“Mrs. Kelly, can you come back in?” the doctor’s assistant asked. “There’s an irregular reading in your blood work. You might have diabetes.”
I was 38 years old and although overweight, had no known health problems. Diabetes didn’t run in my family. I didn’t eat a lot of junk food, didn’t drink or smoke. But more blood work confirmed that I did have Type 2 diabetes.
The doctor gave me a prescription for metformin and a glucometer. “Test twice a day and don’t eat sugar,” he said, and sent me on my way.
Over the next 14 years, metformin, though it controlled my diabetes, gave me crippling IBS. I never left the house without a change of clothes in my car and always staked out the nearest restrooms wherever I went. I never sat in the middle of a row at a theater. I couldn’t take long road trips. I always carried antacids and anti-diarrheal medication in my purse and in the car. Attacks came without warning and with lightning-fast speed.
By 2015, the battle had nearly destroyed me. None of my doctors had been able to help me manage my health problems. They just wrote prescription refills and scoffed at my slow-but-steady weight loss efforts, and pushed me off instead to gastric bypass surgeons for a quick fix. Feeling like I had no other choice, I stopped taking metformin. My IBS stopped. My blood sugar numbers stayed within 10% of what they had been while I was taking medication. The change in my quality of life was so profound that I started questioning the doctors who’d been treating me.
In February 2016, I visited a new doctor. She was young and fit and I was sure she would judge my overweight, middle-aged body with disdain and disgust, and put me back on metformin. And send me to a gastric bypass surgeon.
To my amazement, she was kind, attentive, and caring. Her goal was to get the diabetes under control with medication and then deal with the extra weight. No gastric bypass.
I thought I heard angels sing.
I reluctantly agreed to try metformin again at a low dosage. If my numbers didn’t decrease, she would up the dosage regularly until they did or until the IBS came back.
By May, my numbers were barely any lower. I was referred to a weight loss specialist, who lectured me about my diet and said I needed to lose 85 pounds, as if that was news to me.
“Oh, Shelley,” she said, “Have you ever thought of going on a diet? Maybe you should have gastric bypass.”
I was so furious and disillusioned that I sank into a deep depression. It took me months to realize I was only harming myself so, in September, I went back to my doctor. She added insulin to my metformin protocol. I didn’t even balk. I was sure it was the next magic concoction.
But after taking insulin and metformin for two months, my follow-up checkup revealed a 25 pound weight gain. I’d been feeling uncomfortable, but hey, when you’re already fat, you always feel uncomfortable. “It’s a side effect of the insulin,” the doctor said, adding, “I’m not concerned with the weight gain. We just need to get your numbers down.”
But extra weight, I knew, was bad. It only made diabetes harder to control.
On December 5, 2016 a switch flipped in my head. I can’t tell you why or what the trigger was, but I started eating differently. No processed food. No sugar. Nothing white. Lean meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, avocados, nuts, a bit of cheese. Sparkling water. Iced tea. Coffee. A little mayonnaise or cream. No sodas. No diet sodas. No kidding. After a week, my blood sugar numbers dropped significantly and my doctor said I could stop taking insulin. After another 10 days, they dropped even more and I got the OK to quit metformin. A week later, my blood sugar was normal.
In the eleven months since, I’ve lost more weight and remain medication free. I’ve done it without surgery. It hasn’t been easy. And it’s not a diabetes cure. I’ll always have this disease, but from here on out, I’m controlling diabetes. It won’t control me anymore. I’ve learned to be an empowered patient. I’ve learned, the hard way, that when a prescribed treatment isn’t working, it’s okay to search for a different one.