Go Ahead, Call Me Diabetic

I've been living with type 1 diabetes for decades and the term diabetic doesn't offend me. But there's another word I do find really offensive.

Ginger Vieira with Diabetic SignThe word "diabetic" has as much or as little meaning as we give it. Personally, I think it's just an easier way to describe a health condition. (Photo Courtesy Ginger Vieira)

I’m brunette. I’m short. I’m a smart-alec. I’m a diabetic. I’m a nail-biter. I’m horrible at math. I drive too fast. Yada. Yada. Yada.

A friend recently introduced me like this: "This is Ginger——my diabetic friend I was telling you about!"

My friend would tell you she describes me that way when she’s speaking with someone who is struggling with their health. She was pointing to me (and my diabetic-ness) as a source of inspiration and support for other people in her life facing any kind of challenge.

And no one has ever looked at her (or me) and said (or thought), "Ginger is a diseased person. Nothing more."

Personally, I don’t mind one bit being referred to as a "diabetic." The word has as much or as little meaning as I give it. And nothing more. Personally, I think it’s just an easier way to describe a health condition.

“A diabetic” versus a “person with diabetes” is the difference between saying, “Let’s go” and “Let us go.” It’s just another conversational short-cut.

While I avoid using it in nearly all of my work as a writer out of consideration for those who don’t appreciate the term diabetic, I think we’ve made a mountain out of a molehill. (And, in case you missed it, back in 2016 the American Diabetes Association officially condemned the term in their revisions for the Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes).

I figure if I want people to see that I am far more than my disease, then I’ll demonstrate that through how I live my life—diabetes doesn’t stop me from doing anything. If I want people to see that I’ll show them by taking care of myself and living my life just as fully as they live theirs.

Don’t Buy into How Others Describe You

The more we get into a fuss over the word “diabetic,” the more we buy into the way other people describe us. And by “us,” I do not mean people with diabetes.

By “us,” I mean the way someone might say to me, “You’re short.”

Well, yes, I am 5’1. I could internalize that to mean I am “not sexy” because supermodels are tall, are considered sexy, and therefore, as a short person, I must not be sexy.

If someone said to my friend, “You’re old,” because she has bright white hair and is 60 years old, she could hear that as criticism. Instead, she knows that she is living a very full life as a 60-year-old woman who is likely more active, energetic, enthusiastic and involved in the world than some people half her age.

If someone said, “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great!” you could internalize that as, “You look better now than you did before when you were heavier.” Or you could take it as a compliment for the hard work, discipline, and positive lifestyle changes you’ve made that led to your improved health and appearance!

If you choose to let everyone’s view of you matter, you’re headed for a frustrating and exhaustive experience. And that goes for internalizing the word "diabetic" to mean "you are a diseased, sick person and nothing more."

Nobody said that. They just described one tiny aspect of your life with one concise word: "diabetic."

They know you’re more than that. You know you’re more than that. Why are we giving this word so much more power over us than it deserves?

Consider the Use of the T1D Acronym 

Do you ever use the acronym T1D in conversation and on social media when you’re talking about diabetes? It stands for either “type 1 diabetes” or “type 1 diabetic.”

Consider these two sentences:

 "He has T1D" and "He’s a T1D". Both use T1D as an acronym. In the first example it's an acronym for type 1 diabetes. In the second example it's an acronym for “type 1 diabetic.”

As people with diabetes, we use the phrasing “he/she’s a T1D” in conversation all the time.

Does it matter? Hey, not to me. But if we’re going to get upset about the use of the word “diabetic,” we’ll need to take a closer look at when we’re choosing an acronym to stand for the same thing because saying “person with diabetes” is a bit of a mouthful.

The reality—I feel—is that the term “diabetic” was created simply to shorten the descriptive phrase “person with diabetes.” Not much different than saying, “He’s short” versus “He is a person with lesser stature.”

It’s just too many darn words. The word “diabetic” was born simply out of the need for concise simplicity, not to make a person with diabetes feel like they are nothing but their disease.

The Diabetes Term I DO Find Offensive 

During a recent conversation with an endocrinologist, I began our conversation by informing her that I was “a type 1 diabetic” so she knew I was very familiar with the terminology and medications we would be discussing for the article I was writing.

She quickly reprimaned me.  "Don't call yourself diabetic—it’s demeaning," she said and listened when I explained that the term doesn’t bother me, but that I avoid using it in my writing.

A few minutes later, she used the term "non-compliant" to describe one of her patients.

Now there’s a word I find offensive.

While the word “diabetic” just describes the fact that I indeed have diabetes, the frequently-used term “non-compliant” to describe a patient’s diabetes management really stings. It callously classifies the effort given in managing a 24/7 condition that never goes on vacation.

Worse, it disrespectfully lacks the awareness that managing diabetes is not as simple as following a few rules to acheive perfect blood sugars. 

Any form of diabetes requires constant diligence, intense medication micromanagement, unrealistic nutrition adherence, and is the result of a true issue within the body—autoimmune or metabolic related.

To imply that a patient is non-compliant also implies that they have purposefully failed.That they have intentionally avoided taking care of themselves as if “taking care” is possible in a few easy steps. Anyone who lives with diabetes knows that couldn't be further from the truth!

Instead, it’s remarkably complicated, relentless, stressful, and easily exacerbated beyond the patient’s control by variables like hormones, other health conditions, everyday stresses of life, and much, much more!

As patients with diabetes (or...diabetics), we deserve far more than a label of “non-compliant” when that patient might actually be struggling to keep up with the demands of type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

As a diabetic, I’m waiting for the healthcare world to realize that simply showing up every day to face the challenges of living with diabetes means we are doing the very best we personally can at any given moment. Sometimes, that means we're struggling.

Patients who are struggling need support, understanding, and more support. Not a label defining them as intentionally neglectful.

What You Can Do

Personally, I’d wear a shirt that says, “I’m diabetic,” because that is one hell of a challenge that I wake up and face every single day of my life. I would wear that shirt with pride.

If I wear my diabetes with pride, others will see it as something impressive that I live with each day.

If I wear it with shame or embarrassment, caught up in being labeled by my disease, others will see it as something worthy of shame or embarrassment.

It’s not. If you have diabetes and you woke up today to face it all over again, you are awesome. You have a degree of resilience others may not have ever had to reach for in their own lives.

Every single day you are tasked with keeping yourself alive, and you did it! Congratulations! Own that, my friends! You are diabetic, and damn, that’s impressive, because here you are, ready for another day of living with diabetes.

Updated on: August 2, 2019
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