Taking care of my mom, who dealt with several complications from type 2 diabetes, taught me that it’s not selfish to put myself first. In fact, it’s necessary for my own health and the well-being of my loved ones.
I have a necklace I wear, an angel my mother gave me shortly before she died. When she gifted it to me, she’d said it was because I was her angel for moving back home to take care of her.
But the truth was, I didn’t feel much like an angel. It wasn’t the first time I’d been my mother’s caretaker, and that first time had been a different experience.
I’d lived with my parents through most of my 20s, helping to take care of my mom when her health began to decline due to complications from type 2 diabetes.
First, she faced reduced eyesight and then kidney failure. But it was the multiple calls to 911 in the middle of the night that had me finally packing up my things and moving away.
More than once, Mom accidentally overdosed on her insulin to the point of slipping into a comatose state during her sleep. As a result, Dad or I had to call the emergency squad so she could be revived with an injection of glucose.
One time when this happened, the squad couldn’t wake her. I followed the ambulance to the hospital and sat with her all day while the ER tried to rouse her.
That was the day I decided I was done. I’d always been a natural caretaker, so this wasn’t about being tired. I wasn’t overburdened. I was heartsick. I couldn’t continue to watch what I thought at the time was my mother trying to unconsciously kill herself.
So when my sister called me up and asked if I wanted to share rent with her on an apartment in upstate New York, I didn’t hesitate.
Shortly after I made the decision to move from Ohio to New York, my mom got the happy news she’d be getting a new kidney. She wanted me to stay and help her through the transplant process, but I couldn’t. I was too hurt.
I’ve learned a lot about type 2 diabetes in the intervening years. And, thankfully, so has medical science. As we continue to learn more about this chronic disease, the discussions about it are shifting.
But even today, those with type 2 diabetes are frequently subjected to “blame and shame,” as one participant of a 2013 research study points out.
Because of constant messaging that type 2 diabetes can be managed and controlled, I blamed my mother for her poor health outcomes.
Though my mom always tried to encourage healthy habits for her kids, she was a classic example of “do as I say, not as I do.” She ate sweets whenever she wanted, rarely exercised, and frequently forgot to take her medication.
I know now that no one asks for diabetes, and those of us with the condition certainly don’t give it to ourselves by being overweight or eating too many sweets.
But watching her face one complication after another — from diabetic retinopathy to kidney failure to eventually congestive heart failure — I couldn’t help but think: If she loved me enough, wouldn’t she take better care of herself? So she could stick around for me?
Nearly a decade later, I moved back in with my parents to be my mom’s caretaker once again. But this time, I had a whole new outlook. In the intervening years, I’d been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes myself.
I’ve tried hard to take care of my health most of my life. But, for me, acquiring type 2 diabetes was probably less a matter of “if” than “when.”
Research shows that if one parent has type 2 diabetes, an individual has a 40 percent chance of developing the condition in their lifetime. If both parents have type 2 diabetes, which mine do (my dad was more recently diagnosed), that risk increases to 70 percent.
My diagnosis wasn’t the only thing that had changed when I returned to take care of my mom in my late 30s. I also had a husband, and it wasn’t long before we were starting a family.
I had been living with type 2 diabetes for several years before becoming pregnant, but pregnancy turned managing it into a full-time job. I had to take insulin since other diabetic medications aren’t safe during pregnancy. And that meant constant blood sugar monitoring.
Pregnancy also meant I had to be extremely careful about what I ate to maintain tight blood sugar control. Yet that control was so tight, I had frequent — almost daily — lows.
This was on top of all the “normal” pregnancy experiences, like morning sickness, fatigue, headaches, body aches and pains, and the typical discomforts that come with growing a human inside you.
Despite this, Mom always came first. If she needed anything, I came running, no matter how swollen my ankles were.
I was excellent at following my diabetes regimen. After all, I knew it was crucial for the health of my son. I took all my meds, I checked my blood sugar like it was my religion, and I counted every carb that passed my lips.
But Mom needed full-time care. Over the years, Mom’s eyes had gotten worse, and coupled with neuropathy in her feet, she was unable to walk without assistance. Though her legs worked just fine, her feet couldn’t feel the ground and her eyes could barely see it.
Consequently, she’d taken a terrible fall down the basement stairs a month before my husband and I moved in to help. She’d sustained a head injury that impacted her memory, and she’d fractured both her wrists, which forever altered her ability to use her hands.
Perhaps worse in some ways, Mom had to give up her teaching career years prior when she went on dialysis. And she couldn’t do the hobbies she loved anymore, like arts and crafts and sewing, when she lost most of her eyesight and the use of her hands. She experienced depression because she felt she no longer had any purpose.
Even though I managed to take my medications, eat right, and even squeeze in some exercise, taking care of Mom didn’t leave any time for self-care. I couldn’t rest when I needed it or take time to de-stress.
Instead, I spent all my time shuffling Mom to doctor’s appointments, doing household chores, and finding ways to engage her in hobbies to help combat her depression.
I was happy to be Mom’s caretaker, unlike in my 20s. Maybe it was that I understood diabetes a bit more now, being someone with type 2 diabetes.
Or maybe, eventually, it was sharing the joy of new motherhood with my own mom. In fact, though it was the caretaking she thanked me for, the best gift I gave her was my son.
What Mom loved most in the world were her grandkids. My son wasn’t her first grandchild, but he would be the first local one. He’d be so local, actually, that he’d be living right in her house.
She was so excited every time I brought home ultrasound pictures. I even took her with me to more than one appointment because I often had to schedule my appointments around hers. But that was OK, because she got to see my son stick his tongue out on a 3D ultrasound, and it tickled her pink.
She imagined all the things they would do together. She would take him to the LEGO store. They would play at the park. She would teach him how to spell his words by playing Scrabble, something she used to do when she was a teacher and tutor.
The day before she died, 3 months after my son was born, she and my father bought lunch and drove to a neighborhood park. They sat in the car to eat, as they often did, because it was easier than trying to get Mom to a table.
They watched a family with a toddler having a picnic in the grass and said, “Maybe we can do that with our grandson when he’s older.” But at that point, her condition had her confined to sitting in chairs. As much as she longed to, Mom was never going to chase a toddler around the park.
After he was born, she’d hold my son for hours while she sat in the recliner, so I could get some sleep. It was her way of taking care of me after I’d spent so much time taking care of her.
Mom died in her sleep while my husband, son, and I slept in a nearby room. When Dad called out to me in the early morning in a panicked voice, I thought Mom may have fallen out of bed again, which she did sometimes.
But her body was still in the bed. She’d had a heart attack sometime during the night — the most common cause of death for people with diabetes.
After Mom died, my role as a caretaker didn’t end. I was a mom now. And as someone who was used to denying her own needs, it was easy to transition from taking care of an older adult with type 2 diabetes to a young and healthy, but helpless, infant.
In reality, the infant required far more from me. I got so used to ignoring my body, I ended up in the emergency room three times that first year for various bodily injuries.
Just as I’d pushed my own needs aside when I was taking care of my mom, never speaking up when I needed rest, I kept pushing forward as a mom.
But there’s a reason they tell mothers, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” And this adage rings no less true for those dealing with a condition like type 2 diabetes.
When my son was 3 years old, I took him by myself to a shopping mall. My husband and I were trying to have a second child, so I was back on insulin, and I had a low.
Before we left the house, I’d been so concerned with packing all my toddler’s stuff, I forgot to pack an emergency stash of candy for myself. So now my 3-year-old was attempting to run off while I was fainting.
If I passed out, my child’s safety would be at immediate risk. Ignoring every contemptuous stare, I butted to the front of the line of the nearest food vendor and loudly declared, “I’m a diabetic, and I’m having a blood sugar emergency. I need a soda now!”
It was embarrassing. And I had to endure the looks of a bunch of people who clearly had no idea what it meant to have a hypoglycemic episode. But I did the “selfish” thing, and I took care of myself and averted the crisis.
That was an extreme situation. But it’s so easy to get wrapped up in taking care of others that we forget to take care of ourselves — whether that means remembering to pack candy along with diapers and wipes or insisting on time to de-stress when it’s needed.
Taking rest time, especially, has often been characterized as selfish. For those of us who typically find ourselves in the position of being caretakers, it’s tough to justify time for ourselves.
Yet research shows that stress has an effect on diabetes. Elevated cortisol, the stress hormone, leads directly to elevated blood glucose levels. And being on the job all the time, whether parenting or caretaking, can certainly be a source of stress.
It’s not selfish to take time to de-stress. It’s necessary.
Chronic stress is a primary contributing factor to a higher A1C. Thus, the American Diabetes Association recommends lowering stress levels as one factor in diabetes management.
If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be capable of taking care of others. This is, of course, what the oxygen mask analogy means.
I was angry at my mom for years because I didn’t think she did enough to take care of herself. It’s one reason why I pushed myself so hard to find ways to reverse my diabetes through lifestyle changes.
I wanted to make sure my son knew that I loved him enough to take care of myself. I also wanted to ensure, as much as possible, that I could live a long healthy life to be around for him.
But in all that time, I missed one crucial way I never took care of myself: I’ve always been so busy taking care of others, I often forgot about self-care.
Self-care, in its essence, is caring for ourselves. But more than that, it’s prioritizing our whole selves — our physical and emotional health.
All these years later, I realize Mom didn’t take poor care of herself because she didn’t love me — or herself — enough. I think, just like me, she was angry. She didn’t want to have type 2 diabetes, so she got upset every time she had to test her blood sugar or inject herself with insulin.
Mom dealt with her type 2 diabetes by trying to pretend she didn’t have it. And, in a way, that’s exactly what I was doing every time I ignored my own needs. Thus, this is the thing Mom has come to help me understand the most: acceptance of my condition.
As the caretaker of a person with type 2 diabetes and someone with type 2 diabetes themselves, I have a unique perspective. My first instinct while caretaking is to set aside my own needs to be strong for others.
But the truth is, I have a chronic health condition that requires I pay attention to it. Right now, I have no complications from type 2 diabetes. But type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition. And while our health isn’t always 100 percent within our control, it’s possible I may be able to avoid complications, especially if I take care of my whole self.
And that means it’s not at all selfish to say, “Hey, I need to rest today.” Or, to march to the front of the line in a mall food court and demand a soda now.
Because I don’t want to miss out on my son’s wedding day. Or his future baby showers. And one day, I want to be able to chase my son’s toddlers around the park.
And though I have no idea if angels are real, I believe if my mom were looking down on us, that’s exactly what she’d be wanting for me too.
Fact checked on February 15, 2022
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