I know you are, but what am I?
When I was a kid, people used to play a game called “The Dozens”. For those of you who are unfamiliar, it was a comedic exchange of insults played by African Americans. The game was fun, until you talked about somebody’s mama. Then it could end with fists flying.
Anyway, I was never very good at the game since I didn’t like hurting people’s feelings. When someone would try to engage me in the game, saying, for example “You’re so fat, your blood type is Ragu.” I would reply “I know you are, but what am I?” No matter what they came back with, I would hold on to my reply. Finally, my torturer would get frustrated and move on to somebody else.
What I didn’t know then was that my reply (which was provided by my mother) was my way of refusing to allow people to define who and what I was. I rejected being called fat. I rejected being called “four eyes” or Poindexter. I rejected being characterized as weak or worthless.
This topic came up at, 2ruthinNumbers*, a conference I recently attended in Chicago, sponsored by Janssen Pharmaceuticals. During one session we brainstormed on terms associated with people who have Type 2 diabetes. It wasn’t pretty. Some words: Fat. Lazy. Irresponsible. Out of control. The participants felt a lot of guilt and pressure around having the disease. Why should we feel any more responsible for having diabetes than people with other diseases–like cancer, cerebal palsy?
We do, because we blame ourselves for the disease and embrace it. How many times have you heard “I’m a diabetic.” instead of “I have diabetes.” It’s like saying “I’m an alcoholic.” or “I am obese.” instead of listing those conditions as the diseases they are–you are not an alcoholic, you have alcoholism. You may be obese, but more accurately, you suffer from obesity.
How we describe ourselves, or allow others to describe us, often becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. We start to believe that our condition is who we are, instead of a condition that we have. When that happens, you can start to think that it is your fault that you have the condition. As if you could do something about it, even if you wanted to.
This diabetes shaming that goes on in our society is toxic. Type 2’s are especially vulnerable because of the misguided wisdom that if we diet and exercise enough, we can REVERSE diabetes or never come down with the condition at all. And if we don’t, then we must deserve it or welcome it. When Type 2 was characterized as a “lifestyle” disease, it laid blame for the disease at the feet of anyone with Type 2. In other words, if you didn’t have that lifestyle, you would not have the disease.
That is utter bullspit.
The challenge for us with Type 2 diabetes is to reject the blaming and shaming that goes along with our disease. We have enough to do with figuring out how to manage the disease without feeling guilty about having it. We must becomes advocates for the use of more supportive and positive language for talking to and about Type 2 diabetics. It starts with language and how we describe ourselves. It also takes some courage to respond to misguided and misinformed characterizations about our condition. It takes patience to educate people about our condition and help them to understand that support and encouragement go a lot farther in helping us to manage our condition, as opposed to making us feel like failures for our situation.
I’m waiting for the day when someone says, “You are focused, and courageous and strong in how you are handling your diabetes.” I will respond “I know”.
*Janssen generously paid for my expenses to the HealtheVoices Conference, but the ideas and views stated in this piece are solely my own.