It's not often that I struggle to find words to capture a moment, but that's exactly what I've been struggling with since attending the first-ever Diabetes UnConference this past weekend.
Held at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas from March 13-15, this event brought about 90 people together for an in-person peer-support event unlike anything our D-Community has seen before. The non-profit Diabetes Collective put this on, under the direction of advocate Christel Aprigliano, the visionary behind this.
And without a doubt, everyone involved in the UnConference hit it out of the ballpark.
There were nearly 2,000 years of combined diabetes experience in that room. Some were familiar faces, who've been part of the DOC for a long time, from both the U.S. and other parts of the world. But there were also many who hadn't been to something like this before, and said they weren’t even aware of the online community but had found their way there because a friend had suggested it. Or a doctor told them. Or they just knew someone who was going, and they wanted to be a part of this too. I loved that! Two women in attendance had lived with type 1 for more than 50 years each and had Joslin medals, and at one point we recognized them with standing ovations. The group really represented all shapes and sizes of PWDs (people with diabetes).
So what exactly is an unconference?
The idea is to sort of break down the tenets of traditional conference format, to create a free-flowing atmosphere that "allows participants to create and moderate the agenda, allowing for a wide variety of topics and viewpoints that might never be covered in a traditional conference ... using various sharing methods that focus on drawing out responses from all attendees so those in the room can learn from each other in a peer to peer environment."
In other words, at The Diabetes UnConference, every participant is an expert. All attendees can ask and answer questions and learn from their peers in a safe setting where there is no judgment or wrong answer.
But what exactly happened and was said at the UnConference isn’t something you’ll find here -- or anywhere. All of us in the room agreed to a social media blackout, so that we wouldn’t be live-tweeting, blogging on the spot or playing with our phones and laptops instead of being present in the moment. We made a pact to respect each other’s privacy, because some straight-from-the-soul-stuff was shared. We laughed, cried, talked seriously and showed off our senses of humor. It was all raw, emotional, honest. And there was always respect and support. And many hugs.
At all times, I felt Welcomed, Valued, and Respected.
This was an experience I truly needed, even without realizing how much I needed it before the weekend began.
Rapid-Fire Peer Support
It's interesting to me that medical professionals talk about the value of connecting with others, and we see research studies being done on the value of peer support, but rarely do they truly "get" what that means. This UnConference is a prime example of the kind of thing that needs to be part of every patient's prescription, IMHO, whether they're newly diagnosed or living decades with diabetes. And no, type doesn't matter.
If you really want to know what we talked about inside the main session room, just look inside your own heart and mind. You name the diabetes topic, it was pretty much on the agenda to some extent. We only had a day-and-a-half to cover so much: from diabetes devices, research, our community interactions, mental health and burnout, relationships, fears, hopes, inspirations, and so many more topics. We rolled through these topics rapid-fire, having just 5 or 10 minutes for some discussions, both in big groups and small rotating group chats, and at times we could barely even scratch the surface. But that's OK, I think, because the idea was not to solve every diabetes problem in one session, but rather to recognize the many challenges we all face and bring them to the surface.
I haven’t been shy about my experiences dealing with burnout and mental health issues in the past, and it was great to be able to share those feelings and connect with others so openly. On that theme, I thought one of the best discussions was the triple-punch, "Guilt, Burnout, Mental Health," as I've gone through all of them, but how incredible it was to hear all of the examples people gave about coping in their own ways or not at all. Not once did I ever feel judged or “alone,” and I can’t even count how many times I found myself just nodding vigorously when listening to someone share their story – to the point that I began tearing up from the power of that “me too” moment.
To me, the power of this first-ever UnConference was the fact that the conversations continued in the hallways, in private interaction, over meals and afterward as we all hung out and had some Vegas fun. I loved how the organizers had us place business cards on each table, to quickly exchange with others we wanted to specifically continue a particular conversation with. Brilliant way to keep the connections going!
In the wake of this event, those connections are continuing and it seems we're all pretty overwhelmed with emotion. Word is that some of the Vegas Dust (#VegasDust) followed many of us home, a metaphor for the incredible experiences we shared.
Christel had us each fill out a 3x5 card at close of the conference, using one word to describe how we felt at that time. For me, the word was "connected," but I had each and every one of these words in my heart and on my mind, too:
What Happened in Vegas…
While it's true that the specifics of UnConference talks have to stay in Vegas, not all of it has to. The essence of what happened there does not and should not stay hidden. The fact is, none of us want to feel alone. We want and need to connect with others who “get it” and can share the ups and downs of our ongoing D-journey.
We can bring these emotions and experiences back home, to the rest of the diabetes communities that exist online and offline. That isn’t something that needs to be a set time on our calendar, or a specific place that dozens travel to. No, perhaps we can make some local UnConference meet-ups sprout up… filling the gaps in between the next big gathering.
Yes, it's pretty much assumed that there will be another UnConference, although there's no official word on when or where just yet. I'm very hopeful that it won't be long before word of a 2016 UnConference begins circulating. I encourage everyone to consider going, because it's an experience you won't ever forget.
But in the meantime, let's bring a little of this #VegasDust back home and concentrate on making closer connections in our own little corners of the world.