The Petraeus Scandal: What Diabetes Has Taught Me


Like many Americans, I’ve spent the week both fascinated and horrified by the scandal surrounding David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Why? I want to ask. Why would two driven, accomplished people, whose successes in life have no doubt in large part relied on their willpower, self-control and ability to stay on task, throw it all away by succumbing to the urge to shtup each other? 

I think that the angle that has particularly grabbed my attention is that of resisting temptation, since it’s something I’ve been struggling with a lot myself recently. No, not in the form of a toned biographer — fear not, my wonderful husband! I’m talking about diabetes. 

Managing diabetes, after all, requires constantly resisting temptation. Food is the obvious object of desire, but the temptations of diabetes go beyond the dietary. The temptation to ignore your CGM when it beeps at you, the temptation to not bother to check your blood glucose before a meal, the temptation to skip a workout, the temptation not to bolus at a cocktail party because your pump’s stuck in your bra and it would be awkward to pull it out — managing diabetes requires constant diligence and willpower, constant self control. It is, in a way, the equivalent of a high-pressure job — 24/7, with no vacations, and serious consequences if you mess up. 

It makes sense, then, that when other stresses in your life build — in my case, I’m trying to make a book deadline while simultaneously managing renovations on our home — your resistance to other temptations declines. I don’t usually have difficulty saying no to most carbohydrates — I satisfy my sweet tooth with 85% dark chocolate, and indulge my fat cravings with cheese. But in the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about carbohydrates in a far lustier way than normal. I fantasized the other day about slathering a bowl of pasta in butter and eating the entire thing. I watched “Hiro Dreams of Sushi” and went to bed thinking about perfectly pressed squares of rice brushed with soy sauce. Today, walking down the street, I thought back to the best hot chocolate I’ve had (this was before I had Type 1 diabetes) — which was essentially a melted chocolate bar mixed with heavy cream — and felt genuinely remorseful that I will never drink it again. 

And then I realized something:  I could drink it again. I could also eat a tray of lasagna tonight, and follow it up by a cookie the size of my head. Maybe I could go to Federal Donuts, a new shop opened by one of Philly’s top chefs that sells flavors like maple bacon and raspberry fennel, and then chase it with a plate of duck fat fries. I could do all these things. If there is one thing that modern America does not lack, it is an abundance of delicious, high carbohydate foods. 

But I won’t. You know why? Because doing so would fuck me up. I know that the momentary pleasure of sucking down those noodles or inhaling a brownie would be repaid by hours of high blood sugar, frustration, and anger at myself. It would ruin my day. 

I am certainly not infallible, and there are plenty of times when I do succumb to my cravings. But looking at some of the scandals that have erupted among some top level leaders in the past few years — especially Petraeus, whose work and career I greatly respect — makes me wish that our leaders internalized a lesson that diabetes teaches us every time we eat:  that succumbing to temptation has consequences. If you give in, you need to be prepared to face them. 

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10 years ago

Thanks for this. You found a memorable phrase that will be ringing in my head on all the many relevant occasions.

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