A couple months ago, I was diagnosed with the early stages of diabetes, with the diagnosis coming after a routine blood test. After my doctor reviewed all the markers in the blood test, he looked at me and said, “you know what I’m saying right? You have diabetes.” He then went on to tell me what we needed to do. I walked out of his office in kind of a daze and held my emotions in check until I got into my car. It was then that I cried and said the words, “I have diabetes.”
It’s now two months later and I’m still coming to grips as to what the word diabetes means for my life. I’ve told very few people about my diagnosis, primarily because I’m not ready for all the advice I know I’d be given by those who mean well. Instead, I ordered three books on managing diabetes and have begun to make changes to my diet. I’ve also decided that diabetes is confusing.
The books I purchased gave me the facts on diabetes, but what they don’t talk about is how to mentally get your head around a life-long diagnosis. As a mental health counselor, I know when presented with any serious illness or a life-changing illness such as diabetes, a person goes through stages similar to the well-known Five Stages of Grief. Here are the five stages as I see them…
1. DENIAL: Denial is generally the first stage. It incorporates the idea that the disease can’t hurt me or even that the diagnosis is wrong. Denial can be exacerbated by the thought that I still feel good, so there is nothing wrong with me. In my case, I don’t have any of the obvious symptoms of diabetes, but I do have a very strong family history of the disease and some of the risk factors for it. Knowing these facts has kept me from being in the denial stage for too long.
2. ANGER: Anger can be outward or inward, with the latter tied to self-blame. I’m not angry per se, but I do blame myself for gaining weight and for my sweet tooth. I also admit to “should’ve-ing” and “if only-ing” myself. I should’ve known my sweet tooth would get me in trouble. If only I had paid closer attention to my blood tests when I was in the pre-diabetic stage. If only… The key to remember is that I can’t change my past; I can only change my today. I have to let any anger and blame go as they will only hold me back.
3. FEAR: Fear is not one of the typical stages of grief, but as I was researching this topic, I saw fear added and felt it was very appropriate. Fear is fueled by the knowledge that I have a disease that can’t be cured, and by not knowing much about the disease, both of which lead to feeling out of control. For me it is reminding myself that yes, someday I may be insulin dependent, but for right now it looks like I can manage the disease with a good diet and with meds that help my pancreas work effectively. Plus, I have a strong body and I have faith that with God on my side, I can manage this disease.
4. BARGAINING: I went very quickly through this stage. We bargain with ourselves, our doctors, and with God when diagnosed with a a life-threatening or life-long illness. Bargaining can be combined with justifying. “I can eat this cookie because I exercised 30 minutes today.” Neither one works well.
5. ACCEPTANCE: Acceptance is understanding that my diabetes doesn’t control me, but I control it. It’s knowing that while some things in my life have changed, my life hasn’t. I have diabetes, and while the word diabetic can be applied to me, I am not a diabetic, because I am so much more than this word. Acceptance is the “I can do this” stage and the stage where real change happens.
An additional stage some people go through is depression. This is when the sadness or the weight of the diagnosis keeps a person down. To be depressed for a short period of time is normal. However, if the depression begins to control daily activities, then seeking the help of a therapist is needed.
I am still working on full acceptance as this diagnosis hit me as I was working through some other health issues. It’s a lot for me to take in, but I’m getting there. If you’ve been diagnosed with a life-altering or life-threatening disease or illness and want to talk about it, please give me a call. Together we will work through all these stages to acceptance. Jane McGill, MA, LPCC, NCC, Clinical Counseling, 720-707-9119.