Diabetes and Mental Health

Robin on a bridge.MHpostBy: Robin Smith

Type 1 diabetes affects my brain. Not all the time, and I prefer to think of myself as a reasonably stable person… But there’s an undeniable mental component to diabetes.

And since May is Mental Health Awareness month, I’d like to share some examples of how diabetes influences my mental health:

I’m confused.  My blood sugar is low, and while I know something is wrong… I’m just not sure what to do about it. I wander into the kitchen and peer into the fridge. I stand there, sweating and pondering what to do next. In a moment of clarity, I gulp down a cup of juice.

But a few minutes go by, and… I can’t remember if I poured a full cup or maybe it was just half full? I still feel low, so maybe I should take more regardless.

I stare into my empty cup, uncertain and shaky.

I’m lethargic.  My blood sugar is high, and I take a correction dose of insulin. “I don’t feel great,” I tell my friend. “Let’s stop walking and sit down for a minute.” I sink onto a park bench, and put my head in my hands.

“What do you need?” my friend asks.

“To wait,” I sigh. “I mean, we can keep walking. It’s just that my blood sugar usually takes a few hours to come down.” I sit there, feeling tired and listless.

I’m frustrated.  Halfway through my boot-camp class, I start to fade. I clearly haven’t been putting in my best effort, and I’m annoyed with myself. Despite the careful preparations I always take for this workout, my blood sugar is dropping. I excuse myself and sprint down the stairs to confer with my glucose meter and buy a juice from the vending machine.

“Are you alright?” the instructor asks when I reappear. “Do you need to sit out?”

“No,” I tell him. “It’s just my blood sugar. I should be fine in a few minutes.”

But I’m still not hitting my peak performance, and my blood sugar is refusing to pick up. After ten more minutes, I take some more juice. I worry that I might end up with high blood sugar if I take too much.

I’m finally forced to sit out, feeling defeated and disappointed.

I’m motivated. There’s just an hour left, and a few other cyclists pass me on their way to the last checkpoint. I’m a fan of the Bike the Branches event, which was designed to get Brooklyn bikers out in support of public libraries. At this point though, I’m tired. Six hours of biking is a lot more than I’m accustomed to!

I recognize that I’m at a disadvantage: I’ve bean trying to maintain control of my turbulent blood sugar all day. But I’m still going strong, despite the mental challenges of feeling confused, lethargic, and frustrated at different points throughout the tour.

As I stand in line at the final checkpoint, I find myself smiling. I look at the athletes around me. While we’re standing at the same finish line… I’m pretty sure that I’ve persevered and accomplished more in getting here than my non-diabetic cohorts.

Mental health treatment is something we don’t always consider with diabetes. But mental and physical health are so closely aligned.When my blood sugar is low, high, or choppy, it affects my thinking and my emotions.

I remember having a yearly check-up once with a general practitioner who I’d never worked with before. As she was wrapping up the appointment, I started to feel confused and upset. Tears welled up in my eyes. I became more and more agitated. I didn’t recognize the symptoms of low blood sugar, and she just seemed impatient with me.

“I’m sorry,” I sniffled. “I don’t understand what you mean. Can you repeat that?” I knew I shouldn’t be crying. I felt embarrassed to be acting this way.

The doctor looked at me coolly. “You need to chill out,” she remarked. “There’s nothing to cry about.” She referred me to a therapist, saying I was suffering from anxiety.

On my way out of the office, I realized that the root of my emotional outburst was actually diabetes. I took a few glucose tablets in the bathroom and rinsed my face with cool water. I never actually made it to the therapist’s office, but I did begin to consider taking better care of my emotional health.

Because of diabetes, I’m not always in my full mental capacity. Acknowledging this helps me to be more patient with myself. I try to consider whether the way I’m feeling is a result of physical imbalances. I also do my best to teach people about my condition. This way, I don’t always have to explain myself in the middle of a crisis. With the support of my friends, family, and co-workers, I’m better able to accept how diabetes affects me both physically and mentally.

Please share!  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences! How does diabetes affect your mental health? What has been most challenging? What do you find motivating?

Please write a comment below.

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