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15 things diabetes taught me

To celebrate 15 years of diabetes, Sweet Life’s co-founder Bridget McNulty shares 15 things she’s learnt from having diabetes…

“I never know exactly how to celebrate a diaversary (a diabetes anniversary). Some years I buy myself a treat – a cupcake or an ice-cream, something I wouldn’t ordinarily eat without a special occasion. Some years I reflect on life with diabetes, some years I drink a glass of champagne to celebrate. But 15 years seems like a milestone, so I thought it was worth writing down some of the things diabetes has taught me…

1. Patience

Oh my goodness, but this has to be top of the list. I am not naturally a patient person, but when you’re forced to correct blood sugar and then wait for the correction to kick in (waiting for the sugar to raise a low, waiting for the insulin to lower a high), patience is a necessity.

2. Resilience

One of the things I appreciate about diabetes is that in some ways, every new day is a new chance to try again. If you have a truly awful diabetes day (as we all do), there’s something reassuring about knowing that tomorrow could be – and often is – entirely different. This ability to wake up and keep trying has strengthened my resilience in other areas of life, I’m sure.

3. Recognising I’m not actually in control

I’d say this one probably only clicked a year or two ago – because I resisted it for so long! Despite all the advice from so many experts, I still thought there would be some magical day when I’d be able to master diabetes – when it would actually be under my control. I have now accepted this day will never come. With 42 factors to contend with every day, all I can do is try my best.

4. Not being so hard on myself

Directly related to not being able to control diabetes. I have finally, I hope, learned that as long as I do my best, that’s all I can do. Taming the perfectionist has been really hard for me, but I am much better at not beating myself up for unexpected highs and lows these days… (It only took me a decade and a half!)

5. Asking for help

I like to believe that I am capable and independent and that diabetes doesn’t make any difference to that. But some days, I need help. I need help when it comes to preparing the right kind of food, giving me space to inject and calculate doses and test my blood sugar in peace, get me low snacks or talk through what on earth is going on with my blood sugar when it doesn’t make sense.

6. Taking care of myself

This is a big one for me. I love that diabetes makes self-care a priority: that I have to see my doctor every few months, I need to look after my feet, I have to be aware of what I eat and how much I sleep and how stressed I am, because they have a direct impact on my blood sugar.

7. Eating well

I don’t nail this one all the time, of course (I am a human as well as a person living with diabetes!) but I have learnt the joy of eating healthy food and feeling well afterwards… As opposed to eating junk and feeling rubbish. I honestly don’t think I would have made this connection, or made eating well as much a part of my life as it is, if I didn’t see it reflected in numbers as well as feel it in my body. I definitely eat healthier because of diabetes!

8. Making exercise part of my daily life

Again, everyone should be doing this – with or without diabetes – but I think I would have let this slide down the priority ladder if it weren’t for how much better it makes me feel and how much easier it makes my blood sugar to manage. This year (only this year!) I’ve found a 45 minute daily morning exercise routine, and it has made my life much better.

9. Making sleep a priority

I had a number of years of sleep deprivation thanks to two young kids (pregnancy, babies, toddlers… not great for sleep!) and so I’ve had a lot of experience with my body being flooded with cortisol and not reacting properly to insulin. I now make sleep a priority – I know that if I can get a good night’s sleep, I’m more likely to think straight the next day, won’t have my system flooded with cortisol and won’t crave carbs. (Is this just me? Particularly salty carbs!)

10. Always carrying sugar on me

You only need to have had one scary low with no sugar in sight to know that sugar packets can be stashed everywhere – every handbag, cubby hole of your car, backpack, in reaching distance of your computer, etc etc etc.

11. The power of protein

This might sound silly, but I honestly believe in the power of protein! Want to eat an ice-cream cone? Eat some almonds first to tether the carbs so the blood sugar spike is less intense! Feeling hungry? Up your protein intake, don’t just choose carbs! My kids are 6 and 8 and already well versed in what protein is, because I’ve told them you need protein in a meal for it to be a real meal…

12. Not letting diabetes limit me

I feel really passionate about this one. There is literally nothing I haven’t done because of diabetes – I’ve been scuba diving, done multi-day hikes, walked 500km of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, travelled all over the world (often way out of signal), had two healthy babies and live a full, rich, busy life. Diabetes doesn’t have to limit your life in any way.

13. The joy of treats

While some people with diabetes choose to cut treats out of their lives completely, I do not. I love ice-cream (as you may have picked up from this list!) – really good, homemade ice-cream. I also love dark chocolate, preferably dipped in a cup of tea. I think there’s space for treats to be enjoyed within a healthy diabetes diet (considering there’s no such thing as a diabetes diet, and we all figure it out for ourselves). I also really take joy in these treats, because they are rare – they’re my little slices of joy.

14. Empathy

When you live with an invisible chronic illness, as we all do, you learn to be a little kinder to other people. We never know what battles other people might be facing – what high and low blood sugars they might be correcting as we speak to them. It’s always a good idea to be a little kinder than necessary.

15. Gratitude

I am not grateful for diabetes – don’t get me wrong. If a magic wand could take it away, I would snatch that wand and use my other hand to dish up a giant bowl of ice-cream! But I am much more aware of what good health feels like because of diabetes, and much more grateful when I am gifted that good health. I appreciate every day in a way I wouldn’t if I hadn’t been diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago.

I wonder what the next 15 years will teach me? Have I left any essential lessons out?”

What to read next?

What is diabetes? Do you know exactly what diabetes is, and the different types? We outline it so you have all the facts.

The diabetes diet: all you need to know: Explains portion control, carb counting and diabetes superfoods in detail.

What is diabetes burnout? All you need to know about this common condition, and how to get help (you’re not alone!)

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.