I’m unlearning the shame that came with my diabetes diagnosis

This first-person chronicle is the experience of Emily Brass, the host of the CBC podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

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I was sitting on the exam table of a walk-in clinic, this crumpled paper under my legs. I was there for a fairly minor issue and expected it to be done quickly.

But when the doctor came in, his expression was serious. I could tell something was wrong.

« Your blood sugar is high, » he said, spouting numbers that made no sense to me. I was stunned and probably looked puzzled.

« You have prediabetes, » the doctor said. “Do you eat a lot of sweets? Sodas?

I told him no. I eat mainly vegetarian foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Of course, I had a few treats here and there and had a great night out at the pub. But I had actually just lost 40 pounds.

« Wow, I wonder what your blood sugar was like before, » he replied, which didn’t make me feel any better. The doctor gave me a brochure and sent me away. I felt caught off guard and still didn’t know what that really meant.

The brochure told me to eat…well, pretty much the way I was already eating. I also walked about 90 minutes a day.

in denial

Unsure of what else I could do, I moved on with my life, mostly forgetting about prediabetes. Looking back, I guess I was in denial.

A year and a half later, I moved to Winnipeg. I still didn’t have a regular doctor, so I visited another walk-in clinic. Again, the doctor’s recommendations were to stop eating junk food and lose weight.

I mustered up some courage and confessed that losing weight has been a lifelong struggle.

His reaction was to laugh in my face. My throat tightened, my cheeks started to burn. I felt shocked and ashamed that a doctor found my health issues amusing.

He handed me a flyer for a weight loss group. I told him that I couldn’t go since I worked in the evening. He shrugged and sent me on my way.

Still furious, I began to wonder if he was acting in a particularly compassionate way because he thought I was responsible for my prediabetes. I started to detect a similar attitude in other places, like movies and podcasts, even casual conversations.

Many of my family members are heavy despite being active and eating quite well. But I’ve always been bothered by my weight, so I mostly kept my pre-diabetes to myself.

Brass regularly exercises outdoors, such as canoeing with her boyfriend, Greg, and her dog, Kojot. (Emily Brass/CBC)

Two years after my initial diagnosis, my prediabetes progressed to type 2 diabetes. I visited another walk-in clinic, where the doctor was busy and gruff. But she asked more questions, prescribed medication, and put me in touch with a public health dietitian.

Diabetes is a difficult diagnosis. There is a good chance that it is shorten my life, and there is no remedy. It puts me a lot higher risk kidney disease, stroke, blindness and amputation – all startling and depressing thoughts. I was also mad at myself for not acting with more urgency when I found out I was prediabetic.

I didn’t know how to handle my sadness and remorse. I also needed guidance on staying motivated with treatment and self-care. But I couldn’t think of a single person I knew with type 2 diabetes.

I started to do my own research and was amazed to learn one in three Canadians suffers from diabetes or prediabetes, including approximately 1.5 million people who do not know it. About 90% of people with diabetes have type 2.

Experience far from unique

I was shocked and outraged! If so many people are affected by diabetes, why haven’t I heard someone talk about it in my circles?

As a journalist, I started doing interviews and learned that my experience was far from unique. I spoke with people of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds. Some are overweight, others have been thin all their lives. Most have at least one relative who has suffered from the disease (including me). Many have had close contact with death.

Diabetic after diabetic told me they felt the same sense of confusion and shame after their diagnosis. Many said embarrassment and guilt caused them to hide their diabetes, even from close friends and loved ones.

I learned that the risk factors for type 2 diabetes are often beyond the patient’s control. Obesity is a major risk factor for some people. But poverty, colonization and systemic racism can all play a role. So can genes, stress, lack of sleep — and the way our society is organized.

Like many Canadians, I have a fast but sedentary job and don’t have much time to prepare healthy meals. Foods laden with sugar and white flour are cheap and easy to grab in downtown Winnipeg, while fresh vegetables are expensive and hard to find.

fresh fruit tray
Brass plans her healthy snacks in advance, as she says finding fresh fruits and vegetables can be a challenge in downtown Winnipeg. (Emily Brass/CBC)

The city is also car driven, with pedestrians and cyclists competing for sidewalk space. It’s quite a different way of life from my relatives a few generations ago in England. They gardened, worked physically and traveled everywhere on foot and by bicycle.

I fight these obstacles one small manageable step at a time. I prepare a healthy lunch, with more salads and protein. I find ways to sweat more often, adding bursts of jogging to my walks and taking the stairs. I meditate and play music. I found a therapist and a stable family doctor.

It’s paid off so far. Within months, my blood sugar dropped to pre-diabetic levels.

emily brass
Brass says publicly committing to a short-term health goal like jogging in a 10k charity run helped boost her motivation and garner support from friends and family. (Emily Brass/CBC)

But what helps me the most is the support. When I told a few friends that I had signed up for a 10k for Diabetes Canada, they immediately offered to do it with me. Not only was it a real morale booster, but it made me train harder knowing I would have eyes on me. In six weeks, I went from being able to run a minute at a time to running a quarter of the race – with energy to spare!

Type 2 diabetics need support to get better, no shame. In fact, the the greatest predictor Whether a diabetic will be successful in making changes to their health is whether they have social and family support.

emily brass diabetes canada 10k run
Brass had expected to run the 10K for Diabetes Canada alone, but several friends quickly volunteered to join them. The team more than doubled their original goal and raised $1,105. (Emily Brass/CBC)

For me, talking about diabetes was difficult at first. But with the help of my family and friends, I moved beyond denial and grief. I embrace the little joys of everyday life, from walking in nature to strumming my ukulele. I am healthier now and can feel the difference. In a funny and paradoxical way, diabetes has actually given my life more meaning.


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