Despite Diabetes

Scott Strange wrote an excellent post about accomplishments and diabetes and the way that people talk about what we do with our challenged pancreases. You should go read it now. I’ll wait.

His observations touched on something I’ve been thinking about in the context of my triathlon training, accomplishments, and challenges. When I eventually post the recap of my NYC Triathlon experience from this weekend, you’ll see that I had a very good time (both literally and emotionally) despite some challenges, one was entirely diabetes-related, the other not at all.

No one in the race knew about my diabetes, and if anyone in the crowd (other than my loving wife) knew that I was wearing my TeamWILD kit to represent for my peeps with diabetes, they didn’t acknowledge it. To the casual observer and my fellow triathletes, I was just another athlete trying to perform as well as my talents and training and the day would let me. To me, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So, while I loved seeing all of the people who responded to my Facebook updates and photos from the event, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the few of them that mentioned my diabetes. Certainly, it shouldn’t take away from the congratulations at the core of the compliment, and yet there diabetes was. Scott’s post caused me to think about this some more and to write this comment:

I’m not as awesome athletically as the folks you mentioned—and that has nothing to do with diabetes—but I get the “Look at what you’re accomplishing despite/with/because of diabetes!” compliment all the time. I recognize that diabetes is a factor (and the one that’s least in my control right now) but it’s not the biggest part of either my results or my motivation. That would be the part that comes by putting in day after day of hard work, even when I don’t want to and when diabetes presents a challenge. (The pros and the elites feel the same way, too, of course.)

Sure, I think about diabetes sometimes when I’m training and racing, partly to make sure I’m doing the right thing to achieve my best performance, but often it’s with the mental image of beating this disease like a piñata when I need a little bit of extra motivation.

Perhaps people are reacting to the fact that I am out there day after day doing what I need to do to compete. People (including myself) can find so many reasons for not doing so many of the things that we know we should. I think it’s natural for people with and without diabetes to want to acknowledge our accomplishments as worthy of a little extra attention because we didn’t give in to whatever impediments or excuses might come our way.

So, as much as I dislike hearing this despite/because business as part of a compliment and wish that people would just focus on the accomplishment, I think I finally get where people are coming from. (Thanks for prompting me to think about this more!)

Dear readers, what do you think about the “with/despite/because of diabetes” comments?

. . . And, for what it’s worth, you can say anything you want when you give me praise or criticism. I won’t be offended or complain or wish you hadn’t. :^)

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13 Responses to Despite Diabetes

  1. Thanks Jeff, you’ve given me another thing to think about as well on this topic. I do wonder about the stigmas associated with diabetes and how those feed into those comments.

    Great Post!

  2. Céline says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this but not in terms of diabetes. In the world of disabilities where I work, I see it every day. “Wow, he learned to take the bus despite his disability” “She’s amazing – she overcame her disability and was able to live on her own”.

    Using the example above I would argue that perhaps she didn’t overcome her disability, she overcame society’s perceptions of what she can and cannot do. She always had the skills to learn to live on her own – people just didn’t believe she could.

    Most people will never do what you do – never train for and complete an olympic triathlon, never run 30k around the bay. There are so many barriers to people to overcome in order to do that – financial, time, ability to commit, age, injuries, depression, low iron, chronic back pain, irritable bowel…oh, and diabetes. Everyone has to overcome stuff to be able to cross that finish line – we just have something that is a little more obvious so perhaps people jump on it.

    For goodness sakes, I saw a guy complete the Welland sprint triathlon with only one leg. He swam, he hauled himself to the transition zone on crutches, he cycled, he ran and he placed right near the top. Did he succeed despite his disability. Or did he succeed period? And at the same time change our assumptions of what people with only one leg can do?

    I’m ok with using my diabetes as a way to motivate people – as in hey, if I can do it, so can you. But I’m not ok with people having lower expectations of what I can and cannot do simply because I don’t make my own insulin. And I’m not ok with people assuming that it’s somehow harder for me to train with diabetes than it is for a single mom with three kids, or a guy who commutes 2 hours each way and has to get his runs in at midnight.

  3. Jeff Mather says:

    Céline, mon amie, you are a sage. What a brilliant comment! I hope everyone gets a chance to think this way at least once in their lives.

    Barriers are at least as self/socially-imposed as they are real obstacles to celebrate smashing. Lets inspire people to say, “Damn! You worked hard to do what you’ve done!” and leave it at that.

  4. Marcus says:

    Great post. I’ve actually come full circle on this one.

    Prior to a few years ago, diabetes wasn’t part of the equation for me. I just did things; whether or not that was because/despite/in spite of/to spite my diabetes didn’t matter to me. And in many ways, it still doesn’t.

    But I’ve come to the realization that others – the kids with diabetes and their parents – crave the validation that comes from seeing things accomplished because/despite/in spite of, etc. It brings THEM comfort, and that’s the value to me.

    It’s possible it hurts the public perception of the disease; that things are less horrible and thus, let’s not worry about a cure. I get that; I really do. But quite frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about is seeing that comfort in a single person’s eyes – the belief and faith that things can be ok. If they get from seeing what I’ve done, then the rest, to me, is just static.

  5. Pingback: Despite diabetes | Diabetes Now |

  6. Great post Jeff, and some incredibly thought-provoking comments.

  7. Sara says:

    Hmm.. this one is making me think…

    But it IS harder to exercise with diabetes than without diabetes. There is more prep, there is more monitoring, there are more devices on your body. There is just more.

    Does that mean that “we” succeed despite that or just “with” it? I’m not sure.

  8. mary! says:

    yes, you probably do get way more diabetes-centric comments about your athletic accomplishments than you’d like, but you also write a lot about diabetes when you post about training/events. so, perhaps that explains some of it? just guessing at this, but your NYC tri post seems to be about half diabetes-related content. of course, diabetes affected the race greatly, so it’d be silly not to write about it, but you must realize that you bring it up pretty often, as well.

  9. Jeff Mather says:

    I keep rolling this over and over again in my mind. (I’ve been thinking about it for years, of course.)

    It does seem that I want to have it both ways: to talk about diabetes and all of the other things that go into my racing and yet to have people not really focus on diabetes at all. I want people to see that diabetes isn’t an insurmountable barrier—it’s just another part of athleticism (or whatever) to account for and to manage—and, in particular, I have in mind my fellow peeps with diabetes who might be thinking about their abilities with a low set of expectations or who want to know what it’s possible to do. In order to do that, sometimes I have to make diabetes a bigger deal in my posts than perhaps I want to. Plus from time to time I do struggle with diabetes, and it helps to be able to write about those challenges, so that I can get advice and feedback from my fellow badass diabetic mofos, even though it feeds into the “despite diabetes” part of the conversation when things eventually go right.

    I guess when it comes right down to it, I keep thinking about it this way: Triathlon is hard, even without diabetes. We’re all struggling out there through one thing or another. There are people who do much better at the swim/bike/run thing than I do. Some of them have diabetes; most don’t. I’ve never used diabetes as an excuse for not being as fast as other people are, and it wouldn’t be correct if I tried. The people who finish faster than me have some combination of more innate ability, better training, and more desire than I do. I can’t let my disease be a handicap for myself. (Although it’s a part to manage and train, for sure.) And perhaps that’s why it feels so odd to have other people use my diabetes as part of a compliment; it can impact how I perform, but I’m still held to the same standard as people without diabetes (by myself and others). So I have to put it out of my mind when it comes to how well I race.

  10. mary! says:

    i think that the people who bring up your diabetes as part of their compliments are not only super proud of you for your athletic accomplishments but are also proud of you for being an inspiration to others (who have diabetes, who have some other type of health concern, or who just fall into the category of “human” in general). it’s hard enough for us to get off of our asses and exercise, so when we non-diabetics see someone who has to deal with more than just getting off his ass, it makes us even more proud. that sounds so dorky, but it’s true! i can’t imagine doing a triathlon as it is, but with all of the other things you have to take into consideration as a diabetic, it seems sooo much more daunting.

    and i totally understand, and agree with, why you talk so much about diabetes in your training/event posts, because it is surely a great resource to other diabetics (and, obviously, it is a big part of your experience, so why not mention it?). i think it’s super interesting, as well, so i don’t mind reading it.

  11. mary! says:

    oh, and to be sure, i was not criticizing your including diabetes-speak in your posts – i was just pointing out that you do it, too!

  12. Jeff Mather says:

    Don’t worry, mary!, I never read that as you criticizing me for posting about the ‘betes. :^)

    Thanks for bringing extra perspective. I suspect as long as I have this disease, I’m going to be thinking about some aspect of this “despite/with/because of/in spite of diabetes” business. It’s a hard thing to integrate into my own thinking, this business of having a disease where I (mostly) feel well.

  13. Caroline says:

    Well, 3 months after you wrote it, I’m returning to this post after an experience I had this weekend. I ran the Staten Island Half with the intention of finishing in 1:50 or faster. I had been looking forward to racing it for months and seeing just how fast I could go (previous PR was 2:09, or unofficially 2:05 in the first half of the NJ Marathon). My blood sugar whacked out despite several precautions and adjustments, and I spent the whole race in the 220s-240s. Finished in 1:52. I was so frustrated and tired at first, and cried about it to a couple TNT teammates. But then after a chance to sit down and indulge in a bloody mary or seven, I felt pleased with my effort and happy that I still managed to PR by so much, albeit short of my goal.

    When I posted about this on our team Facebook page, I got a flood of supportive comments. It made me feel about 90% warm and fuzzy and 10% weird. “How can I possibly feel weird about this outpouring of love and admiration?” I thought to myself, until I dug through your archives to this and realized…THIS! In my head while I was running the race, I was not obsessing over diabetes (except in repeatedly telling myself that I wasn’t going to eat my Shot Bloks, drink the Gatorade, or lose my momentum to stop and inject….oh, and telling myself not to look at the CGM because that would just upset me). Physically, I didn’t feel a lot of high symptoms. Of course I was getting progressively more tired, but that wasn’t because of D– that was because I was RACING! And I dug deep and told myself to keep going, which I would have done with or without diabetes issues.

    But in rereading people’s comments, or recalling what they told me in person, I realize the core of the message is perseverance. Even though a lot of the comments came out as, “I’m so amazed that you PR’ed despite your diabetes!”…what they meant is, “I’m so amazed that you were faced with extra challenge and you barreled through.” One really fast dude whose misconcepcions I had gently corrected a few weeks earlier said, “Thank you for posting that. It helped me to learn more about what it’s like for you with diabetes. Congrats on finishing strong.” Another said, “That’s so great that you’re still out there kicking butt every day.” Which is, like you say, the fundamental thing. No matter what our challenges, we get up and put in the time and miles. We plan our best, and deal gracefully with the unexpected issues coming our way, whether it’s an injury or bad race day weather or crappy BGs.

    On another note, I get a lot of satisfaction out of looking at the progress I’ve made in the 2 years since my first marathon. Diabetes was very much a crutch for me then. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing– I was on a steep learning curve, and had to spend a lot of time bending training around my beeg while I figured things out. Now, I don’t necessarily train in spite/because of/to spite diabetes. I train with diabetes. It’s a challenge, and I’m going to share it so that (hopefully!) people glean a little inspiration in dealing with their own particular challenges.

    So I suppose that’s a rather long way of saying that I agree with you– in this post, and in your comment to Scott (and with Scott’s post, too!). Let’s forget people’s expectations and just celebrate the fact that we athletes are out there kicking ass and hurtling over whatever obstacles are in our way.

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