Life as the Punchline: Should We Joke About Diabetes?

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I like a good joke. I can even take a good joke about myself. And I know that I’ve laughed at inappropriate jokes. I know most of us have. But we need to talk about what’s at the root of some types of our humor.

Even comedians have started to admit that there are realms of humor that should be handled differently. Not off limits, per se, but with the subject of the punchline in mind. Patton Oswalt wrote about his complete 180° in understanding why he was wrong about rape jokes. Not that rape had some pristine status of “off limits” in terms of topics that absolutely could not be joked about, but this quote of his stuck with me:

In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.

Today, for your consideration, Internet, I bring you: The Diabetes Joke.

Many of us have seen this meme. Something along the lines of a math word problem involving candy bars or cupcakes or some other decadent dessert. The question states that Bob/John eats a certain number of a certain number, so what does he have now?

Diabetes. Bob has diabetes.

It’s hilarious because… Well, because we as a culture are okay with fat shaming, for one. And only fat people get diabetes. They bring it on themselves so they deserve to suffer the butt of the joke. HA. If they’d just shown a little willpower and resisted that kind of food over the course of their lives, they wouldn’t have diabetes. It’s okay to laugh at their lack of willpower! Laugh with me!

Whether the joke is about someone losing a foot, eating so much / drinking a soda so large that it’s diabetes-on-a-plate / diabetes-in-a-cup, or feeling stuffed after a meal and giving yourself diabetes, we get it. You’re equating indulgence with an extreme consequence. And it’s a little absurd, so it gets a chuckle.

And whom does that hurt? Can’t we just take a joke?

Just like a rape joke, a joke about an illness – any illness – places someone struggling with a life-altering, soul-crushing, debilitating experience as the punchline of a joke. I have struggled with diabetes every day for the last twenty-three years. I’ve been comatose. My parents nearly lost me at diagnosis. I’ve had hypoglycemia and not known where I was. I’ve been afraid I wouldn’t wake up to be there the next morning for my two children. And I’ve campaigned for children in the developing world for whom a diagnosis of diabetes is a death sentence.

So diabetes, in general, is not incredibly funny to me.

That being said, there are still plenty of ways I can laugh about diabetes and the situations we struggle with. I follow the work of several talented diabetic comedians. I enjoy the comics my DOC friends publish in the Sunday Funnies. I share hilarious videos. Do you know where I have to draw a line though?

The line where it’s funny because we deserve this struggle.

Now, this is where you’ll argue, likely, that it’s different because of course the OP is talking about type “TWO” diabetes. Not the kind I have.

Stop gaslighting me. Stop telling me that it’s just a joke and I’m overreacting. You didn’t mean my illness. You meant the other guy’s illness. The fat guy’s illness.

That’s like telling a family fighting cancer that “It was a joke about cervical cancer, not childhood cancer. Jeez, grow a thicker skin, people.”

First of all, Type 2 diabetes is not any easier than what I have, so the punchline victim is someone who is fighting an equally hard battle. In some ways, their challenges are even greater than mine. But you know what? Whatever version of a disease a person has, it’s a struggle for that person who is sick. The person in the center ring. The person who is afraid, who is bombarded by media blaming them for having given themselves this disease. The person whose well-meaning GP and Dr-Oz-loving-Readers-Digest-reading family probably tells them that it can be “reversed” if they just start toeing the line, shaming them if and when they fail.

Type 2 Diabetes is a life-threatening, serious, progressive metabolic illness. It can’t be “reversed.” It can be well-controlled to the point that symptoms lessen – and if you want to call that a cure, that’s your prerogative – but you can also be recovered from addiction for years, too, and easily slip back into the danger zone. Type 2 puts wear and tear on your body and, though you might mitigate some damage, you won’t “beat” it. No matter what that checkout line tabloid headline promises you.

We even hear this diabetes victim shaming from people with my version of the disease who make sure you understand that, in our case, you see, we’re blameless. My child didn’t give themselves diabetes. Implying, of course, that there is a type of diabetes you can bring upon yourself.

It’s a fat person’s disease, so you believe. Nevermind that only roughly half of people with Type 2 are obese and those who do carry extra weight actually seem to have protection from the killer instincts of type 2. Less likely to die than the 20% of normal- or under-weight counterparts with the same disease (it’s called the obesity paradox). (If you haven’t watched surgeon Peter Attia’s TED talk about this, go now. You’ll probably cry. I’ll wait.) But Type 2 is not really my specific area of expertise, so I’ll move on to a related point:

We are totally cool shaming fat people. They are still a very safe target for our societal scorn and derision. They’re our comic sidekicks – the jolly fatty – and we all know they (all of them, right?) uncomfortably joke about their own weight, so surely it’s fair game for us, too. “Hey, I have fat friends and they think it’s funny when I joke about it.” That’s like “I have a black friend, so I couldn’t possibly say something racist.”

And we’re doing fat people a favor when we “motivate” them to conform to our definition of healthy, right? Because you can tell how healthy a person is just by their weight or their diet? This wonderful post on xojane titled “What’s Wrong with Fat Shaming?” reminds us that “shame is not a catalyst for change; it is a paralytic.” If I have type 2 diabetes and/or struggle with obesity, your joke about me eating candy bars and getting a disease doesn’t motivate anything in me but self-hatred.

So maybe I just can’t take a joke. Maybe I actually know people who have died from diabetes. Who have suffered at its hands. Whose family believed it their own fault. They deserved to die.

We do it to other diseases, too. The shame diseases. Lung cancer. AIDS. When you say you lost your Nana to lung cancer, people say “Oh, did she smoke?” Yes, she did. So she must have deserved to die. She must have been less deserving of our compassion, our pity. My grief must be dampened by that. That blame. Whew. That feels better. I’d hate to think she didn’t kick herself enough in her final month of struggle.

Maybe your stepdad doesn’t “take care” of his diabetes (that he lets you see). Maybe he doesn’t tell you how scared he really is. Maybe your mother had a plate of strawberry shortcake for dinner and then again for breakfast. Maybe there’s a lot she doesn’t understand about her disease because access to proper behavioral education isn’t available to her. Maybe she is also scared and frustrated. Maybe she’s exhausted by this damned disease.

And maybe diabetes is frightening and headed for you, too (1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with it), so if you make light of it, if you joke about food comas and candy-bar-induced disease, it feels less scary.

But the joke’s on you. And you may find someday that it’s not actually all that funny.

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Steven

There’s a thin line. If joking about it raises some discussion about it and therefore generates awareness that perhaps overeating WILL lead to type 2 diabetes and in turn helps prevent it, then lets open that dialogue!
I’m trying to raise awareness through running (a lot more positive than shaming jokes).

https://www.facebook.com/30for30Diabetes/

Catherine
Catherine

This is beautifully stated, and it made me cry. Thank you. Thank you.

Julie Kling
Julie Kling

I like what you’ve said. However, because the terminology sounds the same type 1 and type 2 diabetes there is much confusion. I feel people like my daughter who has type 1 and 4 other auto immune diseases- are shamed, bullied, judged (at times) and given unsolicited advise. They are questioned about what they chose to eat- where- when – how they give themselves injections – and on and on. I believe there needs to be a complete separation of both and compassion due each one afflicted and family and friends impacted. You are right no one would make a… Read more »

StephenS

Thank you Melissa. It’s time for this kind of behavior, shaming, bullying, etc. to stop.

Tracy
Tracy

This is the message I have been trying to send out to people for a long time now. As a T1D for 32 years now, the ignorance around the disease has always been my greatest struggle. Thank you for writing this. Your writing is both eloquent and intelligent – you said just the right thing in just the right way. I strongly encourage you to write more – I can’t wait to read it.

A Real Diabetic
A Real Diabetic

No no no no no. Firstly, before we get into anything else let’s cover one item – if you can’t criticise someone for their decisions then what the hell can you criticise them for? Are we not responsible for our actions or do I not have to abide by any established criminal or moral or hell even scientifically based cause and effect code? Now, to the point at hand, I’m a Type I diabetic. I’ve been hospitalized for DKA (twice) and I’ve been in a car accident while having a hypoglycemic episode. I’ve embarrassed myself in front of senior co-workers… Read more »

Corny
Corny

I’m normally not sensitive about any kind of politically incorrect jokes, but this may be the straw that broke the donkey’s back. My aunt had diabetes, when I heard about it I immediately started dieting and lost 30 lbs with the Loaded Gun Diet.

Jodi
Jodi

This is wonderful, and I appreciate the insight to type 2. As the wife of a spouse with type 2 who recently lost his foot mainly from complications from the disease, I can’t tell you how I appreciate this. It’s ironic, but we don’t get much support from the t1 camp usually.

Andrea
Andrea

Fantastic!!!

Karie Campbell
Karie Campbell

Thank you! As a mother of a T1D child it’s hard seeing this junk. I was just in an argument with medical personnel that thought it was funny to post. Lots of education needs done, thanks for sharing your view!

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