There is an old saying that states “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I’m willing to bet we’ve all disagreed with this at some point, and especially when it comes to diabetes. Many advocate for the importance of using non-stigmatizing, inclusive and non-judgmental language when speaking about or to people with diabetes. For some, they don’t care, others care passionately. Where do you stand when it comes to “person with diabetes” versus “diabetic”, or “checking” blood sugar versus “testing”, or any of the tons of other examples? Let’s explore the power of words, but please remember to keep things respectful.
My childhood best friend’s mom was one of the first people in my life that I ever knew to have Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed later in adulthood (and well before diabetes entered my life personally), Ginger was my first true glimpse of what it meant to live life with the condition. I am so thankful to have had the exposure to someone who relied on constant blood glucose monitoring and wasn’t ashamed to take out a syringe and vial of insulin at the table of a restaurant or on the sidelines of the soccer field. She was so confident and she did it all with a positive attitude and smile on her face. She made it look like it was no big deal. Ginger made diabetes real for me back in the days when I still possessed functioning beta cells. She was the first person I thought of the night I was diagnosed and she continues to be a pillar of support for me to this day.
One thing that sticks out in my mind about Ginger is that she would always say that she wasn’t a “diabetic” but that she was a “person living with diabetes”. At the time, I didn’t think much of the difference, only recognizing that it seemed to make her feel better by declaring the latter. It seemed to me that her confidence surrounding her diabetes had to do with the fact that she chose to see it as only a fraction of her as a whole person. This is something that I support entirely to this day. I think anything that helps you and your mental diabetes game should always be taken into consideration.
With that being said, the word “diabetic” doesn’t bother me one bit. In fact, I happily had it permanently inked into the skin of my inner left wrist.
In 2012, after months of being ill and bedridden, I went with my younger brother, Evan, to a tattoo place at our local mall. All I asked was for the word “diabetic” to be written in a simple script. Though many others suggested I get it the other way around so EMT’s and medical professionals could better read what it said, I opted to have it facing me. Yes, this was intended to be a medical alert tattoo, but I also wanted it to serve as a personal reminder to me of the hell I had already climbed my way out of and the battles I still had ahead of me. For so long I had ignored my diabetes and this tattoo served as the marker of a turning point in my life.
Since I got the tattoo, there have been times where I’ve looked down and thought, “Have I made a mistake?” because I realize some people are actually offended by the term. What do they all think when they see pictures of what I’d done? Do they hate it? However, the more I think about it, the more I realize the difference between “diabetic” and “person with diabetes” really doesn’t mean anything to me. But that’s just me. I personally have way too much on my plate (diabetes and otherwise) to fret about such minute little details like what phrases or words to use. It doesn’t matter to me whether I say “test” or “check”… I still have to do it.
I fully support and understand why some people feel the need to use specific language and terminology when it comes to diabetes. We all have the special tricks up our diabetes sleeves to get us through the day. I see having a preference as a diabetes success strategy that I just don’t have the need to use.
I will tell you a phrase that really drives me nuts and that is the term “diabetic diet”. Each time I’m admitted to the hospital and I see that written on the white board I’m forced to stare at for days, I want to scream. The nutrition department at the hospital will send me a “Consistent Carb” menu and all I want to do is tell the dietary aid to get the hell out of my room. I know she’s just doing her job but this is an area of T1D care that needs to be addressed. Can we all just agree that there is no such thing as a “diabetic diet”? Sure there are maybe better choices for people living with diabetes, but forcing the “Consistent Carb Diabetic Diet” on every case that walks through the door is insensitive and ignorant. There has to be better knowledge of the fact that people with T1D have the same choices for food as anyone else, we just need to properly calculate carbohydrates and take the proper dose for what we’re consuming.
I’m glad my attitude towards the language of diabetes is pretty laid back. I hope that by being a person who doesn’t really mind using the different terms interchangeably helps others realize that maybe they don’t truly care either. After all, diabetes is hard enough wisthout having to fight battles other than our fluctating blood glucose levels if we really don’t have to.