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A life lived with diabetes: reflections after 36 years

How has diabetes changed in the last 36 years? That’s the question we asked artist, writer and Type 1 diabetic Paul Edmunds – here’s what he had to say…

“If you offered me a cure tomorrow, I wouldn’t take it. It’s not that I love being
diabetic, it’s just that the condition has allowed me to structure a way of living that
accords with how I would choose to live anyway. And I’m not sure I would have got
there without diabetes.”

Paul Edmunds

“I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 36 years ago, at age 14. I don’t remember it being that traumatic actually, but I do recall that right from the start I realised it meant I probably wouldn’t have to do National Service, and that was a tremendous relief. And, when my poor performance at school and general lousy behaviour were suddenly attributed to my undiagnosed condition, I was let off that hook too. What were they thinking?

I remember the stay in hospital quite fondly. Among us was a young kid who was understandably terrified, and who wouldn’t let the nurses administer his insulin, only me, which was tremendously gratifying. My friends visited, the nurses were kind and I actually liked the food so much I stayed for an extra meal! Clearly I was feeling better.

A few years later at an annual check-up, on learning that my mother had passed away recently, my doctor told me something startling. At some point, he said, I had been so resistant to treatment (I don’t remember it like that!) that my mother had suggested that we just ‘let me go’. Clearly she was being dramatic, but I had not previously thought how stressful it must have been for my parents. The doctor went on, asking me if the condition had really been as much trouble as she seemed to think. It was a rhetorical question, and we chuckled at my mom’s high drama.”

“I’ve come to understand that the best exercise is the exercise you do.”

“My blood sugar control is not perfect. My HbA1C is typically in the sevens, but I think it settles there with a bit much fluctuation. I don’t function well if I try and micro-manage my glucose levels too closely; my insulin doses are tiny and difficult to get perfect. Fortunately my lows are not unmanageable, and despite what I’ve been warned about, I have not become less sensitive to detecting them. Where I do well is with diet and exercise, and the effects of that are quite clear.

I’ve ridden a bicycle to work pretty much every day for all of my adult life. It’s not a huge amount of exercise but it’s not nothing, and I’ve come to understand that the best exercise is the exercise you do. I used to run half-marathons and did a few multi- day bike races too. Those were challenges in many respects, and it didn’t always work out perfectly, but I learned a lot about managing myself in those conditions. These days I just stay reasonably fit.”

“I feel that enjoying food with friends and family is an important part of eating healthily.”

“I have always preferred healthier eating. I cook every night, opting for fresh foods and wholegrains mostly, and I became a vegetarian in my early 20s. I never buy convenience or junk food, and I seldom eat anything with artificial sweetener: by the time they’re adding that, there are already a whole lot of ingredients I don’t want to be eating in there. I don’t completely avoid refined sugar; I find I can’t do large amounts of exercise without it, and I’ll have dessert at a friend’s house, for example. And a block of chocolate after dinner. I feel that enjoying food with friends and family is an important part of eating healthily.

A diet high in wholegrains and low in animal fats is of great benefit to a diabetic but is a solid base for healthy diet for anyone; diabetics just have a narrower margin for error. It has become socially much easier to avoid meat, and is one of the most significant things we can do to address climate change.”

“Diabetes doesn’t occur in isolation from everyday life.”

“We suffer from an overload of often contradictory information about eating while we lack the guidelines of a traditional diet, seasonal availability and even social eating. I like knowing precisely how the energy I ingest manifests itself in my activity. It makes an ethical sense to me, and addresses a notion of health beyond the narrow confines of my self. Riding a bike to work has undeniable health benefits which too radiate beyond just my life.

Diabetes doesn’t occur in isolation from everyday life. It lands in a complex psychosocial environment involving family, friends and even the world beyond our lives. I don’t feel I could manage it by insulating myself from that, and any ways I have of dealing with it must also serve to help me negotiate that terrain in an appropriate and effective way. If we’re lucky – I am – we receive the support of those around us and with their help we can integrate ourselves into this landscape as seamlessly as possible.”

Find out more about Paul at www.pauledmunds.co.za

What to read next?

Gillian Fraser: my journey with Type 1 diabetes: Gillian tells us about her diagnosis, her attitude towards diabetes, and the tech that changed her life.

Type 2 diabetes and COVID-19 talk with Premier Winde: We ask Premier Winde about his experiences living with Type 2 diabetes, and how COVID-19 changed that.

Living the low carb life: Author of The Low Carb Solution for Diabetics, Vickie de Beer, shares her story.

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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.