Yesterday’s episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, which focused on diabetes, was subtitled “America’s Silent Killer.”
Diabetes is a “silent” killer, according to Oprah, because so many diabetics are either unaware that they have the disease, or simply live in denial of the seriousness of their condition. Unlike most other life-threatening diseases, diabetes often does not pose an immediate danger to those who have it. This allows diabetics to have a “I’ll change tomorrow” rather than an “I’ll change today” approach to managing diabetes.
But managing diabetes isn’t just about taking insulin or getting more exercise. It begins with doing what one of the doctors on the show dubbed “emotional homework” –psychologically coming to terms with the seriousness of your condition.
The show forced viewers to confront the reality of diabetes in visual terms. Dr. Oz showed a large-screen animation of effects of diabetes on the inside of the human body. To illustrate the amount of sugar the average American eats over the course of one year, he unveiled a stack of sugar bags weighing 150 pounds. He then brought out a bowl full of shards of broken glass, and explained that sugar acts like pieces of glass on blood vessels. The cuts made by sugar can cause loss of sight or lead to heart attacks.
The show encouraged viewers to comprehend diabetes on an emotional level by relating the personal stories of different diabetics. The episode mostly featured type 2 diabetics, for whom diabetes was more an issue of “attitude” than anything else. The audience met the adult members of a church in Ohio, every one of whom was pre-diabetic or had type 2 diabetes. The church culture involved eating copious amounts of fried and sweet food, cooked and served by the church’s own pastor and his wife. Many of the church members were reluctant to change their habits. One woman who had been diagnosed with diabetes hadn’t tested her blood sugar since December. Nevertheless, as Dr. Oz pointed out, many of those with type 2 diabetes could reverse their condition if they simply changed their rituals concerning food.
The story I found most moving was that of Laureen, a woman in her forties who had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child. Growing up, she drank soda and ate cake regularly, reasoning that as long as she took “a little insulin,” she would be fine. It wasn’t until she was much older that she was forced to realize that taking insulin was not nearly enough to combat her condition. Complications of diabetes forced her to get a kidney transplant and have one of her legs and a part of her other foot amputated. In footage of her in the hospital, Dr. Oz asked Laureen why she thought the almost 60 million Americans who are pre-diabetic refuse to acknowledge the precariousness of their situation. Laureen replied: “Because they feel okay now. When it finally hits you, it’s too late.”
Laureen’s difficulty as a younger adult wasn’t that she didn’t understand the facts of diabetes intellectually. In fact, before her amputations, she had worked as a nurse. Her problem in dealing with diabetes was that she couldn’t come to terms with it emotionally. Her first reaction to hearing she had to undergo a treatment was “this can’t be me.”
Laureen’s story resonated with me because I often have the same attitude towards eating sweets or taking insulin that she did. Even though, as a type 1 diabetic, I will never be able to reverse my diabetic condition, I know that by doing some “emotional homework” and improving my mental approach to diabetes, I will be on my way towards managing it much better.