I’ve been feeling burnt out about work, and so I recently forced myself to spend a weekend untethered from my phone, not checking email, and not responding to calls. The two days felt longer than normal, I didn’t miss anything important, and I emerged on Monday morning refreshed – so much so that I’m thinking of making it part of my regular routine.
The experience made me wish that it were possible to do something similar with diabetes – to just take a break. But, as I complained to my husband, that’s just not possible; as we all know, there’s simply no way (without the risk of high or low blood sugar) to just take a weekend “off.” You can’t hire a babysitter for your diabetes and have a romantic dinner out. You can’t take a vacation to a tropical island and leave diabetes at home (and if you’re anything like me, diabetes and tropical drinks are a recipe for disaster to begin with).
So what can you do?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this, especially since I am way too much of a control freak to come anywhere close to ignoring my blood sugar or rebelling against diabetes by eating a box of donuts. And, I came up with what for me might be a partial solution. It occurred to me that perhaps instead of trying to give myself space by ignoring diabetes – which would be self-destructive – I might be able to tackle my diabetes burnout from a side angle: perhaps if I could clear out some of the junk in other areas of my life, I’d have the mental space to take care of my diabetes without feeling quite so overwhelmed. Following this logic, I’m trying to find ways to be nicer to myself – to sleep late when I need to, to work in the garden instead of answering emails – in hopes that in so doing, I’ll clear out some emotional space for myself.
It’s a work in progress, but I’m liking the approach. In case it’s of use, here are some ideas I’ve come up with so far.
Healthy, Non-Self-Destructive Techniques to Cope with Diabetes Burnout (An Incomplete List):
1. Allow yourself to feel burned out. I remember a moment soon after I moved to California for graduate school where I felt so lonely and overwhelmed that I sat down on a curb and cried. (This was in Berkeley, where emoting in public is not just accepted, but often condoned.) At first, I tried to stop myself, but then I realized something: I had just moved 3,000 miles across the country, away from my friends, my parents, my grandmother, and my community. I felt ungrounded, disoriented and alone. It made sense for me to want to cry.
I try to remember that when I start feeling exhausted about diabetes: I (and probably you if you’re reading this) have a lifelong, chronic, incurable disease that requires constant daily effort to manage. It makes sense to feel burnt out! If you try to fight that feeling – if you feel bad about feeling bad — you will only make yourself feel worse. There are times when it’s useful to put a positive spin on diabetes (for example, thinking things like, “Diabetes makes me eat healthier!” or my favorite, “At least I don’t have cancer!”). But there are also times when it’s useful to acknowledge the fact that you have a shitty and exhausting disease. In fact, I think it’s essential to do so from time to time – because when you tell yourself things that all amount to “it’s not such a big deal,” you’re not respecting the part of yourself that works really hard, every day, to take care of your diabetes. It’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel angry. It’s okay to cry. While it sounds counterintuitive, chances are that if you allow yourself to feel bad about diabetes once in a while, you’ll emerge feeling better.
2. Nurture yourself. This sounds silly and trite, but I’m serious. If you’re anything like me, you spend your day running around (or, too often, sitting around) trying to keep up with all the responsibilities of your life. My days tend to blur into endless cycles of working, emailing, exercising and sleeping – and while I always seem to be able to make time for an extra phone call or responsibility, I am extremely bad at making time for myself. I’ve been trying to change that and, while it might not seem directly related to diabetes, I think that consciously nurturing myself gives me more strength to cope. For example, I’ve started going to an acupuncturist – not because I believe in the idea of qi (the life force that supposedly is running through your body), but because having needles stuck into my body forces me to be still (in a lovely, dark room) for at least 30 minutes till the acupuncturist takes them out. (Let’s put aside for a moment what the fact that I require puncture wounds in order to be still has to say about my personality.) Needles not your thing? Then find something that is – maybe it’s coffee with a friend, or a special meal, or even just an hour (or ten minutes!) totally to yourself. Whatever it is, make sure you put it on your calendar, and give it the same weight as you would a doctor’s appointment, or a meeting with your boss.
3. Slow down other parts of your life. Depending on your situation, this may take different forms – but the general idea is to give yourself more breathing space in your non-diabetes life and, in so doing, a better ability to cope. In addition to trying not to check my email over the weekend, I’m trying to get back into playing the piano and reading books, both of which require me to entirely focus on what I’m doing, rather than be sucked into the instant gratification (and ultimately ungratifying) world of the internet. I’ve also been trying to meditate for 10 to 15 minutes each morning instead of reaching instinctively for my iPhone. There are plenty of other little ways to do this – for example, the next time you’re waiting for someone or something, try just paying attention to your surroundings rather than checking your email. Stare blankly out of windows once in a while. Not every moment needs to be filled – in fact, having some empty space can lead to calm. And if you feel more calm in other areas of your life, chances are diabetes won’t seem quite so overwhelming.
4. I’ve also found mindfulness meditation to be a very useful coping tool for diabetes. (I’ve written more about it here and here.) As you’ve probably already gathered, I find great value in the whole “sitting still and concentrating on the moment” thing. But the other thing I like about mindfulness is its emphasis on non-judgment. Because as we all know, diabetes is a disease of constant judgment. Imagine what it would be like if you could see a crappy number on your glucometer screen and, instead of thinking of it as crappy, could just think of it as . . . a number. Maybe it’s not the number you want it to be, but it’s just a number, and there’s no way you can prevent it from occurring, because it has already occurred. So why beat yourself up about it? Instead, focus on what you can do to influence the next number. Diabetes – and life – is constantly changing; nothing stays still. Beating yourself up over the past – and worrying about the future — is useless. It’s the moment that counts.
5. Sometimes the tools that I use to manage my diabetes can themselves become overwhelming – and that sometimes it’s useful to take a break. I’m not suggesting that you throw your blood glucose meter in a closet and exist on donuts for a week. But I do know people who find it useful once in a while to take a “pump vacation” and go back to shots for a few days, just to feel what it’s like to be untethered. (They then usually return to the pump once they have remembered how annoying multiple daily injections can be!) I occasionally will not immediately replace my continuous glucose monitor sensor when it fails – or I put it on vibrate during the day so that I’m not constantly hearing its beeps. (Anyone else have a specific stress reaction to particular beeps? When a truck backs up, I get an adrenaline rush.)
6. Read Diabetes Burnout, by William Polonsky. Seriously. You are not weird or weak for feeling burned out, and Polonsky has some great stories and tips. You can pre-order Ginger Vieira’s new book, Dealing with Diabetes Burnout.
7. Connect with other people who have diabetes. It’s an isolating disease, and isolation is depressing. But chances are that if you’re reading this, you have internet access – which also means you have access to thousands of other people struggling with similar things. Check out tudiabetes.org (or estudiabetes.org) – both of which are packed with forums and groups of people struggling through the same issues you are — or the Type 1 social network MyGlu.org. Or search Twitter for #bgnow (blood glucose now), or #doc (diabetes online community) or #dsma (which is short for diabetes social media advocacy). Right now happens to be diabetes blog week, which is a great way to acquaint yourself with some of the wonderful blogs and websites written by other people with diabetes. There are too many to even begin to do justice to here, but organizer Karen Graffeo (of BitterSweetDiabetes.com) has compiled a fantastic list that will give you a start:
I could go on, but I need to indulge in one of my personal favorite burnout coping techniques: sleep. So instead, I’ll put the question out to you: what suggestions do you have for coping with diabetes burnout? I’d like to try some new ones!