It was like it happened yesterday. I had been hired for the University of Minnesota’s weekly speaker’s series this past fall. I had traveled the four hours and was looking forward to speaking to community members about what life is like living with type 1 diabetes. Halfway through my speech I asked the audience if they had any questions. A gentleman in the front row shot his arm up, and after I nodded in his direction, he asked, “What lifestyle choices have you made to become overweight?” I was stunned.
Legs frozen. I looked out to the 200 eyeballs staring back at me intently for a response. I looked to this man, who saw no issue with asking this. It was like he had just asked me what my favorite color was. I guess because of my pause in answering, he furthered his point by referring to my earlier photos that I had shown in my PowerPoint, of a slender, athletic, younger self, and then reiterating his question of what had I done, or not done, to get to my present higher weight.
In my years of diabetes advocacy I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked a question, or told something by someone about me living with diabetes that has made my eyes pop out (it’s probably why I have such large pupils) and made my jaw drop. I tend to think that even though nearly 10 percent of our population lives with diabetes, there is still much not known about it to the general population. They have ideas of what it is or isn't, but often times their knowledge of it is what they’ve seen on the news or on the late-night comedian’s shows (which seems to focus on the obesity part of type 2 diabetes). Even though I always make a point to talk about the different types of diabetes and the different contributing factors of type 2 diabetes, I’ve learned some people either listen to their own reality, or just tune out what you have to say (which seemed to be the case for this gentlemen).
My Dad had traveled with me to Rochester for this speech and was in the audience when this gentleman asked me this question (he was the photographer). After the event we went out to dinner and he asked me why I put up with this? He said I know how important this work is to you, but to continually get asked these questions or have ignorant comments thrown at you publically, do you really need to put yourself out there so much? He knew I had lost money by doing this speech because of the time I had to take off of my day job to do it. Let’s be honest…. I don’t think any female wants to be called fat in front of a large audience and then pushed about what she did to cause her overweight status. But for me, the diabetes advocacy work that I feel incredibly privileged to do, is what has given my life purpose all of these years. I do it because I believe this was God’s plan and intention for me. Even though it hurts when people make these comments, I'm able to ride it out, knowing why I'm doing this work, and that has nothing to do with my appearance.
Ever since getting diagnosed with this illness I had to make an important choice; what kind of life did I want to live? When we’re all faced with adversity in our lives, how do we choose to respond with grace and dignity? Imagine that you’re standing in the front of a room of 100 people, your speech is being recorded to go online, and you’re asked an incredibly personal question about something that you’ve struggled with since you were a teenager (I suffered from bulimia since the age of twelve before entering treatment in 2010 for professional help). Though I understand that obesity is a large contributor to type 2 diabetes, type 1 has nothing to do with weight. Little Willy (my brother with T1) and I could’ve been fed spinach our whole lives and our T cells still would’ve eaten up the beta cells (your insulin producing cells), forcing us with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.
A high school girl named Cara sat just a couple rows behind this guy who was questioning me. I had first met Cara the month after I had been crowned Miss Brainerd in 2004. Her Grandmother was a former titleholder and had been in the audience the night I had won. My platform was diabetes awareness and I spoke of it during the final question. Cara’s mother had reached out to me shortly after and asked if I would meet with them when they traveled north that summer to visit their Grandma. I met them for lunch a couple weeks later, Cara was five years old at the time. Her mother explained to me that when Cara was diagnosed as a baby with type 1 diabetes, she wanted her to get the opportunity to meet as many other people who were living their lives big, despite a diabetes diagnosis. She was putting together a scrapbook of the photos of these meetings, after Cara got to meet them for a remembrance to her always. After lunch I thanked them for meeting, Cara and I took a picture for her scrapbook, and then they were off. I have always kept the photo of Cara and I from that lunch as a remembrance to me that the work I do matters. That even if a diabetes company rejects your idea, or you get asked an embarrassing or rude question publicly, or you don't win Miss Minnesota, that by striving to live out your purpose and truth, meant something to someone, somewhere.
Eleven years after meeting her, she had seen on Facebook that I would be speaking in Rochester and decided to come. I stood in front of this audience being asked this ignorant question that made me feel feel completely uncomfortable. I looked back to see Cara, now a young woman. Her big brown eyes looked at me with compassion and encouragement.
My natural reaction to him would be to think of a clever retort. But instead, this is how I responded…
“Yes, I’m a little heavier then I would like to be. I think most people think it would be nice to drop some weight, and I include myself in that. I don’t think you have any idea how difficult it is to live with a chronic, incurable illness where when you wake up each morning with a smile on your face, that’s your accomplishment. Most people don’t see the low and high blood sugar reactions that happen at night, or when we’re alone struggling. Diabetes is exhausting. When I was thinner and more athletic as you point out, I also didn’t have to hold down a full-time job to pay my bills and my health insurance. Living with diabetes is a constant walk on the tight rope, where you’re juggling about 50 variables up in the air, hoping just to stay standing. You may never understand the complex struggle of someone living with diabetes, and I hope to God you will never have to experience it firsthand.”
To this man who didn't seem to understand the weight of his comments (no pun intended), my credibility as a speaker and diabetes advocate is not rolled up in my waist circumference. Nor does it have any relevance in if I’m a role model to others.
To Cara: live a life worthy of your calling. Others may think you’re different and try to hold you back, but question their intent, and push forward. My late Grandfather taught me to live a big life without tripping over the things of the past. Some people will never care to hear what you have to say, but don’t allow that to silence your voice.
Just last week, I had a well-known business owner attend a City Council meeting and compare my work as a city councilmember and discussion of a potential road project, to me being a diabetic and having my leg’s amputated 20 years too soon. Know that some people will say whatever they want, lacking a sensitivity chip. When you have the energy, take the time to educate those around you, but let the other stuff roll off your teflon skin. At the end of the day, hold strong and steadfast to who you are, and who’s you are. Those are things you will never regret. I didn't go on to be Miss America in 2005, or accomplish other goals that I had set for myself....but I've gotten the opportunity to meet incredible people like yourself.
Thank you Cara for showing up that night in October to remind me of why I do what I do.