Diabetes, Self-Blame And The Power Of Kind Words

My diabetes was empowering in the sense that perhaps I could do something about it, but also set in play a tremendous amount of self-blame.
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A few weeks ago I spoke about my new book, "The Sugarless Plum", at an author's luncheon in Ventura County, California. I talked about my 16-year career with the New York City Ballet, and some of the struggles I encountered maintaining an extremely high level of athleticism while at the same time dealing with the challenges I faced as a person with type 1 diabetes.

One of the stories I feel strongly about sharing with others involves the confusion and difficulties I experienced after having not been properly diagnosed as an insulin dependent, type 1 diabetic. It was assumed that I was a type 2 diabetic, which can also require insulin, but unlike type 1 diabetes, has the potential to be reversed with diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. It is common knowledge that type 2 diabetes is brought on by poor diet and exercise habits, even though there is a genetic component. I shared with the audience that believing that I had something to do with bringing on my diabetes was empowering in the sense that perhaps I could do something about it, but also set in play a tremendous amount of self-blame.

I went on to discuss how I was able to accept my diagnosis, go on to be a soloist with City Ballet, and most importantly take care of my health. Before the next speaker I ran to the bathroom. Behind me was a heavy-set woman who was having a hard time walking. I decided to wait at the open door for her at which time she said, "I wanted to talk to you, I have diabetes too." At that point I thought she was going to thank me for the talk and for sharing my story. Instead she said how upset and offended she was by what I had said. She had clearly misinterpreted my words and heard me to say that as diabetics we were to blame for our condition. As tears streamed down her face she said that she doesn't tell people about her diabetes, because everyone assumes it is her fault. It was apparent that she was overwhelmed and isolated with a feeling of shame.

I know firsthand how feeling isolated, overwhelmed and at fault can trigger self-destructive behavior. Here I was a disciplined, health conscious dancer, finding myself sneaking candy bars almost in retaliation to the feeling of being out of control emotionally and physically. Instead of responding positively to the news that I could alter my situation, out of anger at my own body and denial, I self sabotaged.

What I came to understand is that what I really needed was support and most importantly to have compassion for myself. No amount of pressure or dire predictions about my possible fate could motivate me in that state of emotional fragility.

As I stood with this woman, tears in her eyes, with my hands on her shoulders, I knew it was important for me to simply hear her. She needed me to know it wasn't her fault, so I listened.

This is not to say that she should not lose weight, properly monitor her blood sugar levels, or become well informed about her condition. What I needed when I was in distress over my health, as much as proper education, was to not feel blamed and isolated by myself or by anyone else. This woman needed to be heard and to know that she mattered.

By the time I got home I had already received an email from her in which she not only described her current health challenges, but thanked me for my story, and shared her intention to research and improve her situation.

Recently, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz did a show on diabetes, which elicited a great deal of conversation in the diabetes community. I would personally like to applaud Oprah for bringing attention to the seriousness of the issue and pointing out the consequences to so many should they not adequately address their problems. In addition, as was the case with my new diabetic friend, it is equally important to address the emotional aspect of an illness associated with lifestyle behavior. People are more apt to make positive lifestyle changes when they are inspired by others who have overcome similar hurdles, and rather than being made to feel inferior, can identify with those who have traveled the same path.

Many of the health issues that we have in this country could be significantly improved were people to simply alter their behavior, but obviously this is easier said then done. Neither scaring people with the potential of debilitating complications, nor bombarding them with exercise and diet infomercials seem to be particularly effective in making lasting behavioral changes.

In a New York Times article, journalist Denise Grady says, "Research supports the idea that a few kind words from an oncologist -- what used to be called bedside manner -- can go a long way toward helping people with cancer understand their treatment, stick with it, cope better and maybe even fare better medically." It has been my experience that particularly in regards to our health, as much as it is important to be knowledgeable, compassion and empathy are integral factors that help motivate us to take care of ourselves. "A few kind words" go a long way.