Welcome to Connecting the Dots on Diabetes, a series by Sydney Williams of Hiking My Feelings, chronicling the organization’s mission to hike 1 million miles for diabetes awareness.
Throughout the series, Sydney, who received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in 2017, will dig into questions like: Is there a relationship between trauma and diabetes? If so, if we treat the trauma, can we more effectively treat diabetes? And how can self-reflection help make sense of a diabetes diagnosis and lead to better outcomes?
When I was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I had a lot of questions. What is happening inside my body? What can I eat? Will I be on medications for the rest of my life?
There are a ton of resources available to answer these questions, but I wanted to take my health into my own hands and be my own best advocate.
In the wake of this diagnosis, I came to a shocking realization: I didn’t really know myself.
Sure, I had been existing in this body on this planet for 32 years when I got the call that changed my life, but who was I really? What did I believe? What had I internalized from society, my parents, my coaches, and other people in my life?
How had that informed my life choices, circumstances, and overall outlook on what life should be? I realized I was living the life I thought I should be living, not one of my own design.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, diabetes is the best thing that ever happened to me.
Just 9 months before my diagnosis, I started backpacking.
It was December 2016, and this was the next chapter of my healing journey. I had no idea how my life would unfold when I went on that trip, but it undeniably changed my life on a cellular level.
When I got home, I was sore for 3 weeks. I couldn’t walk right and my feet were healing from an onslaught of blisters from ill-fitting shoes and a lack of physical preparation. Yet, at the same time, I felt a deep love for the body I had been occupying for the 31 years prior to that hike.
I didn’t know how my life would change or who would help me get to where I wanted to go, but for the first time, I was clear on what I wanted and why. I wanted to be fit, to get healthy. Not a new goal for me in January, but this time it was different.
I fell in love with backpacking on that trip. I fell in love with how my body felt in the wilderness, the healing power of nature, and how refreshed and clearheaded I felt when it was all said and done.
Despite the blisters and aches and pains, I came home a new woman — and I wanted to honor that new woman with every step I took for the rest of my life.
I wanted to be able to hike as much as possible and enjoy the experience. If there was any way I could do more hiking and backpacking and not have my body get in the way of the miles I wanted to do per day, or how many days I could be out in the backcountry in a row, I wanted to explore that.
So I did.
I picked up paddleboarding during the summer of 2017 and declared to myself that I was a multi-sport athlete. When it was too hot to hike, I’d be on the water. When it was too cold to paddle, I’d be in the mountains.
For all of my life, I never called myself an athlete because I figured if I wasn’t going to the Olympics and winning gold medals, then who am I? In that moment, I squashed that old story and wrote a new one: I’m an athlete. Time to live like one.
After a summer full of paddleboarding, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. As it got cooler and paddleboarding wasn’t as appealing, I started walking every day around my neighborhood, eventually graduating to local hiking trails.
Slowly but surely, my life started to change before my eyes.
On my walks and hikes, I didn’t listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks. My phone stayed in my pocket. I was able to hear my inner voice.
Intense physical activity brought up lots of painful memories. When my body started getting tired, my brain told me wild stories about how I’m too fat and too out of shape to be out here.
I didn’t like how I was talking to myself and I remembered my first backpacking trip, where I learned how to be my own best friend.
Instead of running away from difficult feelings and memories, or numbing them with alcohol or ice cream, I listened.
When I started to peel back the layers of the life I had built for myself, I gained context and insights about the life events that led to the behaviors that contributed to my diagnosis.
I repeated that 2016 backpacking trip in June 2018, 10 months into my journey managing diabetes, and once again, my life was changed.
Without all the distractions of life, I was able to connect the dots between trauma I had experienced earlier in my life (a sexual assault in college) and how, when I didn’t get help, I started coping by eating and drinking my feelings.
After more than a decade of neglecting my health, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
When I cut out the harmful behaviors and started hiking and tending to my mental health, my A1C improved, and my daily readings were in the healthy zone.
Diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, has a horrible stigma around it. A common trope is that we made unhealthy choices and brought it on ourselves.
While I did make some unhealthy choices, the trauma of the sexual assault is what informed those choices. For some people with diabetes, lifestyle plays no role.
We could all stand to have a bit more empathy and compassion for folks who have diabetes. Every experience with diabetes is personal.
In the wake of my diagnosis and subsequent love for hiking, I founded a nonprofit organization called Hiking My Feelings. We started in 2018, and since then we’ve hosted more than 200 events around the United States introducing people to the healing power of nature.
My work explores how trauma manifests in our minds and bodies, and how the outdoors can help us heal. The question we’re looking to explore in 2021 is a big one:
Is trauma a root cause of diabetes? If so, if we address the trauma, can we manage diabetes more effectively?
The inspiration for addressing this question came as a result of my own journey navigating type 2 diabetes. Once I faced the trauma head-on and addressed my mental health, my physical health followed closely behind.
According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in America, some of the most disturbing statistics come to light when breaking the prevalence down by race:
If you look at these groups and think about issues like poverty, access to healthcare, education, food deserts (and food swamps), the pay gaps in America, and the historical trauma experienced by these communities —colonization, racism, slavery, oppression, systemic issues — then it’s even more evident that trauma could be a root cause of diabetes.
In this column, you can look forward to interviews with the people who are working to make the world a better place by means of diabetes awareness and education, learn about hiking and walking for mental and physical health, and hear from the community leaders, organizations and brands who are helping increase accessibility of recreation opportunities in marginalized communities.
Obviously, we can’t hike 1 million miles in a year by ourselves, so we’re counting on our community and all of the friends we haven’t met yet to help us meet and exceed our goal.
We’re just getting started, and it’s never too late to join us. Healing happens one step at a time.
Article originally appeared on February 16, 2021 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on February 12, 2021.
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