Please welcome back Dana Howe, a longtime type 1 and current graduate student working towards a Master's degree in Health Communication from Tufts University. Dana wrote here recently about choosing to use injections, rather than an insulin pump, alongside her CGM.
Today, on the cusp of Valentine's, she's sharing some very sage advice about love and support with diabetes in the mix:
On Loving a PWD, by Dana Howe
In honor of Valentine's Day, I’m sharing a few tips for loving a person with diabetes. But before I start dishing out advice, a quick disclaimer: I know that everyone’s diabetes experience and relationships are as unique as their fingerprints. My suggestions might not work for you, and that’s OK. This is just to get the ball rolling in talking about how we can all be better partners -- as PWD and as people who love them.
When I was growing up, my parents reminded me often that “everybody’s got something.” It was a shorthand version of that oft-repeated axiom: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In a few words, they were saying: we know living with diabetes is hard, and this is the hand you were dealt – but no one gets off easy.
Many of us know the importance of this mindset when it comes to relationships. Understanding that every individual brings their whole self to a partnership is a key to success – and that whole self includes the difficult stuff. If your partner is living with diabetes, that’s bound to be some of what challenges them – and challenges you, too!
So the bottom line is that loving a diabetic is, in many ways, just like loving anyone else – because everybody’s got something. Every strong relationship requires those elements we talk about all the time: respect, empathy, communication. Relationships with PWDs require an extra dose of all of these things, but how do you accomplish that?
Of course the internet is overflowing with relationship advice: “5 Secrets to a Long-Term Relationship” or “10 Things Your Relationship Needs to Thrive.” Rather than telling you, essentially, to “just be good,” I thought I might offer up some specific ways that partners of PWDs can show their love:
1. Lend a pocket.
Small acts of kindness count. When I go out and don’t want to bring a bag, I’ll ask my boyfriend to put a juice box in his coat pocket while I put my insulin and CGM in mine. If we go hiking, I’ll give him a Gatorade and few Snickers Bars to put in his backpack. People with diabetes are constantly lugging around supplies and provisions – helping us carry this physical load goes a surprisingly long way in aiding with the emotional one.
2. Go back to biology class.
OK, you don’t actually have to go back to school. But do make a point to educate yourself about type 1 diabetes. You don’t need to be an expert, but knowing enough to know what it means to have a high or low blood sugar is important. In my experience, most PWD will happily explain the biology of our condition to people close to us. When my boyfriend or friends ask questions about T1D or my personal experience, I’m happy to answer. I am the expert in talking about my own diabetes, and their questions show me they care. It also gives me a chance to show off all this knowledge I’ve gained!
3. Ask the right questions.
If your partner hits a BG high or low, for God’s sake don’t ask: ‘What did you do?’ or ‘What did you eat?’
When things are calm, do ask: ‘What does it feel like to have a high (or low) blood sugar?’
Do not ask: if your partner’s blood sugar is high every time you think they’re acting grumpy. Sometimes they may just have a legitimate gripe with you. And if their mood IS due to an off-target blood sugar reading, chances are pointing that out will only serve to make them even more grumpy. Asking a PWD about their blood sugar level is tricky territory, and should be done with sensitivity and caution. Every PWD is different when it comes to this, so there is no one right way to handle it. In general, we always want your support, and we never want to be lectured or told what to do.
4. Step into their shoes.
I said I was going to avoid relationship clichés, but there are some very specific ways you can exercise empathy towards your partner with diabetes. You might never know what it’s like to experience a low blood sugar, but try this: think about how you’d feel if you skipped breakfast then ran a half marathon. You’d probably be seriously irritable until you got some calories in you, too. If you’re feeling brave, try checking your blood sugar with a finger prick or inserting a CGM sensor into your belly. We’ll be jealous of your perfect blood sugar reading, but appreciate the attempt to step into our shoes.
5. Don’t knee-jerk react.
This one is probably easier for some than others. For example, I’m a very emotionally reactive person, but lucky for me my boyfriend is much more even-keeled. One of his biggest strengths in loving a PWD is his ability to respond unemotionally to my sour attitudes that sometimes come with a bad high or low – when we both know that’s the cause. In that circumstance, it’s vital to recognize that your partner is acting a certain way because they feel ill, and emotionally feel like they’ve lost control. Chances are their unpleasantness is a result of extreme frustration – with themselves, and with their disease that they cannot always control – but it isn’t directed at you. Let the highs and lows pass with patience.
Above all, I’d like to offer up a big Thank You to all of the partners of people with diabetes. Your patience, caring, and selflessness does not go unnoticed. Happy Valentines Day to my fellow PWDs and to the people who love them!