Have you ever known someone with a chronic but manageable illness who did not do what was necessary to stay healthy? Maybe they didn't lose the weight the doctors told them to and now they need surgery for knee problems. Maybe they didn't change their diet as they should have so their heart disease has progressed. Maybe they didn't take their meds, do their treatments or follow the recommended physical therapy. I think it's safe to say we've all known someone, who at some time, has not followed through with a medical regimen and paid the price in some way.
How did you feel about it? Were you angry? Annoyed? Dismissive? Sad? I know, for me, when I see someone with a manageable illness and they are choosing not to control it, I get irritated. Sitting high atop my horse I look down my nose and say "Poor me. I have an illness that is mostly out of my control. What I would give to have an illness like YOURS--one which if I chose to be diligent I could be healthy for the rest of my life." It seems like such an easy choice, doesn't it? If I follow this set of guidelines I can be healthy and if I don't, I will be sick. How could someone choose not to lose weight, change their diet, take their meds, doe the treatments or stick with the physical therapy? And when they don't do what they could to stay healthy, do they deserve our sympathy when their health declines?
Yes, at my worst, I have saddled up my high horse and deemed people silly for their laziness or lack of foresight. At my best, seeing someone who has a controllable illness neglect themselves has filled me with frustration and sadness. This week, I discovered I was that "someone."
I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000, shortly after my second transplant. I was absolutely devastated. I saw diabetes as a miserable life sentence of restrictions and complications. At the time, my devastation was accompanied by extreme fatigue, stomach pain and nausea. I was planning on returning to college and, after the diagnosis, I felt so flattened I called and canceled my enrollment. Diabetes was messing with my life and was not welcome in my illness repertoire.
It wasn't long after that I had a real change of heart. I discovered that I had some pancreatic function left and didn't need insulin right away. Because my diabetes was caused by the prednisone after transplant, it was considered a combination between type 1 and type 2. Maybe this wasn't so bad after all. With some oral meds, I had about a year of eating and behaving normally with little diabetic interference.
Even after the oral meds lost effectiveness and I was put on insulin, things still didn't seem so bad. My doctor was aware of my need to gain/retain weight and his philosophy was that I should eat anything I wanted but "cover myself" with appropriate amounts of insulin. I followed his orders initially but often found myself with low blood sugar--a horrible feeling I wouldn't wish on anyone. For anyone who hasn't experienced it imagine sweating profusely, your heart racing, your body convulsing and your brain slowing to the point it is unable to help you with any concrete suggestions like "get some juice." I have spent minutes in the kitchen staring at the refrigerator unable to gather enough menatl capacity to remember what I was supposed to do next. At some point, I began to have anxiety about taking insulin because I didn't want to have another horrible low blood sugar experience.
I began to notice that my blood sugars seemed to balance themselves out eventually, leading me to self diagnose myself as still having pancreatic function. I began to use insulin less and less. I think, for about a year or more, I actually put it out of my mind that I was a diabetic. I rarely checked my blood sugar and, when I did, if it happened to be high I always had an excuse. I would convince myself about why it was high at that moment but that "really wasn't normal." I went right on neglecting myself.
A few weeks ago, I sat in front of my doctor and told her all of these things; I had pancreatic function, my diabetes didn't need insulin, nor did it need managing. I was there for fatigue but I just knew diabetes couldn't be the cause. I even gave her blood sugar levels from years ago as my "average morning numbers."
It's embarrassing to write all of this now. When I got home from that appointment, I decided to just try "an experiement" and check my blood sugars more often. They were all over the map and very high. Consistently. It "really was normal." I began taking insulin as I had been prescribed so many years ago. Like a magic trick, I had energy again. My stomach began working better and even my mind was more clear. I was a diabetic and I needed to manage it. I had come to the end of my excuses and stories.
If you find yourself on your high horse looking down at me now, shaking your head, I don't blame you. I, of all people, shouldn't be guilty of such neglect. I, "sick girl speaks," who preaches about be proactive, getting real and facing your truth. I, who have had two double lung transplants and values the time I have been given. How could I be so dumb? So naive? So delusional? So irresponsible?
Like many people, I think I found a few hiding places to keep me camouflaged until I was ready to face the enemy. So what are some of the factors that led me, and perhaps lead other people, into the cave of denial?
After my first transplant, I was dealing with a new and complicated medical regimen. I was in a deep depression caused by the prednisone taper. I was attempting to force myself into picking a career path to determine the course of my life. I had just gotten the greatest gift a person could ever be given and hadn't even begun to process all of what happened.
When diabetes came along, I thought I might crash down like a house of cards. I simply didn't feel like I could handle one more thing. When I started getting some messages that it might not be so bad, I clung to the idea that maybe this was something that didn't need much attention after all. I delighted in every clue that might support this theory and gathered them like a bouquet of roses. Even after the overwhelm of my life diminished, I was so convinced that this bouquet was real, I never even questioned it. I just kept living as a person with a mostly functioning pancreas.
Diabetes is nothing if not annoying. It is constant. Aside form the obvious, checking blood sugars 5-6 times a day and giving insulin, there is the side effects that come when the blood sugars go too high or too low. Neither feels good. Every time you eat you must count the carbs in the meal and adjust the insulin based on that number--this I find intensely tedious. A good diabetic usually feels like they spend most of their day calculating, checking, giving insulin and adjusting when the dose is not right. It's annoying. Do I sound like a whiner? Maybe. Because, again, diabetes is something that can be managed if you stay on top of it. But here's the simple, bottom line. The annoyance of diabetes drove me into the Cave of Denial because I Just Didn't Want It.
Lack of Immediate Impact
We all know that diabetes can have devastating results when it's not managed. Amputation and death are understood to be a likely outcome for an unmanaged diabetic. While I understood that intellectually, for the first 8 years I was a diabetic, I didn't feel the effects very often. If I did, I was unaware that what I was expereincing was from diabetes. Conversely, I did feel profound effects from the insulin--sometimes it made me nausuaus and, when I gave too much, made my blood sugar plumit. On some level, I began to associate managing diabetes with feeling bad and not managing it with feeling good. This made my journey into the Cave of Denial even easier.
It wasn't until I discovered that diabetes was negatively impacting something I loved that I became serious about treating it. That something I loved was my life and my career. I was feeling so tired all of the time that I was no longer feeling enthusiasm for holidays with loved ones, giving my beloved lectures or watching my favorite TV shows. My emotional self was flatlining and it was freaking me out. When I realized diabetes was the culprit, the impact it had on my life became real. It wasn't until diabtes went from abstract to concrete that I wanted to crawl out of the Cave of Denial and get real about being diabetic.
There are people who will follow medical directions to the letter without ever missing one moment of dedication. There are people like me who will be dedicated about some things (like transplant meds) but neglectful about other things. I have had some parents of chronically ill children ask me how I recommend they make their child be compliant. Sadly, I think in some cases it takes experiencing the negative effects of an illness to become motivated to do better in the future. For some of us, the first step is finding something meaningful to live for and using that as a driving force to stay healthy. We are creatures who move towards pleasure and away from pain. Sadly, sometimes the Cave of Denial feels like a pleasurable place to hide; far less painful than the work, annoyance and discomfort of compliance.
I don't mean to suggest that we should all neglect our healthcare treatments until we get into enough trouble to be motivated to compliance. In some cases, that level of neglect could cause so much damage that a change of heart would not be enough to return the person to health.
Ideally, we would all do what is best for us all of the time. I only wish this was the way it worked for everyone! I simply write this as a guilty party, someone who has spent years in the Cave of Denial, so that we all might have more compassion for each other's struggles. I know it is frustrating to watch someone who could be healthier not take full advantage of what is available to them. Perhaps, with a different understanding, healthcare professionals and loved ones will be able to discover new ways to draw patients out of the Cave of Denial. And sometimes, as much as we wish it weren't true, some of us have to learn the hard way how much we want to live.