This February marks the 37th year of African American History Month (formerly Black History Month), and we're pleased to mark the occasion by welcoming Chrystal Leary, a fellow D-advocate who's become extremely active online spreading education and awareness among the African American population.
Chrystal lives in the Los Angeles, CA, area and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes just over five years ago. Since then, she's quickly stepped up to her new role as an advocate, busting myths, countering stereotypes and working to educate folks at her blog, The Sexy Diabetic. In her day job, Chrystal is a chemist (!), working in the personal care/cosmetic industry.
Today, Chrystal shares her own story and some of the important race-related issues that diabetes brings to the table, as she sees it:
A Guest Post by Chrystal Leary, a.k.a. the Sexy Diabetic
I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007 after several months of exhibiting classic symptoms. I argued with my nurses and told them they must be joking, but there was no denying the diabetes diagnosis when the hospital staff could only give me an approximate glucose number of 900 mg/dl based on my urine since they didn't have a meter that tested that high. With that kind of blood sugar reading, there wasn't any doubt that diabetes was now a part of my life!
I left my diagnosis appointment in a fog and scared of eating. They gave me a fourth grade food chart with no other information or resources. I was alone, and really didn't know what to do or how to eat. At that time, I literally thought my next bite of food would kill me. That's how uninformed and scared I was, and honestly it's how many people in the Black Community first feel when they get diagnosed.
The worst part for me was the finger pricking. I viewed it as a form of self-mutilation. Having a healthy fear of needles didn't help my situation either. For a while, my then boyfriend would have to test me because I couldn't hold the lancet device steady. I would have a physical reaction to the idea of stabbing myself for a drop of blood because I was so scared of the sharp lancets. Working alone in a lab on the night shift at the time, I spent several nights crying because I couldn't prick myself.
On the flip side, I had to be ultra-aware of my food intake because my energy would plummet and I couldn't move after eating. I didn't have any concept of sugar and carbs in the beginning. At that time, I was only taking metformin. Being a scientist, I decided to take control of my situation and become educated. I read everything about diabetes that I could find on the Internet. In comparison to what I was learning, I didn't think my current general practitioner who diagnosed me was doing a good job in educating me or giving me proper treatment to lower my BG levels, so I found the UCLA Diabetes Center for help. This is where I receive my treatment now.
Eventually, my treatment required me to incorporate insulin. I was never scared to take insulin because my fear of needles and pin pricks had subsided two years after my diagnosis. But as a type 2 diabetic, insulin treatment is not well received and it was viewed that way when I needed it. Insulin use is considered a step backwards and that's how many in the medical profession make it seem. I accepted the treatment without issue, because my view is that anything to help my body is a good thing. So many in the Black community don't see it that way, though, and it is part of a bigger problem of how they see type 2 diabetes as the worst thing ever.
Lack of... Everything
After my diagnosis, I became aware of how the Black Community was suffering silently with this epidemic. Some factors that are causing this epidemic include: a high fat diet, a sedentary lifestyle, schools cutting out the gym classes, too much television, fewer grocery stores and easy access to fast foods.
Access to quality foods is major issue in the minority areas of Los Angeles, as it probably is in many other large cities and even those in more rural areas of the country. Black and Latino areas are filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores. There are few traditional grocery stores with reasonable pricing. This plight has been spotlighted several times in the media with no real solution, and it's just one of the factors playing a part in the explosion of type 2 diabetes.
The lack of medical care or the lack of a proper diagnosis are also prevalent for the Black Community, and I've seen that firsthand here in the Los Angeles area. Last year when I sponsored a diabetes screening event at a local mall, I heard so many stories of how people weren't sure if they were diabetic after a clinic or hospital emergency room visit. Or they were discharged with a D-diagnosis, but without current information as to how to maintain their diabetes, where they could take diabetes classes, or even where they could seek support. The insidious nature of type 2 diabetes is never explained.
Interestingly, there are at least three or four clinics in the Los Angeles area specializing in diabetes and diabetic-related conditions, but smaller underfunded clinics for whatever reasons don't refer newly-diagnosed people with diabetes to these facilities. It's a mystery why that doesn't happen, but evidence of just what kind of systematic shortfalls exist in getting people with diabetes in the Black Community to where they can be best informed and take charge of their health.
A Shameful Secret
Much of the stigma surrounding diabetes is that it's still falsely recognized as a disease of the elderly, obese and lazy. Basically, it's a private shame. People are scolded by family members for eating too much and causing their diabetes. Of course, a well-informed person would know this is false and that blame is dangerous. Yet, diabetic myths prevail and current wisdom is lost. In turn, diabetics who need support will keep their condition secret from family members to their own detriment.
Really, all of these factors are closely tied to — if not directly a result of — the lack of information and education trickling into the community. That's a huge problem, especially when most people just live their lives each day and don't actively go out seeking resources and information about diabetes.
That is why I chose to do something about it.
In my advocacy, I work hard to help people in downtrodden communities get access to information that's widespread in more well-to-do areas. It's no secret that type 2 diabetics, especially Blacks and other minorities, are not utilizing the Internet as an information resource as much as others are. Internet access can be difficult when there are other pressing responsibilities and so much of what's available in the DOC (Diabetes Online Community) and just online in general about health isn't what these people turn to. With little change, communities still rely on outdated information for their care, and maintenance.
To reach this population, we all need to look at new and innovative ways of educating and informing. Just a couple ways I'm using are service announcements on local Black radio stations, writing articles for Black newspapers, putting diabetes factoids and tips in church flyers, standing on street corners with signs, and being a part of wellness fairs. I've also worked on contacting local Black fraternities, sororities, and charity groups society organizations about hosting information seminars on diabetes or doing email blasts to their membership. These all are simple ways we can help get the word out to the Black Community that needs help in living with and understanding diabetes.
"Mostly, whatever we do, it has to involve making type 2 diabetes not as scary. Not such a 'this is my fault and my life is over' self-judgment. We have to take a new message to more people who see it that way now."
— Chrystal Leary, on changing attitudes about diabetes in the Black Community
For me, that's also why I chose to start blogging and using my website, Sexydiabetic.com, to help get this information out there into the world. Sending the right message about diabetes is so important.
On Healthy Aging & Changing
Personally, I never saw my diabetes as a hindrance on my life, but a new chapter. Think of it this way: Actor Burt Reynolds was considered a very sexy man in the 70's and then he got older, but who he became was all influenced by those younger years. That is my view on diabetes -- I was young and vibrant, now I am getting older and things have changed in large part because of who I am. My habits, work schedules, sleep deprivation, ethnicity, sedentary lifestyle contributed to my development of diabetes. I am not ashamed, it's just who I am now! Diabetes is a part of me and it makes me into who I am.
That's why I tell people diabetes is a life experience. Everything that I do I must be mindful of how my actions may affect my diabetic condition, but that is all a part of being human and aging. This is just natural and nothing to be ashamed of!
Thank you for your ingenuity in reaching out to those who need a helping hand, Chrystal! We love your message that any type of diabetes isn't a death sentence and doesn't have to be so scary -- that it can actually be "sexy," depending on how we look at it!