Are You in Diabetes Denial?
Why it’s dangerous to ignore your diagnosis
Michele Tuck-Ponder knows what it’s like to be in denial. She also knows she’s not alone.
“It happens every day,” wrote Tuck-Ponder on a blog called DiabetesSisters, identifying herself as pre-diabetic. “We all hear the statistics — especially as it pertains to disease. Thousands of people with undiagnosed diabetes. Tough love alert: just because a doctor has not diagnosed an ailment, doesn’t mean that you don’t know there is something wrong with your health. We just ignore the symptoms.”
“Recite after me,” she continued. “Blurry vision, weight loss, frequent urination, fatigue… It’s no secret. Some are honestly so out of touch with their bodies that they don’t notice that they are feeling bad. The rest of us choose to live in denial."
Denial is normal
Diabetes educators and physicians say most people who have the disease go through some form of denial, either before being diagnosed or afterwards, when they respond with, “There must be some mistake.”
It’s a common first reaction, and maybe not such a bad way of coping with news that can at first be frightening, depressing or overwhelming, experts say. People often need time to come to terms with the reality, little by little. It’s part of the normal process of acceptance.
But since diabetes is a lifelong illness, denial needs to give way to action. According to the Mayo Clinic, not getting treatment and making the dietary and lifestyle changes you need to make can gradually lead to serious complications, such as:
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Skin infections and damage to the nerves, eyes or feet
- Hearing impairment
- A higher risk of Alzheimer’s
“I certainly understand why denial occurs: A diagnosis of diabetes is frightening,” says endocrinologist James Linde, MD, in an essay on diabetes risk management. “The disease is the nation’s leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, and amputation, and it significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. No one reacts favorably when advised that he or she will have to live a structured lifestyle that includes a regimented diet and daily blood sugar monitoring.”
But when people who have diabetes continue to ignore or downplay their illness, denial can be dangerous. Linde recalls working with one patient in his 30s with nerve damage from diabetes. The patient ignored his medical advice, insisting his blood sugar had only been elevated on a couple of occasions. Nine months later, he resurfaced, and a blood chemistry panel showed he had developed kidney failure.
Related: Diabetes Now, Memory Problems Later?
Are you in denial?
When you hear yourself saying things like the following, it’s probably time for a reality check:
- I don’t have time to see a doctor.
- It’s just a mild case of diabetes.
- My doctor is so mean.
- I don’t need to test; I know how I feel.
- One bite won’t hurt.
Eventually, denial becomes a problem. That’s because refusing to face the fact that you have a serious illness could very well prevent you from taking care of yourself — meaning things will only get worse.
Once you’ve recognized that you may be in denial, the next step is to break through it and face your disease head-on. This will be much easier if you make use of all the resources and support you can find.
Here’s the approach recommended by the American Diabetes Association:
- Make a plan. Write down your diabetes care plan and your health care goals. Don’t worry if it seems daunting: Accept that you’ll need time to reach your goals.
- Ask for help. If you find you are avoiding your doctor’s recommendations, ask your diabetes educator for help. If you have trouble with your food plan, talk to a registered dietitian. Together you can come up with solutions.
- Enlist friends and family. Let them know that encouraging you to go off your plan is not doing you a favor. Tell them how you take care of your diabetes — they might want to adopt some of your healthy habits.
You also can join a diabetes support group, if there’s one available near you, or an online community like Diabetes Hands Foundation. And if you’re dealing with emotional or psychological blocks, ask your health care practitioner for a referral to a psychotherapist or counselor.
Most importantly, remember that you’re not alone in your struggle. Among the millions of Americans contending with the disease is Karen Rose Tank, a mother of two in her mid-50s, who responded to Tuck-Ponder’s blog post with her own example of confronting reality:
“I get this crazy thinking that, well, just this time… it’s only this one time. Let me treat myself… I deserve it… Everyone else is eating this, so can I. I convince myself to disregard my diabetes, my health and blood sugar goals, my weight goals… and dive into foods that are pleasing in the moment but so not good for me in the long run… And diabetes is a long run disease.”