I have a confession to make. A couple weeks ago, I lied about having diabetes. I didn’t lie because I was ashamed of having diabetes, but in order to cover for my lie, I had to work really hard to hide that I had diabetes. And hiding it made me feel embarrassed and ashamed, nervous that someone would find out and prevent me from doing something that I wanted to do. People tell me about feeling this shame all the time. But it wasn’t until I experienced it first hand, that I really got a taste of the shame and embarrassment that diabetes can cause. Feeling like you have to keep something a secret leads to shame and embarrassment. I felt like I had to work really hard to keep my diabetes secret, and it sucked.
Before I go on, let me give you some context. I lied about having diabetes when I was SCUBA diving in Jamaica. When you go diving, you have to fill out this long medical form which is basically a long list of medical conditions. If you answer yes to any the questions on the medical waiver, they won’t let you dive. I know I can dive safely with diabetes – I’ve done it many times before and my dive partner (who is also my wife) and I have signals for low blood sugar and she knows what to do in case of emergency. There was no way I was going to let that question on the form stop me from enjoying my vacation.
Even though I didn’t tell the dive master I have diabetes, I checked my blood sugar before every dive. Going low 60 feet under water is the last thing I would want to do. But instead of doing it publically like I normally would, I checked in the back of the boat with my fingers inside my bag, anxious that someone would ask me what I was doing. Since I like to start my dives with a blood sugar of above 150mg/dl and don’t have any basal insulin for 45+ minutes, my blood sugar is usually high after the dive. I learned quickly that trying to hide that I was taking a shot was no easy task. Combined with being hyper-vigilant that my secret would be discovered, it made me feel pretty anxious and ashamed – ashamed that there was something about me that I had to hide in order to accomplish something that I really wanted to do.
I spend a lot of time working to help my patients feel comfortable in being open about having diabetes. I really believe that being open allows people a lot more freedom than keeping diabetes a secret. But when I found myself keeping diabetes a secret, not only did it make me more empathetic to those who have a hard time being open, but it also got me thinking about if being secretive about diabetes is ever healthy.
There’s no easy answer. I think that in most things, keeping diabetes a secret isn’t healthy. Not only can it leave folks around you in the dark about what to do in case of an emergency, but hiding diabetes is hard and takes a lot of energy. Being secretive can take your focus away from being fully present in relationships, activities and work, because your focus is on making sure that your diabetes is not out in the open. But at the same time, hiding diabetes, like I did is functional, even if it’s not ideal. Diving on vacation is important to me, and even though hiding that I have diabetes was stressful, and made me feel embarrassed, it was a means to an end. Hiding diabetes let me do something that brought me a lot of happiness and that I would not have been able to do if I told the truth.
I encourage people who hide having diabetes to think about why they are hiding it. Are they hiding because they are embarrassed, or are they hiding it because not hiding it would really prevent them from doing something they want to do (not just make them feel ashamed). For me, lying about having diabetes was not to avoid feeling ashamed (even though hiding it made me feel ashamed), but it was necessary to be able to do what I wanted to do.
Will I encourage my patients to be open with people in their lives about having diabetes? Absolutely. Will I hide having diabetes next time I go diving? Absolutely. There are no easy answers.