When I think of things that make me happy, my chronic illness doesn’t immediate spring to mind. Friends and family? Yes. Wine and cheese? Of course. Sunsets and springtime and freshly washed sheets... but not so much my type 1 diabetes, which I have lived with for 22 years. It can be tiresome, relentless and frustrating and there’s no off switch.
But on International Day of Happiness I wanted to try and shine a light on the more positive side of living with diabetes, and seek to find what it has brought me, despite turning up like an unwelcome guest into my life, taking a seat on the sofa, helping itself to the contents of my head, my fridge and my diary, and refusing to leave!
I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a medical condition that’s easy to live with. But over the years, and with the acceptance that my type 1 diabetes not going anywhere anytime soon, I can see some of the more positive things that it has brought to my life. This perspective plays a huge part in my ability and capacity to handle my diabetes without it becoming overwhelming, so I do try to maintain the outlook that although it’s difficult, it’s not often unbearable. Having diabetes isn’t in my control but my view of it, and how I let it dictate my life, is.
I would take a cure for my type 1 in a heartbeat if someone offered it to me tomorrow, but I don’t think I’d necessarily give back the years I’ve lived with type 1 diabetes. When I was first diagnosed at eight years old, myself and my family carried on as normal because we didn’t know any different. So, tentatively at first, I kept going to all my after school clubs and sleepovers and dance competitions just like I had before, although there was now a lot more to think about - and a lot more supplies and snacks to carry! This definitely instilled in me a sense of not letting my diabetes hold me back, and I’ve done so much throughout my life in spite of my diabetes because I never learnt to fear it, and I’m grateful to my parents for that. Whether it’s work trips or festivals, travelling or training for half marathons and even getting through stress or trauma - having diabetes gives me a lust for life and the motivation to go out and experience as much as possible.
Diabetes has also undoubtedly made me a more compassionate person, which I think for me is one of the biggest positives of living with this disease. I know how much I personally have to think about everyday just to keep myself alive, but someone I met in the street would have absolutely no idea. There are so many different, complicated and life-altering illnesses and issues out there that people are dealing with in the silence of their own mind, and diabetes has helped me understand that you just don’t know what people are going through - and how a simple act of kindness can make someone’s day, their week or their month. Diabetes gives me a good dose of perspective too - about what’s important, what matters and what doesn’t. I can’t afford to get stressed about everything because my health will suffer, and that’s helped me set boundaries and cherish the simpler things in life.
Diabetes has shown me what it means to help people, and to be of service to others. I started blogging about type 1 almost 10 years ago to make myself more accountable for my health. There is vulnerability in sharing your story, but there is also so much power in it. I would never have thought that all these years later I could happily say I’ve helped people feel less alone with their diabetes. In fact it’s still unbelievable to me that people resonate with what I have to say. That is the most precious, magical, wonderful thing to have come from diabetes and I will always cherish that.
My type 1 diabetes has also given me a lot of opportunities. I work in digital media and blogging, writing and speaking about diabetes has definitely helped me to get jobs; some of them pretty impressive ones. I’ve accepted speaking gigs that have terrified me, and so it’s also helped me overcome fear and push myself to do things I may not otherwise have done.
Diabetes has made me much more of a planner than I would otherwise be, and if people ever call me scatty or distracted I do get annoyed, because I have so much running through my head at any one time. How much insulin do I have on board? How likely is it that I’ll exercise today? Did I exercise yesterday? Do I have some form of sugar in my bag? Is it likely that I’ll go hypo on this train? Should I take my insulin ahead of leaving the office, or wait until I get to the sandwich shop? When I step back and think about all of this, I feel like a superhero for simply getting through each day - which is pretty cool!
It’s also given me, over time, an appreciation of just how hard my body works to keep me living and breathing, and how incredible it is for keeping me alive so that I can experience things like love, laughter and happiness. Losing just a few little beta cells creates an enormous amount of work for someone living with type 1 diabetes, so to think about what your body is doing at any given moment to keep you alive is really quite amazing. It’s made me respect my body and the fact that I can’t do everything, and that sometimes saying ‘no’ can bring me as much happiness as saying ‘yes’.
This year’s theme for International Day of Happiness is Happier Together, and that couldn’t be more fitting for the diabetes community, which has been an incredible source of support and information over the years. Diabetes can be a lonely thing to live with. Although friends and family are wonderfully supportive, they can never know exactly what a hypo feels like, or just how rough you feel after a challenging diabetes day. Having hundreds of people in the palm of my hand at any time of day that can share stories about this weird and complex condition is a great source of comfort - in the challenges but also the shared understanding of how utterly bizarre this all is. Having to wee into tiny test tubes for the doctor, having to stab yourself in the leg multiples times a day, knowing that a Jelly Baby could save your life - only another person with diabetes can get that as we wade, alone but together, through life with type 1.
Yes diabetes can be challenging, and the positives are undoubtedly harder to see on some days than others, but I am willing to acknowledge that my diabetes is a part of me, and that it has been integral in shaping who I am. For that, I am happy.
Jen Grieves is a writer, digital producer and type 1 diabetes blogger from London. She has lived with the condition for 22 years and you can find her blogging at missjengrieves.com.