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Top 5 Faux Pas People Make When Relating to Diabetics (& How to Avoid Them)

Posted Nov 09 2010 6:22pm

Diabetes can feel like a minefield. It’s tough to know what to do and say when dealing with sensitive topics like the health issues of those we love. The same is true for those we encounter only briefly in our day-to-day lives.


If, like me, you have loved ones whose been affected by diabetes, it can be difficult to know how best to approach the topic of diabetes with them. And while I’m sure no one reading this has ever committed the faux pas below [insert sarcasm], we all know people who make gaffes when it comes to approaching other people.


ü  TIP: While often meant with nothing but the best of intentions, misguided “advice” or unsolicited stories often based on misinformation almost inevitably lead to unnecessary and frustrating situations for all involved.

Trust me, I am not immune! Despite having 21 years of experience with diabetes to draw upon, I have had to learn “the hard way” how best to approach not only my own diabetes, but also my relationships with my loved ones--and their diabetes. 


I’ve been known to love quite a few diabetics in my day. What can I say? We're sweet as pie! But that doesn't always make things easy...at least not fore me--even though I've had a lot of practice! 


ü  At 8, my twin sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Like many of us, I didn't know what the heck I was talking about at the time, and told all the kids in 3rd grade my sister was in the hospital because she had diarrhea. I still haven't lived that down (nor has she)!


ü  At 16, I had my first serious boyfriend. He had Type 1 diabetes. By that time I did, too, but it was still really hard for me to watch him (not) take care of it. It wasn't the reason we broke up, but it definitely put a strain on things. 


ü  My best friend for years has been a Type 2 diabetic. A dear friend of mine  recently had to start taking insulin to help lower bloodsugar levels after a surprise A1C of 10+. And I'm not proud to admit it, but I've messed up many (many!) times when approaching our/their lives with diabetes.


Ohhh, how I wish I had been smarter. More empathetic. Softer. I didn't mean to, but I hurt them, and our relationship, by my misguided behaviors. I really really want you to avoid all that. Why not learn from my mistakes?

Caveat: Obviously, diabetics are not clones. While my twin sister and I share the same DNA, even we are not carbon-copies of each other--and handle our diabetes--and lives--differently. Still, I’m confident that avoiding the following faux pas will absolutely not harm you—or them--and will likely help you alleviate unwanted stress and unnecessary difficulties in your relationships with the diabetics in your life. 


While I can only speak for myself, when it comes to building trust and intimacy, avoiding these five things would definitely tip the odds in (y)our favor:

1. Operating from an “I am here to scare you straight!” mentality.

While I love The Office, who wants a real life  Prison Mike  in their lives? Most of us with a chronic illness don’t respond well to scare tactics as a form of motivation. 


Think about it: Would you appreciate hearing about your friend’s Aunt Bertha who lost her foot because she had “the really bad kind of diabetes?” Would you want to share more or less about your challenges with diabetes if your colleagues or partner kept bringing up how Grandma wouldn’t have diabetes if only she wouldn’t have gone to Denny’s so much? (hint: I don’t think so!)


ü  TIP:  Just ASK


By admitting you’re not sure what to say or how to approach their diabetes, you're showing you care, and admitting you don’t have all the answers. You show you’re receptive to honoring their feelings and understanding their personal approach to diabetes (even if you don’t always agree with it). 


ü  Amylia’s Golden Rule for Diabetes: While the golden rule is good to keep in mind, my philosophy is not “treat people how you’d like to be treated, rather, treat people with diabetes how they would like to be treated. And the best way to honor this is to ask.


2.      Asking “Should you really eat that?”

Um, really? Should you? Diabetics are not so different from non-diabetics. We're more alike than different. It’d help to remember that. Be honest, you know better than having that third slice of pizza, but sometimes you do it anyway. And it's not my place to judge you for that--nor would I. So why judge others unnecessarily? Who wins in that scenario?

Asking a diabetic if they should eat something is not only unhelpful, it comes across as rude and is definitely misguided. When faced with judgments loosely disguised as questions, I often respond with “Are you asking that for your benefit or for mine?” (Yeah, that’s what I thought!)

ü  TIP: Ask yourself that same thing before launching into a diatribe on the evils of pastries. 


ü  TIP:  Putting the diabetic on the defensive is never the way to go.

ü  TIP: Don’t make assumptions (ass/u/me)! I count carbs and have an insulin pump and test my bloodsugar 5-10 times a day, and while coffee and a doughnut may not be the best breakfast choice, I can cover the carbs in the doughnut rather well with my pump, and I make sure to keep an eye on my bloodsugar levels.

3.     “You’re really moody. Is your bloodsugar low? Maybe you should grab a candy bar!”

As a diabetic, this one comes up a lot for me. From my mom especially, believe it or not. While it’s true that spikes and dips in glucose levels can affect mood, framing your concern about a diabetic’s behavior in such a way is not only insulting, it’s counter-productive.

ü  TIP:  Putting someone on the defensive will rarely, if ever, produce the results you want.

ü  TIP:  If you’re frustrated or genuinely concerned, remember it’s to your advantage and theirs to come from a place of love.

4.  “ But you don’t look sick !” (a.k.a. “But You Seem Fine!”)

For me, this most often translates into the person without diabetes not taking a low bloodsugar seriously because I appear to be fine.

ü  TIP: We are not fine!

Hypoglycemia is a life-threatening occurrence and one that happens more often than a Type 1 diabetic would like. It’s tricky: not all hypos are created equally. Sometimes I barely feel a low—other times I’m shaking and sweaty and fuzzy-brained and am operating on only one cylinder.

ü  TIP: Better safe than sorry.

Bring the person with diabetes a Coke or OJ.  Swedish Fish  work especially well for some reason. This is one time when it’s worth it to stay vigilant and insist the diabetic eat/drink something and re-test in no more than 15 minutes. Help ‘em out.

ü  TIP: Don’t let them fall asleep without knowing their bloodsugar is stable. Stay with them. Please don’t hold their poor or baffling behavior against them. It’s almost always the low bloodsugar making them loopy, not some inherent character flaw.

5.    "You can’t go wrong with sugar-free!” (Hint: Wrong-ola!)


ü  TIP: Look at the carb count not the sugar content for the best guidelines.


I personally detest almost all sugar-free products. Not only do they taste like pud, they tend to be relatively high in calories and higher in carbs than the original. Plus, they’re filled with a bunch of fake foodstuffs that tend to leave you on the toilet for the majority of the day if you eat more than one.


ü  TIP: Do not bring anyone (anyone!) sugar-free candy/chocolate/cookies unless you know as a fact they really like them. It’s healthier to have a little of the real deal than to gorge on sugar-free foods that are not low-cal or low carb.


So there you have it, folks. You’re almost certainly bound to help yourself and your loved one with diabetes by avoiding these five faux pas. Even though diabetics expect to face some confusion and misinformation, it helps when at least some folks get it right. Failing that, it matters that you’re trying. Kindness and empathy go a long way.

Oh, one last thing: Diabetics know most people in the world do not have diabetes. We know it’s easy to be confused by all the half-truths out there. Sometimes, we’re just as confused—especially in the beginning!

ü  We may forget at times, but we know you’re doing your best. We are doing our best, too. You won't do things perfectly. Neither will we.

Still, I might hug you just a little bit closer for asking me about things in an informed and loving way, and honoring my “Golden Rule for Diabetes.”

ü  TIP:  If/when you (or I) mess up and do commit a faux pas, an authentic “I’m really sorry” goes a long way. And it’s free (no carbs or sugar either)!

P.S. I'd love to know YOUR Golden Rule(s). Please leave a comment with your own tips--or faux pas to avoid!

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