You’ve planned every last detail of your weekend trip to Chicago. You have your dinner reservations, your tickets to see the Cubs play and you can’t wait to ride the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. As the plane is taking off, you grab a granola bar out of your bag to snack on. As you reach for your insulin pen so you can cover the granola bar you freeze as you realize that you forgot to pack your insulin. You meant to grab it out of the fridge as you ran out of your house and into the Uber, but somehow it slipped your mind. And now you are on your way to Chicago to hang out with your friends and you don’t have the one thing you need to stay alive. What to do?
Recently, people have been talking a lot about how important peer support is for people with diabetes – and I couldn’t agree more. But when I suggest to folks that they get involved in peer support communities, their reaction is not always so positive. I think they probably imagine sitting around a table with a bowl of sugar-free candy in the middle with a bunch of people they can’t relate to, talking about which brand of glucose tabs is best, or how to bake a carb-free cake. The perception is that peer support communities are going to be at best awkward and at worst, creepy with a bit of boring and depressing thrown in. And if that were the case, that’s certainly not something that I’d want to be a part of.
If you ask people with diabetes who know others with diabetes what they get out of these relationships, their first answer is almost always that they feel less alone. Knowing that there are other people out there who totally understand your experiences, without having to explain or justify anything is worth its weight in gold. However, the benefits of having a support network of other people with diabetes goes way beyond having someone you can vent to.
The dictionary defines social capital as the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage. Put in simple terms, social capital is a person’s ability to call in a favor. Of course you’re going to be most successful in calling in favors to people you know and have relationships with. They know you, they trust you and they’re willing to go out on a limb for you in your time of need. Almost everybody has some social capital. Think about what kind of social capital you have. Who would you call if you need a ride to the airport? If you need a reference for a job? If you need to borrow money to tide you over until you get your next paycheck?
Peer support networks give you access to diabetes-related social capital. Who would you call if you were visiting Chicago for the weekend and you forgot your insulin? If you’re looking for a new endocrinologist? If you want some advice on what brand of insulin pump you should get? I believe that everyone with diabetes has some amount of diabetes social capital just because they have diabetes and most people that I know with diabetes will go to great lengths to help someone else with diabetes in a time of need. Insulin, test strips, information – you name it and someone will be there for you. But unless you have a network of other people with diabetes, you have no way to access this social capital. Knowing other people with diabetes gives you the key to access what you need and lets you pay it forward and help other people when they need it.
There are many faces of the diabetes peer support community and all of them can give you access to social capital. Whether it’s a group of friends you met at diabetes camp many years ago, a support group run by your doctor, a group on Facebook or a hashtag on Instagram, there’s no wrong way to be part of a diabetes community. Maybe you don’t need the ‘shoulder to cry on’ type of support and maybe you don’t want to spend time talking about diabetes – that’s ok. The value of the diabetes community is multi-dimensional, including having your back in your time of need.
You land in Chicago. You didn’t eat anything on the plane because you didn’t want your blood sugar to go high so you’re hungry. Your mind is racing and you’re hoping you can get ahold of your doctor. While you’re waiting at baggage claim, you’re scrolling through Facebook and you see a post from someone in the diabetes group you joined a couple months ago. You figure, why not – and you ask if anyone in the group lives in Chicago and has an insulin pen you can use this weekend. Within five minutes, three people who you’ve never met message you with offers to help – and one of them lives down the street from your hotel. You meet up with them a couple hours later and when they give you a pen, you ask what you can do for them and they say ‘pay it forward with social capital.’