A Guest Blog from Therapist, Yogi and Type 1 Diabetic, Michelle Sorensen
I recently attended a conference on mindfulness meditation and how to incorporate it into cognitive behavioural therapy. The room was full of mental health professionals like myself, looking to integrate these skills into their practice. Many openly spoke of their desire to learn the skills for personal use as well. One health psychologist sitting next to me commented, “Mindfulness is really about preparing for dying. We are all going to need these skills.” I am currently watching my father decline with advanced Parkinson’s disease, and watching my mother struggle to accept the changes, and I completely understood what she meant. My father is so accepting of what he cannot control, and so he did very well for a long time with his disease by focusing his efforts on what he was able to control. And simply accepting the rest.
Fighting a battle against illness makes sense in terms of aiming to extend life, maintain quality of life and nurture our spiritual development. However, there is also strength in accepting that death is inevitable for all of us, as is suffering and disappointment throughout life. Acceptance can help us to develop resilience and flexibility. To develop resiliency we need to be able to better separate out what we cannot control from what we can control. There are problems in life with diabetes that we cannot always eliminate…. but we can develop better resiliency in facing those problems.
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a few short weeks before turning 25. There had been a lot of stress in my life in the years leading up to the diagnosis, as well as lot as of happy moments and exciting developments. My stressors were the usual stressors for that time of life. For example, I had to complete a thesis study for my psychology undergraduate program. The statistics and defence took me out of my comfort zone. However, the intensity of my stress was higher than it needed to be. That part was self-imposed and rooted in my need to perform well and please others. I think being more mindful about locus of control would have made me more resilient and less stressed.
Then I took a year to work, save money and apply to graduate schools. I had many friendships I tended to. Phone calls always had to be returned, plans always had to be kept, requests always had to be responded to. Disappointing someone was never an option for me. I was not self-aware, no one had ever taught me that people pleasing was a problem. That was my most problematic disease.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, it was a tipping point. I began to recognize how exhausting my social commitments were, how stressed I felt by the idea of letting someone down. It took me much longer to realize that I had some very dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs. If someone doesn’t like you, that means you are unlikeable. If someone is disappointed in you, that means you are not worthy.
In grieving my diabetes and the ensuing changes in my life, I had to go through some very painful emotions. I experienced denial, believing I would discover I did not have diabetes after all. I experienced the fear of an uncertain future and was terrified by the description of horrible complications stemming from diabetes. This led to a period of depression. I felt angry towards those around me at times, who did not know how to support me. I bargained with the diabetes gods, striving for perfect control and hoping in turn I would avoid long term complications. Instead I was left shaken by terrible lows as I overcorrected my highs.
But as I grieved and moved towards acceptance of my diagnosis, I had to accept other things. I had to accept I could not please everyone, and that did not mean I was not good enough. I had to accept that life was not perfect, and that’s okay…. it never was before diabetes either. I had to accept myself and who I am, with all my imperfections.
Today I still have moments I feel frustrated or fearful about my diabetes. However, I try to be mindful and focus on the present moment. After all, that is all any of us have for sure: right here, right now.
Michelle counsels people with diabetes, combining her knowledge of cognitive behavioural therapy with the experience that comes from living with Type 1 diabetes for 16 years. She is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario in Canada. She also enjoys speaking to health care professionals about how to incorporate more counselling into their interactions with patients. Michelle sees psychological support as often being “the missing piece in diabetes care”.