Recently I dreamed someone who knew a thing or two about good eating led me to an Italian deli/lunch counter in some cosmopolitan city. The display case featured many dishes. Double-decker focaccia sandwiches caught my eye, but I wistfully passed them up because I knew they were too carby for someone with type 2 diabetes. I was going to order a chicken tomato dish (which seemed diabetic-safe), if less exciting. Then I spied the cook sautéing beet greens, and that made me very happy in my dream. I knew I could enjoy a toothsome serving of greens, along with the chicken.
The first year after my type 2 diabetes diagnosis (at age 48) I dreamed regularly about eating. My dreams often featured siren-song cookies, cake, or toast. In dreams I would indulge in these treats, though I seldom did so in my waking hours as I struggled to adjust to control diabetes. Sometimes I would awake concerned and fearful. Had I really eaten that? One night I dreamed that I faced a buffet table at a banquet. I struggled to survey the table to select just two carb exchanges. Instead I filled my plate and felt guilty and like a failure. I woke up exhausted, glad only that the dream had ended.
Those dreams seemed to heighten my anxiety and bitterness about living with diabetes. I began the next day reminded, again, of foods that I simply could not eat regularly for the rest of my life. If it wasn’t bad enough to forego the flakey scone or fruity muffin at the café, these dreams seemed another form of torture because even my nights were unrestful. I also speculated, however, that these eating dreams provided a good outlet for my carb-craving. In dreams I could take pleasure in these mouthfuls of white flour and sugar, the foods I ate only rarely in the desperate struggle to lower my A1C.
Meanwhile, each day I wondered if I would ever get used to the small portions of carbs recommended for diabetics My dietitian and “Living with Diabetes” classes urged me to measure out just one-third of a cup of rice (not white rice) or other grains. I was angry to face a life of open-faced sandwiches and miniscule portions of whole-grain pasta. What would each autumn be like if I couldn’t bite into a new apple, eating the whole thing with juicy abandon? How festive would it be to have just one matzah ball at the Passover seder? On my first birthday after diagnosis, I went to my favorite cupcake bakery for the “free on your birthday” treat. I conscientiously cut it in half, giving my son the rest, before enjoying my special treat. Later that night, I passed up the dessert offered with my birthday meal. Despite my best behavior, my blood sugar hit 200 that day. This alarmed me. Would I need to eat just one-third of the cupcake the following year? Getting through that first year meant day after day, event after event of restraint, sadness, and coping.
The good news is that the cake-filled dreams tapered off after a year. And awake, I have mostly accustomed myself to modest portions of fruits and whole grains. At home, I build each meal around protein and green vegetables. Following the lead of diabetes writer Gretchen Becker, I have learned to enjoy a few apple slices rather than the half apple. (I don’t even think about consuming the whole apple now.) My garden this year features exuberant plantings of collards, kale, and Swiss chard; these leafy greens are the stars of many meals. While I have the (mis)fortune of living near the renowned Zingerman’s Deli, with its massive array of world-class breads and pastries, I have learned how good their salads and cheeses are. When my birthday rolled around (and it was my fiftieth), I felt no compulsion to swing by the cupcake place. At a fabulous Mediterranean restaurant that night, I savored a main course of swordfish, with a side of rapini. Confronted with dessert, I selected a lemony number, asked for three spoons, and let my son and boyfriend do most of the damage. I did enjoy a few spoonfuls, but the fish and the company were the real treat. Looking back over the past two years since my diagnosis, I have figured out how to feel sated and well with healthier food choices.
I view my recent dream with its beet green finale as funny. I have reached the point that I perceive a plate of greens as a special treat. I am amused too that, compared to the earlier dreams, this time I approached the deli as a compliant diabetic, intent on making the best choices. I’m no Dr. Freud, but I feel that the dream speaks to my ongoing adjustment as a person learning to make peace with diabetes. Or, maybe, beet greens are just beet greens.
Deborah Kanter teaches Latin American History at Albion College in Michigan. At age 48, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She credits her successful diabetes management to a love for many types of fitness and many types of vegetables. Deborah counts public health as among her hobbies. She has volunteered in local public health agencies that serve Latino/a immigrants and she would like to act as a diabetes peer educator with Spanish-speakers.