I attended a family reunion earlier this month and got into a conversation with a relative who’s well into her 90s. She was asking me what I do for a living and I kept my explanation fairly high-level: “I work with college students who have diabetes”.
(Which, side note, I help handle the communications side of things for CDN and so far, I don’t often interact with the students…but I figured this was still a semi-correct answer that spared me from getting into the social media aspect with someone who’s probably never even heard of Instagram.)
Her response to my job description was…interesting. She started telling me the story of a “young bird” she once knew who had diabetes, needed dialysis, and then got her foot amputated. And then died.
This is a classic diabetes “horror story” that people often seem to tell when they discover that the person they’re speaking with has diabetes. It’s a story that’s told as a knee-jerk reaction: Either the person expresses their sorrow for the fact that the other person has diabetes, or they tell the tale of someone they knew who had diabetes and suffered immensely from it.
It’s a strange phenomenon, for sure, but one that happens across the board to people with diabetes.
You might be wondering…how do I react in situations like this? Is there a right or a wrong way to handle them?
I chose to navigate this particular interaction by nodding sympathetically. While I truly was sorry to hear about this “young bird” and her fate, I was also very uncomfortable by the story. I’ve never felt “okay” about discussing diabetes complications because they scare the living daylights out of me, and I also was completely caught off-guard that a simple question about my job was enough to trigger the telling of this vignette. So for me, this wasn’t exactly a teaching moment in which I could correct this distant relative of mine and explain why it can be harmful to tell these horror stories; in fact, this whole incident made me realize that I don’t think I’ve ever truly reacted to a diabetes horror story when it was told to me.
And I think I’ve finally figured out the reason why…I just don’t want to engage with a person who’s going to react to my diabetes by telling me about the terrible outcome experienced by someone with diabetes who they may or may not directly know. What’s the point? What else am I supposed to say besides I’m sorry? I can’t really think of a graceful way to turn the conversation around, so for me, it’s always felt easiest to just nod, smile, say something compassionate, and then end the conversation by walking away or changing the subject completely. It’s not right or wrong, per se, but at least I know that I’m doing right by myself and my comfort levels.
This tried-and-true tactic of mine just goes to show that not every diabetes anecdote can be turned into a teachable moment – at least, not in my opinion or experience.