Staring out the staff lounge window at the Cumberland Hospital in Fort Greene Brooklyn, just outside the auditorium where I am going to speak, I watch the traffic move along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Manhattan’s skyscrapers sit just beyond. I look up at the sky and whisper, “Thank you for where you have brought me.” This is my second presentation in my native Brooklyn. I’m not being so literal as to be citing Brooklyn in my thanks, but on the larger canvas of my life, to be doing this work.
I am critically aware in this moment that you never know what life has in store. Where you might be a year from now, five years from now. Surely, I never could have guessed I’d be standing in a hospital staff lounge about to speak to a group of fellow diabetics to motivate them toward better diabetes management. Not much more than five years ago I gave my diabetes management little thought.
I always wanted to teach people that our lives are the projection of our thoughts, and so we should plant the ones we truly want to reap, and accept our gifts and believe in our dreams. I just never knew sharing these ideas would have anything to do with diabetes. Honest, never.
When I speak to audiences I stress shifting their focus from the burden of diabetes to the rewards of doing the work — whether it’s to spend time with the grandkids, have more energy, pursue a beloved hobby or second career, or give back to the community. Most of diabetes education is about numbers, but the fabric of our life is mostly our thoughts and feelings.
Now at Cumberland Hospital I have finished my hour presentation and a woman raises her hand. After apologizing for coming late she says, “Maybe I missed this but how do you do it? How do you manage your diabetes so well?” The side conversations stop and the room quiets. Everyone is fixed on me. I begin listing all my tricks: my daily one hour power walk, using smaller plates, choosing more veggies and fiberous foods, sweeping most of the carbs out of my diet, and as the preacher in me takes over, the knowledge that my care is entirely up to me and that I don’t harbor a single doubt that I am committed to my best health.
18 pairs of eyes hold mine seeking answers from my passionate pontification. I wind down realizing how revved up I am. This rag-tag group of African American type 2 diabetics, one in a wheelchair, one with a cane, who when I began my talk seemed to only half listen, now applaud this slim white woman. I smile shyly almost shooing away their gratefulness out of embarrassment, yet I know they have been moved and the greatest gift I can give them is to accept their gratitude.
This is what they don’t get from their doctor or their CDE — the understanding and insight of someone who lives where they live and has conquered the demons diabetes throws at them — at least most of the time. Moreover, many people I speak to are weighted down and held fearful by the loss of family members who have died from diabetes or those currently struggling with its complications. I try to bring them to a place where they can see that the possibility for their life is of their own making, not the legacy of their family members.
Last year I learned something about my own family legacy. I interviewed my parents to get their take on what it was like for them when I got diabetes at 18. My mother told me something I never knew. “When you were diagnosed,” she said, “my heart broke.” Your father’s mother died in her fifties of a heart attack from diabetes and just before it happened they were going to cut off her leg. All I could think was this would be your future.” I was shocked to hear her say this, both because it was a revelation and by the information itself. But now that I’ve addressed enough audiences where diabetes is rampant in their families, I am grateful I didn’t know.
Maybe if I had known what happened to my grandmother, who died before I was born, I would not have believed I could be as healthy as I am. Maybe I would have believed my grandmother’s fate would be my own, as so many people with diabetes similarly believe. Maybe not knowing allowed me to manage my diabetes and expect that if I did it well I’d be well. In fact, I believe diabetes can be a great stimulus to creating a healthier and happier life rather than falling victim to it and all the negative messages around diabetes. But maybe I would have been derailed on my way to these thoughts if I’d known what happened to my grandmother.
I am pretty healthy after 35 years living with type 1 diabetes and I am resolute that I will continue to control what I can to have the best health that I can. It’s never been a secret to me that we create what we expect. Truth be told, that’s the good news and the bad. If you catch your thoughts more often and plant the ones you want to sow, I believe you can weight your fate for the better. Ah, see, I am teaching people just what I thought I would so many years ago.