Real Life with Diabetes: When Every Number Feels Like a Grade
There’s just no way around it: every time we check our blood sugar an inevitable judgment comes with that number. The judgment is telling us we’ve either done a great job in that tiny little moment of the day or we’ve failed miserably.
Too often, that small moment of feeling like a failure becomes an all encompassing feeling in which we convince ourselves that we’re always failing, that all the numbers are lousy, that we’re just awful at this daily game called Diabetes Management.
And the worst part is that we’re actually the ones delivering most of the judgment. Sure, our healthcare team and our loved ones are certainly a source of expectations and pressure to achieve tighter blood sugar levels and lower A1C results, but the actual voice on a daily basis that delivers the judgment is our own.
The best part about that, though, is that we can change what that voice is saying. And changing what the voice is saying can have a huge—I mean huge—impact on not only how you feel after each time you check your blood sugar but also on your actions and your behaviors that lead to the results of the next time you check your blood sugar.
For instance, here’s George: George was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 8 years old. Today, he’s 25, he’s using one of the best insulin pumps on the market, he wears the best continuous glucose monitor (CGM) money can buy, he has a gym membership and a personal trainer, and plenty of money left over to buy healthy food. Technically, George has everything a person could have to help them manage healthy blood sugar levels on a daily basis. (That being said, of course, we all have highs and lows. Nobody is perfect!)
But George’s last A1C result came back at 8.9 percent. The highest it’s been in nearly 10 years. The sight of the A1C result makes George’s heart sink. All the diabetes management energy he had mustered for that day just drained right out of him when he saw that number.
“I hate diabetes!” he thought to himself—a thought most of us have had on many occasions. (Personally, I thought this to myself yesterday!)
But the thoughts that went through George’s mind after this were the ones that caused the most trouble.
“I suck at this. Why do I even bother? I’m awful at this. I’m always too high. I hate trying to eat healthy. I’m never gonna learn how to eat fewer carbs. The gym is pointless ‘cause I just end up with low blood sugars and then I have to eat, and then I end up high, and I just ate all the calories I just burned. I’m never gonna lose the weight that would help me be more sensitive to insulin. I hate this. I’m awful at being healthy. I just don’t even want to care anymore!”
And with that, George told himself he was giving up, and he wasn’t going to try to improve his A1C or his habits because there was no point.
As you can expect, within a year, George had gained another 15 pounds. He wasn’t exercising anymore, and he stopped showing up for his training sessions. Less time at the gym led to less motivation to eat healthy foods, and needless to say, his A1C that year was over 10 percent. He felt truly defeated.
Now, let me introduce you to Charlie: Charlie was also diagnosed at age 9 with type 1 diabetes. Today, at age 25, Charlie wears one of the best insulin pumps on the market, the best CGM money can buy, and a couple of months ago, he started going to the gym every day after work. He’s also been trying to eat healthier foods at lunch and not eat junk food late at night.
Charlie’s last A1C came back at 8.5 percent. That’s an increase since his last check-up at which he was at 7.5 percent. And his weight is exactly the same as it was when he started going to the gym.
“My A1C went up?” Charlie thought to himself, immediately frustrated considering all the effort he’s put into improving his health lately. “Ugh! I hate diabetes.”
Then he took a deep breath. And then another. And…one more deep breath after that.
“Okay. Ugh…so if my A1C is up that means…my blood sugar is running higher on average than it was before,” Charlie thinks to himself. “And that means…I’m not getting enough insulin even though I’m trying to eat less junk food, and I’m exercising more!”
“….but I’ve been really afraid of low blood sugars during my workouts so I’ve been eating carbs beforehand. But then, I guess I have been high a lot after my workouts…so maybe my workout doesn’t actually drop my blood sugar like I’m afraid it will? Okay, next time I won’t do the extra carbs, and I’ll see what happens…and I’ll check my blood sugar halfway through my workout in case I am low!”
“Ugh…this is so annoying!” Charlie groans. “But I’ve gotta keep experimenting and adjusting because I want to make exercise and eating healthier a real part of my life. And I really want my A1C lower. I can do this. Be patient.”
The Difference Between Taking It Personally vs. Taking It As Just A Number
The difference between George and Charlie’s reaction to their A1C (and what it says about their blood sugar levels overall), is that George took that that number as a judgment of who he is as a person. Charlie took his A1C as merely information that what he’s currently doing isn’t helping him reach his goals.
Your blood sugar is just a number. Your A1C is just a number. It has nothing to do with your self-worth, your intelligence, your abilities, or whether you are a “good” or a “bad” diabetic. It’s just a number.
But your A1C and your blood sugars can help reveal important pieces of information, like:
- Maybe you’re not getting enough insulin
- Maybe you’re getting too much insulin in the morning and not enough at night
- Maybe you’re having a really hard time figuring out what to eat and it would be worth working with a nutritionist, dietitian or health coach
- Maybe you’re really frustrated with your infusion site and it’s time to try a different type
- Maybe you need a break from your CGM because that constant influx of data is feeling overwhelming right now and sabotaging your success
- Maybe you’re facing a tremendous challenge in another part of your life and you don’t have as much energy for diabetes as you usually do
- Maybe your current exercise routine isn’t impacting your blood sugar the way you expected and it’s time to adjust how you prepare your blood sugar for exercise
- Maybe you just need help—time for an appointment with your CDE!
Managing your blood sugar all day long, 24 hours a day is not an easy task and it never will be. When things aren’t going the way you’d like and you’re having a hard time, remember that the number isn’t a statement about you. It’s just a number. It’s the evidence that living with diabetes is challenging every single day. Some days you’ll love those numbers and feel motivated. Other days you might feel defeated and frustrated—but those numbers are still just numbers.
About Ginger Vieira
Ginger Vieira has lived with Type 1 diabetes and Celiac disease since 1999, and fibromyalgia since 2014. She is the author of Dealing with Diabetes Burnout & Emotional Eating with Diabetes & Your Diabetes Science Experiment & Pregnancy with Type 1 Diabetes: Your Month-to-Month Guide to Blood Sugar Management. Ginger is also the Editorial Director at DiabetesDaily, with a B.S. in Professional Writing and background in cognitive coaching, video blogging, record-setting competitive powerlifting, personal training, Ashtanga yoga, and motivational speaking.