Ginger Vieira was 13 when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Her whole family had come down with the flu, but she didn’t seem to recover. She was feverish, constantly thirsty and tired. Her vision blurred.
Then her school had a health fair and she read about diabetes on a fellow seventh-grader’s poster. Vieira told her mom, “I think I have diabetes.”
Soon after, she was officially diagnosed, and her life-long relationship with blood-sugar levels, finger pricks, carb counting, insulin injections and finger-wagging doctors began. Luckily, she was Type A — the best kind of personality to manage the intricacies of the disease, she says. Vieira also had a good support system, and the grit to prove to a doctor who rolled his eyes at her that she could become a power weight lifter.
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Still, Vieira struggled at times. She suffered scary blood sugar highs, like the time she had to be hospitalized after a day spent hanging Christmas lights at the movie theater where she worked as a teen. And lows, like the time she suddenly became so weak she barely had the strength to crawl to the kitchen and swallow some dry oatmeal before passing out.
Now she’s 28, a diabetes coach, a yogi, a personal trainer and the editorial director at DiabetesDaily.com. Even so, she says she’s not a “perfect patient.” She makes mistakes like everyone else. And she suffers periods of burnout.
Vieira's latest book, Dealing with Diabetes Burnout, acknowledges the inevitable frustration that comes with the disease. It’s filled with friendly, doable and even funny advice on how to overcome it.
Next Avenue talked to Vieira recently about the ups-and-downs of living with diabetes.
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Next Avenue: This is your third diabetes book, right?
Viera: Yes, and I’m working on a fourth. I’m pregnant, and the next book is about dealing with Type 1 diabetes during pregnancy.
Why did you write this book?
As someone who lives with Type 1 diabetes, I know it’s impossible not to experience burnout in some form. There are times you think, 'Oh, my gosh, I have to do this every day of my life?'
And there’s this idea that if you’re burned out, you’re not taking care of yourself. But that’s not true. I wanted to talk about this topic without guilt or shame.
Why is having diabetes like having a full-time job?
Your blood sugar — it’s not like you can stop thinking about it. The two hours before I go to bed is when I think about it most, because what I do in those two hours will determine whether I get up in the middle of the night three times to take insulin or not.
I’m always thinking about my blood sugar. Other people can’t tell that I’m thinking about my blood sugar in the middle of yoga class, but I am. There’s no break — ever.
What’s the hardest part about living with diabetes?
All the stupid diabetes math. Nondiabetics see the sharp needle, but the really hard part is all the thinking.
In the book you tell people to let go of the idea of being the “perfect patient.”
There’s a lot of shame and pressure. And because of it, we don’t want to go to the doctor when we most need to — when we’re really struggling.
When I go to a doctor for the first time, I feel like I have to defend myself from the start because there’s this stereotype that people with diabetes don’t take good care of themselves. But the doctors couldn’t do it — nobody can. I want to say, “Dude, do you think you could do all of this every day?”
The constant vigilance must be exhausting.
The exhaustion comes from knowing that you’re not doing it perfectly.
What trips most people up?
Food is a huge issue. Food is hard for everybody, whether you have diabetes or not. The pressure that you have to pay attention to everything you eat all the time makes people subconsciously rebel.
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But the consequences can be scary.
Scare tactics are huge in diabetes. I am definitely motivated to take care of myself by the fact that I don’t want to be blind some day. But as a whole, I’m more motivated by what I want my life to be rather than what I don’t want it to be.
What helps most people?
The most important step is to admit that you’re burned out. To say to yourself, “I deserve to be burned out.”
Let yourself feel it instead of hiding it, denying it or trying to change it. Take time to let yourself feel it. Then take a step forward with some type of support — a small step. We usually try to take too big a step.
What’s your best piece of advice to someone who’s struggling?
Just go home, sit and write down 'Emotions,' 'Nutrition,' 'Exercise' and 'Diabetes Management.' Decide which needs the most attention.
And the best thing a loved one can do is say, “I really want to support you. What kind of support do you need?”
What’s the one exercise you most recommend?
Walking with a good friend who knows how to listen and how to share when it’s their turn to share.
What about when people say dumb things?
Sometimes being blunt is good. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself.
I don’t comment on the health of someone else who is eating a donut, but somehow people think it’s different when you have diabetes. Say, 'This is my health and thanks for your concern, but I’ll take it from here.'