Would you like diabetes with that?

Georgina Bell defines the myths and realities of having Type 1 diabetes. She doesn't like your diabetes memes.

In April this year, I posted a status in celebration of my chronic illness’s 13th birthday. It went something like “This week marks my 13th year of living as a type 1 diabetic. I will now overindulge in chocolate as a big SCREW YOU to diabetes.”

Most of the feedback was in ‘like’ form, no doubt indicating my friends’ support of me and my ongoing struggle with diabetes. However, a few comments revealed a reluctance to support the sentiment. “Don’t make it worse for yourself!” and “I noticed that you were diagnosed with diabetes around Easter… connection?”  This dear friend of mine was insinuating that I, 8 years old and at the hands of irresponsible parenting, may have eaten my way into a broken pancreas through sugar overload. While the comments were harmless and easy to gently correct, they unsettled me. People often assume that this illness is somehow my fault.  Or perhaps that I can make it better for myself if I had some self control. This all stems from an ignorance surrounding the less common form of this illness – Type 1 diabetes.

Myth #1: sugar is the cause of diabetes

Upon discovering that I am diabetic, others offer comments such as “Were you a really fat kid?” or “You must have eaten so much cake!” It’s equally as tiresome for parents to explain to their children that they have the chronic illness, but it’s made worse by disapproving parents and teachers who silently judge them as nutritionally irresponsible.

Myth #2:  a healthy lifestyle and good choices in food (or any number of other suggestions) will cure diabetes or lessen the need for medication.

If someone suffers from either type, they probably don’t need you to tell them about the magic cure you saw on a health blog or about how much better they’d be if they exercised more and ate less. Everyone could do with a bit more movement and a bit less junk food, but it’s not going to help the dead pancreases of the world.

Myth #3: young diabetics want to hear about your dead relatives.

Some of my personal favourite quotes run along the lines of, “my great aunt lost her big toe and died of that”.  These quotes encapsulate the less harmful, but still ridiculous and borderline entertaining illusion that we actually  want to hear about this.

I know the general ignorance is not the fault of anyone in particular, but it is difficult not to get angry at some of the cheap jokes sprawling the internet and general conversation equating food binging to diabetes – one meme read: “Billy has 32 candy bars. He eats 28. What does he have now?” To which the genius memer has answered “Diabetes. Billy has diabetes.”  While these jokes are lighthearted and most diabetics simply scroll on past, they do reveal and perpetuate widespread misconceptions that become tiresome to correct.

So the facts:

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, making up 10% of diabetes in Australia, is an autoimmune disease where the pancreas is attacked by a virus and stops producing insulin. There is no cure and the only treatment is dependence on insulin through daily injections or an insulin pump. Children are born with a predisposition to diabetes and usually see it’s onset in early childhood, though a person can develop Type 1 at any age.

On the other hand, Type 2 can be triggered by obesity and overeating of sugar but is also highly genetic. Type 2 doesn’t have the same effect on the pancreas and those suffering from it generally do not have to take insulin shots or be on a 24/7 insulin pump. The two illnesses are separate and have very different causes, but neither should warrant judgment from outsiders.

With Type 2 diabetes on the rise, type 1 gets shoved in the same category and a lot of guilt and anxiety is being reported in children with diabetes because of the misconceptions. Diabetes organisations have been advocating, and educating about, the truth of the causes of Type 1 through projects such as JDRF’s Truth Awards. It’s important that people understand that diabetics didn’t bring their illness on themselves.

I don’t want a pity party, but diabetes is no piece of cake (pun intended). While diabetes jokes can be considered part of a wider brand of humour made at the expense of others, and an insignificant minority may warrant a chuckle, they are generally far from both truth and comedy. Be nice to people with broken organs.

Georgina Bell

Georgina Bell

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Georgina Bell is a contributor to Honi Soit. She is in her third year of Socio-Legal Studies.
Georgina Bell

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