When my daughter was young, we used to perk up her diabetes dilemmas with music.
Time for a fingerstick? I’d call out to her with our version of “Fat Boy Slim.”
“Well check your blood now, funk soul brotha!”
Glucose a bit too high? We’d “ride it out” by getting creative with one of her camp songs, like singing “Diabetic Ketoacidosis” to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”
When she wanted to feel like her type 1 diabetes (T1D) is seen and heard, she’d blast the Pump Girls — a group of three teens that started singing about diabetes back in 1999. (One of my daughter’s young adult life highlights was randomly meeting a Pump Girl at a recent wedding. “I totally fan-girled, mom!” she told me after).
Music, in other words, has helped guide us through and lift us up in this long diabetes life we are living.
And we’re not alone.
Songs about diabetes — from originals from famed artists to the many parodies by people with diabetes — help lift spirits, sooth sad souls, and most of all, give a feeling of connection in the diabetes world.
For both the listeners and artists, it’s cathartic.
In fact, the American Psychological Association officially recognizes music as medicine. It can help soothe and heal, and sometimes also bring laughter, which in itself has medicinal qualities. No wonder music plays a role in many people’s lives with T1D.
Ava August, a teenager from Southern California, caught the ears of America as the youngest-ever Top 12 contestant on American Idol in 2021. She also caught the heart and soul of the diabetes community.
She was diagnosed with T1D at 8 years old after her mom noticed she was chugging water bottles at a pool party. “That was the day my life changed forever,” she told DiabetesMine. August had already discovered a love of music prior to that.
Right away, she realized music could help her through this. “Music has always been my therapy,” she said.
Now 16 years old, she’s smack in the middle of adolescence, which is — for most — a very tough time with diabetes.
Soon, she’ll release a song that delves into that — healing for her, she said, and she hopes also meaningful and healing for all who face T1D.
Called “Another Life,” the song looks at what life would be like if she could escape diabetes.
“I was really down, really low,” she said of when she was inspired to write the song. “I think I was actually crying as I wrote it,” she said, adding that reading the lyrics back can bring those tears again.
“Was it meant to be? Why did it happen to me? I’m lost in the sky, but I cannot fly, I was born without wings. Trying to float but I sink, I keep moving for something, staying alive for nothing,” the lyrics read.
It swings, though, to resolution.
What the song did for her is what she hopes it does for all when it is released soon.
“The ultimate healing for me was writing this song,” she said.
Jordan Micheal Peterson, a singer/songwriter in Orlando, Florida, was diagnosed with T1D when he was 10 years old. As if that shock were not enough, his two siblings were also diagnosed in quick succession.
A piano player for most of his life, at that age, he realizes now, music was his therapy.
“It was my outlet,” he told DiabetesMine.
Now a successful adult musician with T1D, he’s written his first song directly about the D-life. Called “Pin Pricks,” he sees it as a thank you to his parents.
“I was thinking as I began to write: As hard as this was for me to grow up with diabetes, it had to be so much harder for my parents,” he said. “We’re all doing so well now, he said of his siblings, “and that’s thanks to them”
“As hard as it was; it was harder on you,” his lyrics say.
Peterson said all the words flowed from that line, and the music did as well. One thing his collaborator, Ray McGee, pointed out to him: the notes may send a message as well.
“He said something I had not thought of,” Peterson said. “There is a repeating piano lick throughout the song. He interpreted that as diabetes never going away, always being there even in the background. I think he’s right.”
Peterson said response to the song has been rewarding both as a musician and person with diabetes.
“My main goal in writing this song was to resonate and be inspiring,” he said. “I’ll have done something good if it does. That’s the goal of every songwriter.”
Melissa Lee, a patient advocate and design manager at Insulet Corp., is a lifelong lover of music. She’s now well-known in the diabetes community for her witty and on-point musical parodies of popular songs tweaked to talk about diabetes life.
At first, she did it for herself more than anyone else. Her first parody video was a play on “Seasons of Love,” and she says she realized right off that it would help her work through some negative feelings.
“Music, like any other artistic expression, is just a way to get it out,” she told DiabetesMine.
“There’s something about just being able to sing it. It was very raw. That one wasn’t meant to entertain. It was me needing to get something out,” she said.
The idea came to her when she was searching for an idea for “Diabetes Blog Week” back in 2013. The prompt was for participating bloggers to share some small diabetes accomplishment they were proud of. She started thinking: how many minutes of her life has she spent wrestling with T1D? “We’re in the millions,” she thought, and then added it up: 12,290,800 minutes of D life up to then. Which fit right into that song.
While she did it for herself, the reaction was quick and sent a clear message: These musical parodies could be healing, motivational, and just plain fun for the D community.
So, she carried on. She also noticed immediately that the funnier ones hit home the most for those in the D community.
“I’m not just singing pretty songs. There’s always a joke in there,” she said. “People appreciate it when you can be self-deprecating and silly. We need these moments of catharsis, of connection. These things we do (living with T1D) are so foreign to others. If a fun song can connect us and remind us — through laughing — that we have community, it’s great!”
Some even call her the “Weird Al” of the diabetes world. She has parodies like “We Will Never be Normal” (based off Lorde’s Royals), as well as ones spoofing Lizzo and other current performers, taking on issues that only people with diabetes would get, like “Why are we always low at Target?”
There are a number of songs written about diabetes life that may be familiar to you:
- “A Little Bit Longer” by The Jonas Brothers hit the charts in 2008, just 1 year after Nick Jonas was diagnosed with T1D.
- “Unbroken” by Poison rocker Brett Michaels (the song was written for him), who was diagnosed at 6 years old, and his daughter has prediabetes.
- “Hallelujah” by leader singer of the LA rock band ‘Haim’ Este Haim, who was diagnosed with T1D at 14 years old.
- “The Stuff,” written and performed by Crystal Bowersox and Ben Ryan Stewart of Wirebird Production. Both have T1D. The video for the song is a compilation of clips sent to the pair from other people out there living with diabetes.
- “Guardian Angel” by D-Mom Leanne Lochhead, which was a national fundraiser for JDRF in 2018.
No matter the genre, the artists say they love creating music to help the community. They also find many songs help them as well, including many that were not written specifically about T1D.
For Elle Shaheen, a performer most of her life and recent Harvard graduate who is currently in New York launching her singing and acting career, music has always helped her through the hard diabetes times.
For her, the soothing comes with jazz and doo-wop music.
“My grandfather on my mom’s side was a performer, and he introduced me at a young age to it,” she told DiabetesMine.
Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday are the musicians she turns to when she needs a lift. The combination of that style and her family ties to it, she said, resonates when she needs that lift.
“I still turn to it to process what I have gone through and what I still go through,” she said.
While Shaheen is not a music writer as of yet, she has written, produced, and performed a play about T1D that was shown at the Kennedy Center.
Like music, she said, playwriting allowed her to both share her story, work through feelings, and invite others to come along for the ride.
Peterson said when he needs a lift, he turns to the music of Elton John, his lifelong musical idol, as well as the work of Billy Joel.
August, who recently signed with Red Light Management (who also represents Luke Bryant and Lionel Richie, whom she knows from her American Idol days), said she turns to “Another Love” by Tom O’Dell (“My go-to song when I’m feeling down”) as well as the music of Ed Sheerin and Freddy Mercury, “The love of my life.”
She finds music — both about diabetes and just plain music that speaks to her — as a salve in this D life.
“Having had T1D just about my entire life, it’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “I feel like I have so many battle wounds.”
Music, she said, both creating it and savoring it, helps.
“I write about young love, young life, and all that,” she said. “I want to be the ‘it girl’ but not just the ‘diabetes it girl.’ There is more to me than diabetes.”
Personally, those memories of singing songs to get my daughter and myself through tough times are vivid.
I remember one day I was feeling extra down, like a D-Mom failure. Since Peterson had not yet spun his tune to remind me that my efforts are noticed, I turned instead to an old college friend: The Grateful Dead.
I will get by … my car radio blasted as I went for a drive, so my daughter would not see my angst. “I will survive.”
I sang it loud. And then I did.
Because that’s the power of music.