Denial is Natural & Understandable
Denial is a natural coping mechanism, and it’s part of the grieving process. When you first receive a diagnosis of a chronic, incurable disease like diabetes, and you’re told that you have to make a host of drastic changes to your diet and lifestyle, you may go through a grieving process. You have to say good-bye to your old life before you can fully step into a new way of living.
The grief process includes several stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I’ll cover the other stages in future posts. It’s important to note that not everyone goes through the stages in the same order or for the same length of time.
For some people, like myself, denial doesn’t set in right away. I allowed myself to sink into denial after diligently trying to get my blood sugars under control after diagnosis. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work and I got frustrated, overwhelmed, dismayed, and finally, I felt like a total failure and sank into denial about my condition.
For me, denial showed up as a spin on the story of my condition. I didn’t deny that I had diabetes; just that I must not have it as bad as some. I didn’t really have any symptoms, I didn’t feel sick, so I made up a story for myself about how my body must have adapted to the high sugars. I was fine.
And if I was fine, then I didn’t need to check my blood sugars or watch what I ate, or do anything else to manage my disease. Unfortunately, I’m paying for that now. Several years later, and I suffer from several diabetic complications as a result of my prolonged hyperglycemia. I’m lucky I didn’t end up in the hospital, losing toes, or worse, my life.
Why Do We Deny?
There are many things that can cause our minds to deny the reality of our situation, in order to protect us. Just some of these are:
- Fear – Many of us have heard the horror stories of diabetes and when we get diagnosed, then everyone and their brother has to tell us the scariest thing they can think of about it. It’s a misguided attempt to convince us to take care of ourselves so that those bad things don’t happen, but it can often have the opposite effect. If we get too scared, our brain will shut down in order to protect us from that fear.
- Overwhelm – Diabetes is such a complicated disease, which affects so many aspects of our being, it can be challenging to manage. Managing it requires us to learn a LOT of new information and ways of living. The sheer amount of education we have to do (often on our own) leads to information overload and overwhelm. What happens to you when you feel overwhelmed in other areas?
- No sign of illness – It can be easy to delude ourselves into thinking we’re fine, if we don’t look or feel sick.
- Nothing working – This is what happened to me. When nothing works, sometimes we just throw our hands up and give up on trying.
- Tired of hearing people’s advice – This is one that is becoming a sort of movement: #NoAdvicePlease. Several people who struggle with chronic conditions like to be able to share their challenges with their friends, but don’t want to be badgered with lots of well-meaning, but often useless, un-asked-for advice, especially from those who do not also have the same condition. We are all different, though, so even those with the same condition can wrongly assume that what works for them will work for everyone. Advice often comes with an expectation that it will be followed, and if it’s not, then the advice-giver often expresses anger or resentment toward the person. However, denial can help a person avoid this issue by just not sharing about it at all, or by pretending that everything’s fine when in fact it’s not.
- Ignorance about the disease – Unfortunately, many medical professionals do not educate their patients adequately when they give them a diagnosis of a chronic (and potentially lethal) condition, like diabetes. If you don’t understand how bad a condition can get, then denial may be the natural consequence of that ignorance. Perhaps it’s not right to call it denial at all, but the effect is the same.
- Too busy or stressed already – Many of us live incredibly hectic and stressful lives. If a healthy change isn’t easy to understand or implement, we’re going to have a hard time integrating it into our lifestyle. Unfortunately, stress only adds to the problem. However, the demands of daily life can often take priority over our health, especially if we are the caretakers of others.
Symptoms of Denial
Not sure if you’re slipping into denial? The Joslin Diabetes Center describes the symptoms of denial this way:
Signs that you are denying your diabetes, or not managing your diabetes in the right way, can include: burnout, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, disengaging from your health care team, or not practicing recommended diabetes care on a regular basis.
What are the Risks of Diabetes Denial?
I am paying the price for my denial today. A few years ago, I got diagnosed with a couple of ongoing issues that developed as a result of my prolonged high blood sugar levels.
The Complications of Prolonged High Blood Sugars
One of those complications is neuropathy. High blood sugars can damage your nerves. Neuropathy is a condition in which the nerves in the legs and feet, and sometimes the arms and hands, become damaged to the point that pain and numbness develop. For me, I get random stabbing pains in my lower legs and feet, and my feet and ankles will just start to seize up and ache, especially at night.
I am currently on a high dose of gabapentin (Neurontin) to keep these symptoms at bay.
The other complication I’ve developed is something called Clinically Significant Macular Edema (CSME), which is a direct result of the high blood sugars damaging the tiny blood vessels in my eyes. The macula is swollen with excess blood and fluid, which degrades vision. I’ve lost a significant level of sight due to this condition.
The treatment that works is having medicine (Avastin) injected into each of my eyeballs every few weeks. Thankfully, as the condition stabilizes as a result of a vigilant treatment schedule, I’m able to gradually extend the time between injections.
Probably an understatement, but this has NOT been fun. And most people cringe when they hear I have to get needles poked in my eyeballs.
There are many other complications associated with prolonged hyperglycemia, such as infections that refuse to heal and eventually result in amputation. I have a couple of friends who developed blisters on their foot that didn’t heal for weeks, and who then had to have a toe amputated – and THAT’s how they discovered they had diabetes! This isn’t denial, they simply hadn’t been diagnosed – but as I said above, the effect is the same.
I’m not going to list all the other possible complications of diabetes. Suffice it to say that the longer your body sustains high blood sugar levels, the more damage will occur to every part of your body.
Friends & Family Might Not Take It Seriously
The other consequence of denial is that our family and friends may not appreciate the seriousness of your condition. If you don’t seem concerned about it, why should they? And this can lead to them being unwittingly complicit in harming you.
I remember how incredibly difficult it was (and sometimes still is) to watch family and friends indulge in something delicious and bad for me. Early on, especially during my denial phase, I often ignored the little voice in my head saying, “Don’t eat that sweet thing, it’s bad for you!” I didn’t want to hear that, I wanted to taste that deliciousness. I gave in to the momentary pleasure, and now I’m paying the long-term price.
Let me be clear. This isn’t to say you can never eat anything sweet or baked or whatever again. But you do need to learn to exercise restraint (don’t eat high-carb food all the time anymore), and self-discipline when it comes to portion size (take half or a quarter of the amount you used to eat).
Diabetes denial can lead us into all sorts of trouble, as I can personally attest. That’s why I’m writing such a long post on this topic. But now, I want to explore some of the ways we might move through and past the denial phase, hopefully more quickly than I did.
How to Cope With or Prevent Diabetes Denial
Find support – The first (and only) diabetes support group I ever attended consisted of a roomful of overweight older people watching a cooking class. I was thin and young (mid-30’s) at the time and didn’t see myself reflected in that room. I didn’t belong there. Unfortunately, this reinforced the story I was telling myself about how I couldn’t possibly have the same disease, I didn’t look like these people!
I was already in the grip of denial. I should have continued to look for a support group that would meet my needs, but I let that one experience sway me from that quest. Instead, I suffered mostly alone and tried to ignore it.
There are plenty of options to find support today, way more than was available then. There are more in-person support groups, for different types of people. The diabetes online community (#DOC) is vibrant and active and very welcoming of new participants in the discussion. Many diabetes information sites have active and supportive forums, like Diabetes Daily and Diabetic Connect. If you don’t feel comfortable in any given group, keep looking.
Acknowledge feelings – It can be powerful to have someone to talk to about how you feel. Finding a diabetes educator, diabetes coach, or even a counselor or therapist can help enormously with helping you to process the grief process and all the feelings a diabetes diagnosis brings up. They can teach you coping skills and help you manage the overwhelm.
Finding a support group or a group of supportive friends and family members is a good idea. You can also express your thoughts and feelings to this loving group.
Research shows that unexpressed angst is harmful to our health. Ongoing stress and worry can make our diabetes worse. So find ways to get these feelings off your chest.
One thing at a time, one day at a time – Manage the overwhelm by breaking down all the things you’re supposed to change or do to manage your condition into manageable chunks. Even just deciding to make one small change a week is still forward progress toward getting your condition under control. Start by resolving to diligently take any meds you’ve been prescribed. Talk to the doctor if the side effects are unbearable. Then the following week, cut out (or radically cut back on) the single worst food or drink item in your diet (for me it was soft drinks). You can take it from there.
And one day at a time means acknowledging that you can only do so much in a day, but if you focus on just that day, you can get through it. You’re not going to reverse years or decades of bad habits in a day, a week, or even a month. Be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.
If you’re interested in hearing more about my journey through denial, which I partially blame on being misdiagnosed as a type 2 diabetic, watch the Facebook page for an announcement of a new video I’ll be posting soon. In that video, I share more about my misdiagnosis and how that led to my own descent into diabetes denial. I’ll also be letting subscribers to the newsletter know when the video goes live, so sign up here to be kept in the loop.
I’ve also just released a free report on hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which goes into far more detail about this condition, the dangers associated with it, and how you can treat it. Click the link or the picture here to get your copy.
You might be interested in joining our support group on Facebook. It’s still small but growing. It’s a safe space to talk about the challenges of having diabetes and to ask for or give help and support.
My most important suggestion is this: Don’t go it alone. The burden of managing your diabetes can be more easily borne when you have a support network. Who’s in yours?