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What is diabetic burnout, and why is it important and dangerous?
Imagine, for a moment, that you are the main character in this story.
You’ve just turned fifteen.
For the past few weeks, you’ve been feeling lethargic, have had to pee a lot, and your weight has dropped considerably more than would otherwise be considered normal. You’ve also been suffering from brain fog, and your grades are in danger of slipping.
Your parents notice and are very concerned.
What could possibly be causing all these symptoms? It’s not flu season, and you’re not presenting with a fever or chills.
But all those midnight trips to the bathroom. And 3 AM trips to the bathroom.
Your parents finally have had enough and take you to the ER. Something’s not right, and they have a gut feeling that it’s going to be serious.
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Your mom feels like there’s a pit in her stomach, because she’s heard whispers of the symptoms of diabetes, and you’re checking all the boxes.
The doctors do not have good news.
You, an otherwise normal fifteen-year-old, have been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.
Your life as you know it is effectively over.
No longer can you have that bar of chocolate without thinking about what it will do to your blood sugar.
Every action or inaction you take will affect something that has to do with your diabetes, and it will take months, if not years, to fully accept and settle into your new reality.
When you go back to school, you’re embarrassed and try to hide your new disease, but it’s hard. People ask questions. People gossip. And people bully.
You get into the hang of things for a while. You can eyeball the carb count in a slice of bread. You’ve figured out your insulin ratios for a sedentary day versus a sports day.
But nothing is constant.
You can do the exact same thing on two different days, and have wildly different blood sugars.
It begins to take a toll on your mental health.
Why you? Why did you get stuck with this stupid disease? You didn’t even do anything to get it! You just want to be NORMAL again.
And that thought takes hold. Grows roots.
By age seventeen you’re just so DONE with all things diabetes. If you have to look at another test strip again, you’ll lose it.
So you stop testing. And soon thereafter, you stop correcting for the food you eat.
You just stopped caring.
You got burned out.
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Now, let’s take a moment to pause and talk.
Diabetic burnout is very real and very common among diabetics, especially those who were diagnosed later in life when they can remember what it was like before the daily insulin injections and blood sugar checks.
It’s a very tough pill to swallow, going from a normal kid on the block to that kid who needs to count her carbs before every meal and give insulin for it.
It can feel extremely restricting.
A lot of people end up using it as an excuse to stop participating in things.
I know I used it as my trump card to get out of PE activities that I hated, soooo there’s that…
Kids are sneaky and can hide a lot of their burnout and lapse in care from their parents.
But kids who burn out are at a high risk of developing ketoacidosis, which is basically your blood turning into syrup and slowly, painfully, killing you from the inside out.
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Burnout is not a joke, and it’s a phase in diabetes life when the person needs support and encouragement, not scolding and discipline. They need doctors and friends and parents who are sympathetic and want to help.
You start to feel pretty shitty but muster through because you’re determined to be normal again.
But your body rebels.
You land in the ER again, this time with ketoacidosis. Your blood sugar is climbing into the 600’s, and your parents are frantic and desperate.
When your number is brought down to a more respectable 200 (remembering that the normal range is 80-120-ish), the doctor advises your parents that you should speak with a therapist and endocrinologist and figure out how to combat the burnout.
Sometimes it’s okay if all you can do is take it one day at a time.
This disease is a marathon—a lifelong marathon—not a sprint.
It is our normal. For some, it’s a new normal, and a difficult normal to adjust to.
Everyone is different in this respect. As someone who was diagnosed so young that I don’t remember anything else, this has been my ONLY normal.
This is just one of the reasons I think it was better to be diagnosed early. Burnout is just a little less likely when diabetes is all you’ve known. Having never known anything else, what other reality could I have for comparison?
I have thought about what it would be like to eat a doughnut and not worry about how high my blood sugar will spike afterward. Or what it’s like to go out to a restaurant and choose whatever I’d like without worrying about nutrition information.
But I have no memory of ever living life without diabetes being a part of it.
Others are not so lucky.
Burnout is a very real thing to watch out for, especially if you or your children were diagnosed at an age when they can remember what it was like “before.”
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If you’re interested in hearing more about real life with type 1 diabetes, I’m excited to let you in on a secret. We’re launching a diabetes podcast on September 3rd! You can find the Facebook page here, where we’ll be posting updates and links to the episodes when they come out.