After you’re first diagnosed with diabetes, it’s normal at first to minimize the seriousness of the disease. But if the denial goes on too long and interferes with your self-care, the consequences can be dangerous.
By the time my friend — we’ll call her Tina — was diagnosed with diabetes at age 52, she should have been well-prepared to deal with her illness. She had been looking after her diabetic mother for more than 20 years, managing her diet, medications, and daily blood tests. She also knew all too well what the disease could do. She had watched as diabetes destroyed her mother’s eyesight and caused severe circulatory problems. With all that expertise, you’d think that Tina would have been a model patient.
Living in denial
Instead, Tina kept saying she’d deal with her diabetes when she was ready. The problem was that that day never seemed to arrive. Her only concession to her diabetes was to cut back from drinking two 2-liter bottles of regular Coca-Cola each day to drinking only one. A hundred pounds overweight, Tina made no effort to go on a diet. She tested her blood only once every week or two, and didn’t keep her doctor’s appointments. Only two years after she was diagnosed with diabetes, she had circulatory problems of her own, including leg swelling so severe that walking was sometimes difficult. Still, she has not made any effort to deal with her illness.
Tina is suffering from denial, a common problem among diabetics and other people with chronic illnesses. “This can’t be happening to me,” is often someone’s first reaction after learning he or she has a serious medical problem. It’s not unexpected that a person with a life-altering disease might first rush to minimize its importance. In fact, it’s a normal reaction and way of coping when diagnosed with a grave or chronic ailment.
But if denial goes on too long and interferes with getting the care you need, it’s not just counterproductive: It’s dangerous. Diabetics who refuse to acknowledge their illness are likely to develop serious diabetic complications, including circulatory and eye disorders, kidney disease, and heart disease. These problems, in turn, can potentially lead to blindness, amputation, and even death.
For Tina, denial is not just a stage in learning to accept her illness, but an ongoing problem that threatens her very life.
” Everyone who is diagnosed with diabetes has to go through stages to accept their diagnosis,” says Laura Riggi, a certified diabetes educator in New York City. “Fear, anger, and denial are normal reactions to being told that you have diabetes, but you need to work through it in order to take the steps you need to deal with your diabetes.”
Long-term denial may seem easier than learning to cope with the illness, because with denial you’re convinced there isn’t anything to cope with — no need to change your habits and routine.
Riggi says that like my friend Tina, patients may drag their feet because they don’t feel ill at first. “But if their vision gets blurry or they have