A few months ago, I had dinner with a group of people that included a woman who had a tattoo running down her arm in delicate script. At some point in the meal, someone asked her what it said.
“It’s a line from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” she said, referring to the famous poem by T.S. Eliot. She explained that in the poem, the protagonist works his way through hypothetical dares, starting with the extreme (“Do I dare disturb the universe?”) to the mundane (“Do I dare to eat a peach?”). Prufrock was so terrified of living life, she explained, that even the act of picking up a piece of fruit seemed like an extreme act. To her, the poem was a reminder to live life fully, to not fear petty things.
I thought it was an inspiring interpretation, the idea of casting aside mundane worries that keep you from experiencing your life. But the diabetic part of me had to chuckle — because from a blood sugar management perspective, eating a peach (for me at least) actually is a daring act. That juicy, sweet, luscious peach — so succulent! so delicious! — could, from a blood sugar perspective, really screw me up. How sweet is the particular peach? How much does it weigh? Is it a white peach or a yellow peach? How many carbs per gram does a typical peach have in it, anyway? (And who brings a food scale to a summer picnic?) Frankly, most of the time I skip the peach entirely and head directly to a better known fruit, like my beloved strawberry.
The peach dilemma exemplifies what I see as one of the main emotional challenges of diabetes: my instinct is to always try new things, to say yes to life, whatever it might bring — but that’s not always compatible with diabetes. In a food context, for example, daring to eat the metaphorical peach would mean not just getting the same thing at a restaurant all the time; instead, I’d try new things, to avoid getting into a rut, and to see what new flavors I might enjoy. But with diabetes, of course, such forays into uncertainty can lead to hours of high blood sugar or a night spent chewing on glucose tablets to keep myself safe. Whatever momentary pleasure I might gain from a new taste must be paid for afterwards.
And so I feel pressure to try to stick to a routine, a pressure made worse by the fact that I’m horrible at routines — I really like trying new things. (Not trying new things makes me feel guilty, like I’m missing out.) To counter this, I try to keep in mind a comment the author of The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, once made to me in an interview. He told me that he deliberately orders the same things in restaurants all the time — not because he’s diabetic, but because it makes him feel calmer not to have to constantly make decisions. Routine for him wasn’t lazy or unadventurous; it was calming and enjoyable. I’m not particularly good at following that advice, especially when it comes to the idea of eating the same thing for every meal, but I like to keep it in mind to at least assuage some of the guilt I feel about not trying new things.
This tension — between wanting new experiences and worrying about the consequences — extends beyond food, of course. Different types of exercise have their own consequences (I did three rounds of the seven-minute workout this morning and watched my blood sugar spike from 100 mg/dl to 180 mg/dl in 21 minutes, whereas yesterday in yoga it fell 100 points in roughly the same amount of time). Traveling presents innumerable challenges. My tendency is to go with the new experience rather than sticking to the routines that my diabetes would prefer. I’m certain that is part of the reason I can find my blood sugar so hard to predict, but I can’t help it: given a choice between life experiences and perfect blood glucose, I tend to prefer the former.
Problem is, I also want the latter — it’s not as if I can ignore my blood sugars as petty anxiety; they really do matter. And so I plod on, trying to exercise and eat as consistently as I can, but continually vexed by my desire for variety. I don’t have any resolution to this dilemma. But it occurs to me, as I type, that I packed a peach in my lunch bag this morning — a total coincidence, since I’ve been thinking about the poem for a while, but a very appropriate one. I’ll eat it this afternoon, along with my salad, and try my best to win the dare.