Siyabonga Kwanele Zuma is a writer and creator of the Living With Diabetes series on YouTube. He shares his story of life with Type 1 diabetes with us today.
Could you tell us your diagnosis story?
My eldest sister took me to the doctor, according to my sister I was disoriented and so I don’t remember much of the doctor’s visit. My sister said the doctor was about to diagnose me with the common flu when another doctor walked in and he asked what my symptoms were and once he knew, he suggested that they check my blood glucose levels. The results confirmed the second doctor’s suspicions. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 11.
I felt like I had been robbed of my childhood by being denied the luxury of being a “normal” carefree child, something that I felt was my right at the time.Siyabonga Kwanele Zuma
As an 11-year-old, all you want to do is shove loads of sweet treats into your mouth like chocolate, cake and fizzy drinks without thinking how it is going to affect your blood sugar. But unfortunately, with diabetes, spoiling yourself with those treats is not something you can do without falling sick. At the time all I wanted to do was go outside and play soccer barefoot without thinking of the risks associated with it. Risks like having your leg amputated because you stepped on a broken bottle and cut your foot open. Yes, you heard that right… amputated, at least that’s what I was told.
What made you decide to start your Living With Diabetes series?
It’s all part of my journey to self-acceptance. Being diagnosed with diabetes at a young age helped me to grow and develop some form of self-control. However, as I grew older and went through puberty, the temptations grew even bigger as well. They grew to the point where I ended up tossing most of the self-control that I had developed out the window like it was no longer needed. This was mostly caused by peer pressure, negative peer pressure to be exact. It made me develop FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in life.
When I was diagnosed in primary school, my friends at the time knew that I was diabetic because I fell sick in front of them. But when I got to high school, I was the only one from my previous school.
Nobody knew me at all, so I decided to keep my diabetes a secret because I was ashamed of it. I didn’t want to be judged when I did things my peers did. I didn’t want to be reminded that I’m diabetic every time I did things that shouldn’t be done by someone with diabetes. I wanted to fit it, and I did just that.Siyabonga Kwanele Zuma
Pushed by FOMO and peer pressure, I started drinking alcohol and smoking weed. In the process, I neglected my well-being completely during school hours. I wouldn’t take my insulin at all. This went on for years until it started to affect my health and studies at University. I was living a double life for 12 years and I was tired of it.
Opening up about diabetes
In April 2020, I decided to share a Facebook post disclosing that I’ve been diabetic since 2008. It felt so empowering to finally come out. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Before starting my Living With Diabetes series in late 2022, I used to write. When writing poetry, I would omit anything that would suggest that I’m living with a chronic condition. After going public, I felt empowered enough to write about being diabetic.
I have a poetry book that will be published sometime this year, and I’m currently working on my memoir, where I’ll be speaking about my struggles with negative peer pressure in my adolescence, while also living with diabetes. It will talk to how I managed to break free from it and gravitate towards positive peer pressure, which led to self-acceptance, helping me to regain the self-control I had long forgone for the fast life. That’s where the Living With Diabetes series comes in. I want to share my story in every way possible because not everybody is a reader. Some may not read my work but may watch my work.
What do you wish you’d known when you were diagnosed?
That it’s not the end of the world. I thought I was going to die, that’s how ignorant I was about diabetes. I wish I had known that it’s actually a common chronic condition, and that as a Type 1 diabetic, I did nothing wrong for me to get diagnosed with it.
As a kid, I thought it was a rare illness, especially for kids my age. My lack of knowledge about diabetes made me feel ashamed about it, hence I kept it a secret from my peers and the public at large for 12 years. I wish I’d known that there are things like support groups for people with diabetes. Maybe if I was aware of such (or was open to be aware of such), I’d have accepted diabetes as a part of my life way earlier than I did. But this is not me expressing any regret, no. It is me trying to reach out to somebody else out there who may be going through something similar to what I went through growing up with diabetes.
What would you say to someone who is struggling with their diabetes?
I’d tell them to not be scared of the world, but to be out there and own it. Surround yourself with people who will make it comfortable for you to be you, for you. People who won’t make you feel like you’re the odd one out, but are also aware of what you need when experiencing a hypo or a hyper.
If it’s acceptance they’re struggling with, I’d tell them that they are not alone. The lack of awareness makes it feel like you’re alone, but trust me, you are not.Siyabonga Kwanele Zuma
What has diabetes taught you?
Diabetes has taught me responsibility. It made me a rational person who thinks before acting. Yes, I have made mistakes in the past, and I still make them in the present, I’m human after all. I have vices just like any other being, that’s life. But at the end of the day, I know that I have to take responsibility and accountability for all my actions.
It also taught me that we all have our struggles in life. It gave me the ability to not judge a situation at face value based on how my life situation is, but to remove myself from my shoes and put on somebody else’s shoes. That is empathy. It taught me the importance of self-awareness and self-acceptance. It allows you to be yourself unapologetically.
What makes your life sweet?
The obvious answer is that I’m living with diabetes, along with my sister who I call my sweet chronic twin (LOL). Jokes aside, It’s being able to spot those who have my best interest at heart and surrounding myself with them. Nothing makes life sweeter than experiencing tender love and care from family and friends. I am blessed to have them in my life.
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