Invisible Moments in Diabetes and Mental Health

Sabrina Bhandari, University of California-Riverside '19

Sabrina headshot

 

It's dark. My body is submerged in a cold sweat, all of my muscles begin to tremble as I try to move, and finally what I consider the worst part, my chest feels awkwardly and unimaginably heavy, making it difficult to breathe. I’m on my bed, feeling a sickening lack of energy caused by low blood sugar, and I’m all alone. To all my fellow T1D’s, even though type 1 diabetes (T1D) only affected a few hours of my sleep last night, you probably can understand that it’s a 24/7 job. It. Literally. Never. Goes. Away. Whether we’re in class, at the gym, grocery shopping, or participating in any other kind of daily activity, you don’t always know when it will show its face. That means four to five finger pricks and needles a day, and still getting shaky or severely dehydrated when the math isn’t quite right.

My name is Sabrina, and I want to share my story of how diabetes has an effect on my mental health and what I’ve learned from it. Having my blood sugar fluctuate on an insanely broad spectrum for most of my life has been challenging, to say the least. Despite this, I wholeheartedly think that the worst part is all of the “invisible” moments that come along with an out of range blood sugar. There are so many times where diabetes just leads to a whirlwind of internalized thoughts and feelings. Maybe you can resonate with a few:

  • 4:00am, and I’m sitting on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge, stuffing my face with shaky hands. *If anyone saw me right now…. it’d be really awkward.*
  • When someone tells me that I need to work out more, or eat different foods because they clearly know more about diabetes than I do. *Now I feel obligated to correct you, but I really wish this disease didn’t draw so much attention.*
  • Pretty much any situation where my blood sugar is high, because it feels awful. For instance, a few weeks ago I went into an interview after correcting for a blood sugar of 400. For many people it’s just a number, so I knew that no one (especially not my interviewer) would understand just how sick I felt. Life goes on though! *Ignore your body, focus on articulating, and maybe it will be worth it afterwards.*
  • Dealing with body image. The extra ‘insulin’ weight, pump-site marks, and my insane ability to scar, no matter how small the scratch. *yay, another battle scar…*

These are just a few moments that make life as a T1D slightly inconvenient, and even though they can take a toll on any of us, they’re still not what I consider the invisible moments, the ones that make me feel like I’m in a constant conflict with myself.

It took my family and I a long time to realize this, and as hard as it is to admit, diabetes can be emotional. I’m not talking about the feelings we have towards the lifestyle, but the literal effects an out of range blood sugar can have on our mental state:

  • High blood sugars occasionally makes it difficult to comprehend or read. Sometimes I have to read a sentence multiple times before my eyes and brain are on the same page.
  • Low blood sugar can make some people very irritable, or sensitive. When I first found this out, I had a mini revelation: That’s why I cried that one time in elementary school when my dad decided to have a conversation with my teacher. There was a juice box in my hand. (It’s odd that I remember this?)
  • Out of range blood sugars in general lead to a mild cognitive and physical delay. It’s usually nothing that impedes daily function, but it’s enough to be able to receive accommodations if requested, like extra time on tests.

I went through most of my time as a T1D not knowing that many of the daily challenges I was facing could be accredited to my disease. Often times I just felt behind, incompetent, or falling short in comparison to my peers. These internalized feelings eventually sent me into a rollercoaster of anxiety and depression, and I had never even considered that diabetes could be the source. My experience has taught me this: The physical effects of diabetes are prioritized because its considered a more direct danger, but in the face of that we cannot neglect the emotional aspects. Both sides should be included in our on-going discussions or when training new families, and I think this is part of the reason that having a community like the College Diabetes Network (CDN) is important.

Now that I have a better understanding of what a high or low blood sugar means for me, I have ways to deal with it and I’m even pushing myself to do things I wouldn’t have considered before. Eliminating the issue of “not knowing” is one of the biggest reasons why I decided to bring a Chapter of CDN to my campus, to educate and support. The struggles of a chronic illness don’t really go away, but having an outlet or a community like CDN has brought valuable opportunities, and helped me overcome some of the challenges. So, from my experiences with diabetes, mental health, and CDN, I encourage anyone living with a chronic illness or difficult situation to find your outlet, whatever that may be. 

Editor's note: Lexicon is a CDN Corporate Member and is dedicated to bringing awareness to the relationship between T1D and mental health. Watch CDN's Mental Health and T1D Facebook Live event, which was made possible by funding from Lexicon.