In the summer of 2014 Kate Cornell and I launched a series of blogposts called Type 1/Type 2 Conversations and we talked about weight, the great outdoors, friends and family, and food. Shortly afterwards my co-bloggers at the time, Sue from New York and Sue from Pennsylvania, roped their husbands into two conversations with spouses (here and here). I had hoped that the idea of conversations would spread into the DOC, but it never did. However in the back of my head I knew that someday I wanted to have a “conversation” with a parent of a child with diabetes.
So here we are five years later and I recently had a meetup with Lija Greenseid (LEE-yuh GREEN-syd) of St. Paul, Minnesota. Lija is the parent of a young teen diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 6 years ago. If you have followed news coverage about the Caravan to Canada to buy affordable insulin, you may recognize Lija and her Thelma & Louise-esque depiction as the “rule-abiding Minnesota mom steering her Mazda5 on a cross-border drug run.” Although there is no doubt that the issue of insulin pricing is extremely important, this blogpost is not about advocacy. It is about listening to the story of a mother of a child with Type 1 diabetes and sharing my experience as a senior who has lived with diabetes for 42 years.
Rather than give a transcript of my visit with Lija, I decided that discussing the themes of our diabetes experiences would be the best way to share our conversation. I think for the most part our diabetes themes are the same; we just experience them differently. Hopefully that thought will make sense to you by the time I finish this blogpost.
Diabetes themes: Fear, thriving, guilt, social media, hope.
Fear and thriving came up in the first 5 minutes of our conversation and we never strayed far from these topics.
Laddie: “Did you know anything about diabetes?”
Lija: “No, just that it was bad and it was forever.”
She went on to say that the doctor said “Oh, it’s not a death sentence” and in typical motherly fashion, all she heard was “death sentence.” Although initially terrified at her daughter’s diagnosis, she was quick to give credit to St. Paul Children’s Hospital for providing the family with a “thriving education” and “high quality information” rather than fear and gloom. They were trained in carb counting and multiple daily injections and sent on their way to battle hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. They were encouraged to follow through with a planned family trip less than two weeks after leaving the hospital.
Where did Lija learn the most about fear? You’ll probably guess social media and be absolutely correct.
Lija: “There is so much fear now. In a large Facebook parent group I felt hugely stressed by the pervasive message that ‘You’ve got to get up at night and check your kid or otherwise he’ll die.’”
Lija went on to express gratitude at “being rescued by people like Moira McCarthy and her little gang of these thriving parents” who invited her into a smaller more-positive Facebook group. This group that encouraged her to be comfortable letting her daughter spread her wings and participate in normal childhood activities.
When I asked Lija what was her biggest worry about diabetes, she indicated that it was how her daughter will navigate through the teen years, college, and young adulthood with diabetes.
Lija: “I think I worry most about the emotional effects. Getting through adolescence and young adulthood without getting burned out and not taking care of herself. I am much more fearful, particularly her being a girl, about body image issues and eating disorders.”
In regards to my Type 1, I don’t see much fear when I look back. I knew so little about diabetes when I was diagnosed that I didn’t know to be afraid. I should have been and still should be more afraid of lows.
Laddie: “I wasn’t afraid because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet to tell me to be afraid.”
Lija: “I don’t know whether people with diabetes get as much fear for themselves as parents do.”
Laddie: “I think when you’re living the highs and lows, it is easier to just move on from moment to moment rather than being an outsider (parent) looking in.”
Lija asked me about my fears and the main one I have is when due to age or illness that I am no longer able to care for my diabetes. I am terrified of being in a nursing home and am convinced that no one else can adequately care for me. So I guess you could say that we both have worries that are influenced by stages of life: teenage and 20’s for her daughter and old age for me.
Lija is not incapacitated by fear and her diabetes parenting is positive. In the six years since her daughter’s diagnosis, she has been dedicated to not letting diabetes be a roadblock to anything her daughter would like to do.
Lija: “What is important is to keep her safe but to let her have as much freedom as possible.”
I think Lija and her husband are doing a good job in this area as their daughter went on a multi-week international trip this summer with no parent chaperones allowed. The photos I saw on Facebook are testament to a child thriving with and despite diabetes.
As I look back at my 42 years with diabetes, I like to think that I have thrived and not been held back by the diagnosis. But I do recognize that I have been changed emotionally and physically and that I would probably be a different person today (better or worse?) if I had not had diabetes.
Guilt and self-blame were themes that popped up frequently in our discussion. We had similarities and differences in how we viewed these emotions. I was very open that every time things go badly with diabetes, I blame myself. Eating chocolate-covered donuts: my fault. Unexplained overnight high: my fault. Pump problem: my fault. Low following a rage bolus: my fault. I know and Lija also confirmed that those things weren’t my fault and I am not traumatized by guilt. It is just a background persona in my diabetes world.
Lija’s parenting philosophy is based in doing everything to prevent her daughter from blaming herself for diabetes and out-of-range blood sugars. Meter and CGM results are just numbers to base treatment decisions on not successes or failures. I thought it was interesting that Lija’s main worry about guilt was for the future.
Lija: “My biggest fear is that I didn’t do enough as a parent now and that’s she’s going to end up with complications.”
Laddie: “So it’s your guilt. I would say that you’re absolutely crazy.
Lija: “I know that, but if I’m really honest, what if she gets complications and I find out I should have gotten up more, I should have restricted her diet, I should have done whatever to make sure her A1c was normal while she was under my care? And the rational part of me says that is not the case and finding this balance (between physical and mental health) is important.”
Laddie: My endo says I don’t have to be as good as I am. But I don’t know how to do it any differently. And I eat too much cr*p food and wish I were better at that.”
Lija: “That guilt of not doing enough unites everyone who is touched by diabetes. I’m trying to battle against this.”
I believe Lija is taking some of these emotions onto herself so that her daughter doesn’t have to deal with them. But she admits that her daughter is very quiet and doesn’t share a lot about her diabetes feelings. She doesn’t hide her diabetes as I did for many years. She wears her pump on her waistband and her Dexcom on her arm. But I think that all of us with diabetes have an internal dialogue that we don’t share with anyone. Or maybe that’s just me?
Since I met Lija on Facebook, it was a certainty that diabetes social media would be a topic. We discussed the negatives: fear, criticism of others, and the unending pressure that perfection is not only possible, but expected. But we agreed that the positives outweighed all of the bad stuff.
Laddie: “I’m pretty open that everything I’ve learned about diabetes in the last 15 years has been online.”
Lija: “It’s all free. It’s just people who want to help others in the community…. The strong relationship with moms whom I’ve known for 6 years has taken me from being alone and scared to knowing that this is going to be OK. That support is so important.”
I concluded our discussion by asking Lija about her hopes for the future.
Lija: “My hopes for her are that diabetes continues to be something in the background. That technology and treatments such as beta cell transplants continue to make diabetes easier and easier.
And most importantly:
Lija: “That she can continue to be an amazing kid.”
Although both Lija and I hate diabetes and wish that it had never entered our lives, our conversation ended on a hugely positive note.
Lija: “Look at the great things it (diabetes) does. It brings people together.”
Conclusion: Shortly after I talked with Lija, I read an article by a D-Mom who is also a nurse and a PWD. She wrote: “As someone who lives in three worlds, a person with T1D, a healthcare provider, and a D-parent, I can say, at this point in my life, parenting someone with Type 1 diabetes is the most difficult role of all three and much harder than I ever expected.”
For sure I believe that and have always been grateful that I have diabetes and not my children or grandchildren. Lija didn’t have that choice but if I had been a D-parent, she is the model of the type of parent I would hope to have been.
I know Lija and her family personally. She and her husband are model parents. Their kids are very fortunate and wonderful young people. Lija is intentional and laser focused on everything she does. She and her family are an asset to our community.
I was 17 when diagnosed so I realize things were different for me, but one thing I love about my parents is that they immediately gave me up and treated me like a man. This was my disease and I had to deal with it. No if’s and’s or buts. I left the hospital on June 21 and on July 7 I was off backpacking in New Mexico and Colorado for 35 days. My parents must have been so frightened, but they did not debate it in front of me. Both of my parents said look you want to go, you think you can care for yourself, go.
We would never do that today. But despite their better judgement, I was off and out the door. I learned a lot about diabetes but I also learned a lot about being a man with diabetes. I love that they did this for me and I am forever grateful.
As your daughter grows I suggest you letting her retirement with living with the disease. It will be so difficult, but she will do better in the long run, even if she does dumb things. Because trust me, i did some really dumb things along the way, but at age 62, here I am still living, still loving and still thanking my parents for the unforgettable summer of 1974.
Laddie, I’m so glad you you’re covering diabetics-of-all-ages!
I became diabetic in college in the 1970s. Technically “juvenile diabetes” but (as a young man) I never really gave much thought to diabetic children. (And what that must be like for their parents.)
Having children of my own, I worried (briefly) about what I might be passing on to my own two sons. But they seem to have dodged that bullet, as both are now out of college and did not become diabetic like me.
Only now (that I’m anything but a “young man”) am I beginning to appreciate the difference in difficulty. What I went through in college and as an adult, was child’s play (so to speak) compared to what diabetic children and their parents have to deal with.
This late-in-life realization may be why I cannot help but get a bit teary & emotional seeing photos of elementary school kids with iPhones and Riley Links.
Now that I am soon to be relying on Medicare, I find that I am indebted to the parents of these children. They have have been on the front lines of a DIY movement that will also be benefitting a selfish old geezer like me. God bless them.
I, too, am a senior long-term T1D indebted to the parents of young children with diabetes. They unselfishly power the do it yourself open source community who developed tech solutions like Loop to manage diabetes. I know it extends my life and markedly improves the quality of my life. We are much more influential as a group when we reach across the spectrum of diabetes demographics. Thanks, Laddie, for promoting these kind of stories.
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