In our three years living with Type 1 diabetes I’ve learned a fair bit about myself. Not just my capacity for complicated maths in the middle of the night after a bottle of Prosecco; nor my propensity for hurling my diabetic child into every potentially dangerous adventure, just to prove a point. No, my biggest lesson has been patience. My previously unsuspected ability to smile and nod in the face of extreme provocation. And before we go any further, let me say that I have made at least three of these mistakes myself, in a previous life. So this is not judgement. This is merely a checklist of things to avoid blurting out, in your hunt for something appropriate to say to a diabetic.
Things not to say to a diabetic
1. It’s not the end of the world. It really is. It’s the end of the world as they know it, assuming they didn’t previously stick needles in their fingers ten times a day, weigh everything they ate like they were on some extreme version of The Biggest Loser, and set their alarms in the night to make sure they were still alive. Yes, they will survive (probably), they haven’t lost a leg – yet – and they can still be anything they want to be in life. (Except an airline pilot – if that was their dream they’re screwed). But it’s still a huge deal. And it feels just like the end of the world.
2. At least it’s not cancer. No, there is that. And cancer is awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I wouldn’t wish diabetes on anyone. I’ve experienced both in my family, and both have felt equally as distressing. Cancer can kill; so can diabetes. Cancer can sometimes be cured. Diabetes can’t. Consoling someone with a serious lifelong condition that it could have been cancer is like telling them their house has burned down, but hey, at least the shed is still upright.
3. You shouldn’t eat that. A diabetic generally knows the carbohydrate content of everything he eats. Like you on a pre-wedding Slimming World mission, he can accurately quote the numbers and stats in pretty much everything he eats, and the likely effect it will have on his body. He’s already fed up about life, without someone on the outside telling him off for craving a cupcake.
4. When will it be stable? The unfortunate answer to that is – never. If by ‘stable’ you mean no hypos, never having to think about it during the night, and taking a set daily dose of insulin to keep it under control. Type 1 diabetes is like being on a bucking bronco. It has to be ridden, the whole time you’re on it; you’re going to fall off lots, and you have to keep getting back on, even when when you’d rather have a beer and watch from the sidelines.
5. What did you eat???!! (Shocked face). A blood sugar of 27 is well nasty. It’s like the worst hangover you’ve ever had. And you can’t even sleep it off. Surprisingly, it’s not usually going to be down to something you ate. Diabetics know how crap they feel when they omit insulin doses, so most of them don’t do it. A high blood sugar is more likely to be caused by an insulin pump failure, insulin that’s gone off in the heat or the cold, or a virus. Yep, a common cold can make you look like you’ve been mainlining candy floss.
6. Did you eat too many sweets? No. Just no. Type 1 diabetes is not caused by lifestyle factors. Bizarrely, my type 1 daughter eats more sweets now she’s diabetic than she ever did before.
7. Ohhh my gran has that. She’s fine. Good. Great news for your gran. We’re really pleased for her. It’s probably type 2, right? Nothing like what we’re dealing with. Plus we got it when we were nine, not 69. We have a lifetime to live with it. It’s a bit depressing.
8. My dog has it. I know exactly what you’re going through. No you don’t. Your dog eats one set meal a day. He’s never been a teenager. He doesn’t have a bunch of dog mates who like to eat Haribo on the way to school, and Domino’s every Friday. He doesn’t drink alcohol, or fancy Coco Pops on a Saturday morning. He’s probably not going to get pregnant, or fancy inter-railing round Europe. You get my point.
9. At least it’s not life-threatening. It so is. Insulin is a lethal drug, if overdosed. Doctors don’t tell you how much to take and then send you away till next year’s review. You decide what to take, and the dose alters every time you take it. Doctors will teach you how to make the safest possible decisions, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. A lot of people making this decision are children. Tell me another condition where a child is allowed to self medicate a potentially fatal medication. Oh, and by the way – if you don’t take enough insulin, guess what? You could die.
10. I could never take all those injections. You could. If the alternative was dying.
So what should you say? “I’m so sorry, that sounds really tough. Tell me how it works. Tell me how I can help.” All really good opening gambits when someone tells you they have diabetes. Actually, my guess is that these are a pretty good bet with any bad news a friend might tell you.