wow … you’re so healthy! You sure don’t LOOK like a diabetic!” I hear that comment frequently. I know it’s a compliment, and it’s one I appreciate, but I confess the comment offends me. There, I said it. Being told I don’t “look like a diabetic” offends the heck out of me. Why does it offend me? Because it implies that people with diabetes are sick, can’t function normally and should look like invalids or be morbidly obese. Nothing could be further from the truth!

I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for over 47 years. Yep. Almost half a century. In spite of that, I travel frequently, ride a motorcycle (as the rider, never a passenger), keep a crazy schedule, live life to the fullest, and prefer to say I have diabetes instead of referring to myself as a diabetic. (The difference in perspective is huge.) I control my blood sugars and other health factors using a method that works far better than that recommended by the American Diabetes Association. My A1Cs (a blood test that shows how well a person’s glucose levels have been controlled) are actually lower than many people who don’t have diabetes. I have zero complications from diabetes and consider myself immensely blessed.

Diabetes has NEVER stopped me from doing anything, and it never will. Well, ok … I confess having diabetes could have once stopped me from parasailing, but I lied and said I didn’t have it. (God forgave me.) There are laws that say I can’t get a commercial driver’s license, fly a plane or scuba dive, but I can darn well do everything else. Having diabetes means I have to plan ahead. It doesn’t mean I had to give up.

Although I have Type 1 diabetes (the type that is caused by an autoimmune condition and controlled using insulin), most people in the US have Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is typically controlled using diet, exercise and oral medication if needed. Some things discussed in this post are more applicable to people with Type 1 diabetes, some are more applicable to people with Type 2. Regardless of which type of diabetes we are blessed to have, people’s perception of us changes the minute they hear we have “it.” The judgment and assumptions drawn are often incorrect and always unfair.

Based on what I see in the media and hear from people unfamiliar with diabetes, here’s what I suspect a diabetic is “supposed” to look like:

  • Diabetics have syringes for arms & legs, a pill bottle for a head, and one leg in the grave: The fact I have diabetes doesn’t mean my life is controlled by it. I have challenges and have to consider things others don’t, but I control it … it doesn’t control me. Period. I don’t spend my day thinking about it and obsessing about it. I just live!
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  • Diabetics are all fat: Diabetes has become such a common disorder that it no longer has a “standard” demographic. People with diabetes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are rail thin, some are grossly obese, and most of us fall somewhere in the broad range between the two. Not all fat people have diabetes, and not everyone with diabetes is fat. Please let go of that stereotype and move on.
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  • Diabetics spontaneously combust if they eat sugar: The myth that diabetics can never eat sugar is just that … a myth. People with diabetes do need to make careful food choices, but an occasional indulgence is not going to kill us. Frequent indulgences may cause problems, but please don’t freak out or cast judgment if we eat a cookie in front of you, ok? We’re smart enough to know what we can and cannot eat. People with Type 1 diabetes take extra insulin to counteract the effect an indulgence has on their blood sugar. People with Type 2 diabetes hopefully exercise or use other methods to counteract dietary indulgences. I don’t mean to imply that people with diabetes can eat like pigs. (Or like the rest of the people in the US eat.) People who have diabetes and eat whatever they want with no regard for how it affects their blood sugar typically suffer higher rates of complications, such as blindness, amputation, heart disease, etc. However, eating a single Twinkie won’t cause us to drop dead in front of you. I promise.
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  • Diabetics are weak invalids who have a lot in common with Eeyore: Most people with diabetes lead full, vibrant lives. They do if they choose to, at least. They have challenges, but they choose to control diabetes instead of letting diabetes control them. Yes, it is true that diabetes has the capacity to kill us if we don’t control it, but many people with diabetes are invalids because a medical professional at some point convinced them their diagnosis meant they could no longer live a normal life. Many people with diabetes have told me the doctor who diagnosed them told them they had diabetes and went on to say their condition would continually deteriorate and that they would eventually die a horrid death from it. Instead of telling them they had diabetes and that their condition could be controlled or even reversed, their doctor sucked the hope right out of them and then sent them home to die. It’s criminal, but it happens more frequently than people realize. The truth is that there is no reason people with diabetes need to let it interfere with leading a full, vibrant life. None. 

There you have it. Apparently that’s what a diabetic is supposed to look like. I guess I can only thank God that people are surprised I don’t look like one. When people find out I have diabetes, I often see their foreheads crease with concern and their eyes glaze with pity. I don’t choose to spend much time with those folks. The people I adore are the ones who acknowledge I have diabetes but who form an opinion of me based on who I am, not what I have. They are the friends who hand me a bottle of juice when they know my blood sugar is low, but who don’t assume it’s low when I’m having trouble completing a sentence. They ask before assuming. I love them. Dearly.

I’m thrilled to see that others share my opinion of the assumptions made about folks with diabetes. This t-shirt sums it up well:

I’d like to have one in seven different colors to wear every day.

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Dr. Pamela Reilly is a Naturopathic Physician dedicated to helping people improve their health and eliminate symptoms using natural, integrative methods. She has over 25 years of experience and has helped men, women and children improve their health using a holistic, client-centered focus. She sees clients in Indianapolis, does house calls, and also conducts consultations via Skype or telephone. Please feel free to contact her or visit her Consultations page for more information. Dr. Pamela speaks nationwide on a wide variety of health topics and welcomes speaking invitations.

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