It’s popular now to avoid saying, “He is a diabetic,” or “She is autistic,” but rather, “He has diabetes,” or “She has autism.” I get that. No sense defining someone in a one-dimensional way. Particularly if they don’t want to be labeled.
Sometimes, labels make sense. And sometimes, a disease does define you. Being diabetic is part of who I am. It defines many of my daily decisions. What and when I eat, how much and when I exercise. What restaurants I can go to, and which ones have nothing on the menu that I can deal with. What time I meet someone for lunch. Sometimes I have to ask what’s on the menu for a dinner with friends. If I don’t know them well enough (or they are already loaded with guilt because I’m married to a chef), I’ll eat before I go, so I can stick to salad.
It gets more complicated than that, too. As a diet-controlled diabetic, I no longer drink. Alcohol has too many carbs to be safe for me. So going out for a drink means I’m drinking club soda. Even ice tea isn’t an easy guarantee–in Dallas and Houston I have to ask for “unsweetened” ice tea to make sure I don’t wind up with sweet tea–a cloying concoction I thought was overly sweet before I was a diabetic.
When you are a diet-controlled diabetic, you also have to develop skills to handle well-meaning friends. If I had one point knocked off for every person who cajoled me into eating something I choose not to eat “just this time,” or to “treat myself because of [special occasion]” or to refuse something someone baked or cooked “just for me,” well, I wouldn’t be diabetic anymore. But I am and have to have a sense of humor when I don’t feel like it.
Having to deal with other people’s anger or advice is another facet that takes tact and changes how I would like to react. Many times I have to soothe my lunch or dinner companions because they are offended or feel embarrassed if I start to grill the waitstaff about a dish’s ingredients. Would I love not to care? Of course. But I can’t. Because diabetes defines my food, my concern about food, and how to treat my friends so they want to eat out with me again. And no, it would not be “easier” for me to take insulin. Although insulin is great for some types of diabetes.
Advice is harder. Friends want to help and they want to be right. No, honey is not safe for diabetic Yes, it is, “natural.” But so is poison ivy and black widow spiders. No, cider vinegar will not “cure” diabetes. No, a gluten-free diet will not make one tiny carb worth of difference. Gluten is a protein, not a carbohydrate. No, a vegan diet is not the best choice for a diabetic. It is always surprising to me that waitstaff will know great details about Paleo, glueten-free, or vegan diets, but ask for diabetic-friendly and you get the stink eye. Because diabetes carries a lot of judgement–it’s your fault for eating all that sugar that companies automatically put in your food. And it’s a disease, so ewww, can’t you just eat gluten-free and make it easier for the restaurant?
The hard truth is that I am a diabetic. It is part of most of my decisions throughout the day. It is who I am now. I’ve lost friends because of it, a client because of it (because I asked what would be served at lunch) and can be frustrated because of it. But I can’t complain too much, because no one wants a kvetchy (whiny) pal. If you want to define me as a diabetic, I’ll be fine with it.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. That defines her, too.