Diabetes is a rollercoaster, but there’s no reason why a diabetic can’t live a full and fulfilling life. Why did it take me so long to work that out? I’ve been quizzed by the Humans of Diabetes blog on my life as a type-one diabetic. And, unexpectedly, it’s helped me see that there are some benefits to type-one diabetes. The below will be appearing on HoD shortly, but here’s a preview for followers of Diabetic Dad Runs…
HoD: When were you diagnosed and with what type of diabetes?
DDR: I was diagnosed with type-one diabetes in January 1991, aged 12. I’d spent weeks with a raging thirst and constant need to pee. I had a few days in hospital being monitored and trying to get my head around the news I’d need daily injections for the rest of my life. Then I was packed off home with a box of syringes, phials of insulin and a glucose monitor. I was told I’d still be able to live a normal life, even with diabetes. I took ‘normal’ to mean ordinary. And, like most 12-year-olds, I didn’t want an ordinary life; I wanted it to be extraordinary.
HoD: How did your diagnosis affect you?
DDR: I buried my head in the sand. I spent my teens and early 20s generally doings things that are no good for anyone, let alone a diabetic. I shunned my parents’ efforts for me to meet other diabetics (no one in my family has diabetes). I ignored diabetes; I rarely tested my blood and ate what I wanted. When I was 20, I travelled in Africa for two months and didn’t even pack my glucose monitor. Unsurprisingly, this lifestyle led to no end of highs and lows. It was dangerous and irresponsible. I shudder to think how much damage I did to my body and worry I caused my loved ones.
HoD: How does diabetes affect your ability to exercise?
DDR: I wish I could say it has no impact, but that wouldn’t be true. In my late 20s I quit smoking and began taking my diabetes and general health more seriously. I began going to the gym and running. At 30, I completed my first (and so far only) marathon, testing my blood and refuelling on carbs on the go. The training process involved a few hypos and a lot of trial and error in terms of sugar control, but it taught me how to manage my diabetes more effectively.
A few years ago I started doing Crossfit, which involved keeping a really close eye on sugar levels and food and insulin intake on training days. I became fitter than I’d ever been. Then injury struck: frozen shoulder, a condition diabetics are far more likely to develop than non-diabetics, probably because of an imbalance in the proteins the body needs to break down scar tissue in joints. The injury wasn’t necessarily caused by diabetes, but my recovery has been delayed by it.
I expect to return to Crossfit in the next few months, after nearly two years of recovery. During this time (apart from a six-month hiatus when the pain in my shoulder got too bad), I’ve run to keep fit (and sane). After reading about the inspirational Roddy Riddle (a truly incredible type-one) I hatched a plan: to run the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile, six-day race across the Sahara Desert in 2018. My blog, Diabetic Dad Runs, is the story of my preparation for this race.
HoD: Has there been a moment in your life when you were grateful for having diabetes?
DDR: My initial answer was a resounding no. The ceaseless injections and blood tests, the threat of hypos and the trail of test strips I seem to leave behind me everywhere I go get me down. But then I thought about it a while. In recent years diabetes has given me the drive to push myself and get fit. It’s given me a kick up the arse. Now it’s pushing me to attempt something extraordinary (if a bit nuts). I’m not sure if I would have that drive if I wasn’t diabetic.
HoD: What is the best advice you would give to a newly diagnosed person?
DDR: Avoid carbohydrates. When I was diagnosed the advice was to eat plenty of carbs to maintain sugar levels and avoid hypos. Eating too many carbs as a diabetic is like sitting on a seesaw with an overweight child: every meal sends sugar levels soaring skyward; hefty insulin doses bring them crashing back down to earth again. And so you’re always lurching from peak and trough. Since I began a low carb diet a few years ago, my insulin dose has fallen by two thirds; hypos and highs are fewer and farther between.
The nurse who told me diabetes wouldn’t stop me from living a normal life was right. Diabetes has caused a few problems along the way (for example, the impact of fluctuating blood sugar levels on mood should not be underestimated) but it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything. If you want to do something extraordinary, diabetes shouldn’t stop you. You might have to work harder than others would to achieve your goal, but that will make the rewards even sweeter.