In the spring I prepared my plot in a community garden. I was eager to plant hot peppers, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and at my son’s request, even jack’o lantern pumpkins. I wanted to try baby watermelons, too. But gardening proved slow this year in Michigan. It rained so much in late spring that I couldn’t plant anything until mid-June.
Most of the plants have been growing at a leisurely pace, and yesterday evening I harvested my first vegetable: arugula. The leaves were unblemished, tender, and milder than what I buy at my local famers’ market. The precious green handful of arugula practically melted in my dish of warm (low-carb) pasta, fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. I felt the great joy that comes with eating summer’s fresh food, more so because I’d planted the seeds and tended the plants. Then I realized that a year ago I had never eaten arugula at home and didn’t even know what to do with it.
Last July at age 48, I learned I was a type 2 diabetic. I had family members with diabetes (whose complications served as an ominous warning), but I always figured that my whole grain eating habits and regular outings to the gym and hiking trails would allow me to escape their fate. I was wrong. In the months before my annual ob-gyn exam I had been peeing more frequently than usual and drinking a lot. But it was hot and… water simply tasted good. Knowing these were diabetes symptoms, however, prompted me to request a fasting glucose test; my nurse-practitioner thought that was silly. I reminded her of my family history and essentially demanded the blood test.
A call from the doctor’s office came a few days later. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. My blood sugar was 404 and my HbA1c was 14.2%. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked. My friends and family thought there must be a mistake.
A wave of disbelief and anger followed my diagnosis. I had done all the things you were advised to do to avoid diabetes, yet I had it . And despite the headlines you often see – my new health care team told me, diabetes was not reversible. I now had an illness and I was going to have to take care of it. As I learned more about ways I would need to change my eating habits, I felt more anger and sadness, too. One third of a cup of brown rice was a serving? I envisioned perpetual hunger. No more ice cream on summer nights? No cider at the orchard in the fall? How would I enjoy Rosh Hashanah without chunks of challah and honey?
In August I started keeping a food log and looked up carb values. I was disturbed to find that even healthy foods like fruits and many vegetables have significant amounts of carbohydrate. The lovely acorn squash growing in my garden were not free, and would need to be portioned and recorded. But many greens such as lettuce, spinach, and arugula, I learned, were free with negligible carbs. So, facing the August bounty at the farmers’ market I looked at the bulging bags of arugula with a new eye. I could eat a lot of this stuff, I reasoned, and started bringing it home. After a quick recipe search, arugula turned into ample salads that seemed like a novel, gourmet treat. Arugula, I told myself, was food that fancy people ate in toney restaurants. By fall I sheepishly decided to purchase radicchio. I felt embarrassed—this was something that trendy foodies ate—not people like me. Yet a friend convincingly reasoned that with so many verboten foods, why not add to what I could eat?
As the seasons of my first diabetic year passed, I have balanced my mourning for “forbidden foods” with an appreciation and passion for the unfamiliar. Acaí, red quinoa, and dark chocolate from Tanzania have all found a way into my pantry. Being open to new things has proved essential to keeping a healthy outlook. Caring for myself as a diabetic requires getting enough sleep, limiting stress, exercising (almost) every day, and eating sensible amounts of healthy foods. My doctors were pleased to see my A1c drop to 6.5% in five months, but I am equally proud that the entire year passed without a single cold or infection. I have to admit that diabetes has forced me to live better. For me, being open to new things and altering parts of how I define myself in the world has been essential to living and thriving*with diabetes.
And every two weeks this summer, I will plant my arugula seeds and harvest their goodness all season long. Maybe I’ll even plant some radicchio next year.
*Thank you Riva Greenberg