Here's a story from Raj, a person with diabetes.

A few years back I was at one of those parties where you arrive and know pretty much no one there. I nodded to the host and let them go about their duties and secured myself a drink from the bar.

I found myself a nice quiet seat slightly aback from the action. One that had a good view of the entrance that allowed me to keep an eye out for anyone I knew walking in.

After about ten minutes of drink swirling and half smiles to half acquaintances a woman in the same situation sat near by and we struck up a very generic conversation. “Hi, how are you?”, “What’s your name?”, “What do you do?” and then a question that answer would change the way I perceive myself from that day on. “Tell me about yourself.”

“Well…” I started, “I’m a diabetic.”

“You shouldn’t say that you know.” she responded before I could continue.

“Shouldn’t say what?”

“That you’re a ‘diabetic’.”

“I shouldn’t?” Why shouldn’t I? What’s this woman got against diabetics? My back was up, I could feel the beginnings of anger swell, who did this woman think she was? “Is there something wrong with being diabetic?”.

She looked at me puzzled, her head half cocked to the side like she didn’t understand why I would be questioning her. The tone of my question undoubtably sharp and annoyed and then it hit her.

“No, no, no, no…” she began, her arms waiving in a please-forgive-me-you’ve-misinterpreted-me kind of way. “You shouldn’t say you’re a ‘diabetic’,” exaggerated air quotes and all this time, “you should say you ‘have diabetes’.”

“I should?” I asked, having absolutely no idea where this was going and repeatedly cursing myself for not being more sociable with complete strangers. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that in saying you’re a diabetic defines you. It pigeon holes you and puts a full stop on anything else to follow. Saying that you ‘have diabetes’ on the other hand, well that says to me and others that diabetes is a ‘part’ of who you are but not the be all and end all. I’m sure there’s more to you than just being a diabetic?”

Shortly there after one of us had closer friends arrive and the conversation, not progressing much further, was brought to an end. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, if anything I was irritated by the whole thing but as I retold the encounter days later to a friend it slowly begun to make sense.

I am a diabetic. That statement is very true. I’ve been a type one insulin dependent for over half of my life but that doesn’t tell you everything about me. To start with, for the first thirteen years of my life I didn’t have diabetes. My forming years as a child were completely carb-counting free and as happy an upbringing as any parent could hope for their child.

Since my diagnosis and treatment I’ve been a teenager, I’ve studied at university, found a career, had relationships and travelled the world. Diabetes or no diabetes all of those would've likely happened. Each helped shaped the person that I am today just as this wonderful little illness called diabetes has. They and all the other experiences in my life are all a part of who I am, none alone the singular definition so why should diabetes be any different?

That’s not to say that diabetes hasn’t played a larger than normal role in shaping my life or influencing the way I’ve gone about doing certain things. Take travelling for example, it’s not quite as simple as popping luggage into a suitcase as any diabetic traveller will know, there’s considerations of supplies and backup supplies, equipment, doctors letters and the list goes on. Exercise is another, a never-ending tiresome wrestling match and personal voodoo of mine since hypoing severely when first diagnosed. The fact remains that while it does complicate things and can feel overwhelming it’s no more than another factor to take in account and not final judge, jury and executioner.

There have been times – low times – that I’ve allowed myself to be defined by my diabetes. They’re the times that I’m at my lowest and the ones that everyone has. The constant tussle with your body and it’s intricacies that never allow that perfect control, the mood swings patient loved ones are forever the butt of on those out of control days not to mention the rising of yet another complication from the bottomless well of diabetic accompaniments. It’s at those times I truly am a ‘diabetic’.

It begs to reason as to why the term ‘diabetic’ even exists? There aren’t too many chronic illnesses that have their own noun. When I googled “What do you called people with cancer” the first and only relevant result was “You call people with cancer, ‘people with cancer’”. The only other example I could find was asthma and asthmatics. It’s a strange and wonderful phenomenon that we as those with diabetes are categorised in such a way a unique way.

Having diabetes is not fun. I don’t think you’ll find anyone out there that’ll say it is, but it’s also not an illness or a disease that truly stops you from doing anything. I’ve had diabetes for nearly twenty years now and I’m only just now realising that I can do anything that a perfectly healthy person without diabetes can do too. It’s something I think everyone learns in their own way and time but for me it came about through doing DAFNE (Dose Adjustment For Normal Eating) and then going onto pump therapy. Two things I wish I’d done not just years but decades ago.

The best and only advice I’ll give to anyone that’s bothered to read this far is surround yourself with the right people. I don’t just mean friends and family I mean in your professional healthcare too. If you have an endocrinologist you don’t like seeing, switch, there’s enough of them out there! Speak to an educator to better understand why things are happening and adjust your treatment plan.

Don’t be like me and think that the best advice you’ll have from a specialist is handing you a NovoFine® needle when you’re first diagnosed and told to “try stabbing yourself a few times and get the feel for it.”

Learn that you have diabetes, you’re not a diabetic.

Mobile Stroke Unit with Ambulance Victoria paramedic and the RMH Stroke team
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