There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” Diabetes…

I was diagnosed with type Diabetes (previously known as “Juvenile Diabetes”) at the age of 4 years old. It was a difficult time, as my older brother had several medical issues that kept us frequenting the local hospitals on a weekly basis, so some of my symptoms went unnoticed for quite some time. And by the time they WERE noticed, things began to escalate.

My weight started to fluctuate, I was having severe mood swings (worse than the typical 4 year old, I guess) and I started wetting the bed. Some of these might have been attributed to nothing, had I not lost consciousness at the breakfast table one morning.

I was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed me with Type 1 Diabetes. My life suddenly became a flurry of medical appointments and training. I had to learn how to test my blood glucose and take insulin injections. I started to learn a rigorous dietary regiment and was restricted from eating many of things I saw others eating.

Although many people feel that it would be horrific for a four year old child to be diagnosed with this condition, it’s been 36 years since I was diagnosed and I’ve never known differently. Diabetes has become a part of my daily lifestyle.

Throughout the years, however, I’ve had to deal with a lot of stereotypes surrounding Diabetes. Even with all the literature available on the subject, not least of which includes the Internet, people are still ignorant of what causes Diabetes and what it takes to treat it.

Here’s the reality: Type 1 Diabetes happens when your own body’s immune system destroys cells in one’s pancreas known as beta cells. These cells are the ones responsible for the production of insulin within the body. Since these cells are destroyed and no insulin is produced, artificial insulin injections are required to maintain proper glucose levels within the body.

Now that the medical jargon is out of the way, allow me to share some of the worst lines I’ve heard from people (most of which are not, nor do they care for, someone with Diabetes):

“That has sugar in it. Should you really be eating that?” (The amount of sugar or glucose in food doesn’t matter, so long as you can balance the amount of insulin you take)

“I thought only fat or obese people caught Diabetes?” (This is an aggravating factor for Type 2 Diabetes, which is something totally different from Type 1.  One’s body weight CAN affect blood sugar levels once you become Type 1, but is most definitely not a cause)

Back in the day, when I used to take insulin injections with a bottle and syringe, I had one of my professors walk in on me in the washroom. “Young man, are you taking drugs? And are you doing it while on campus?” (I actually got dragged out and brought to the college administrator’s office for that one until the matter was explained and cleared up.)

There are a lot of stigmas surrounding Diabetes and it continues to amaze me how most people don’t know the most basic facts about a condition that affects over 4 million Canadians.

I recently found an interesting website (www.getdiabetesright.org) that provided a list of Diabetes etiquette, which I find hits the nail on the head. It provides the information for people who DON’T have Diabetes. Here’s what it says:

  1. DON’T offer unsolicited advice about my eating or other aspects of Diabetes.  You may mean well, but giving advice about someone’s personal habits, especially when it’s not requested isn’t very nice. Besides, many of the popular beliefs about Diabetes (“You should stop eating sugar”) are out of date or don’t apply to Type 1 Diabetes.
  2. DON’T tell me horror stories about your grandmother or other people with Diabetes you’ve heard about.  Diabetes is scary enough, and stories like these are not reassuring! Besides, we now know that with good management, odds are good that you can live a long, healthy and happy life with Type 1 Diabetes.
  3. DON’T look so horrified when I check my blood glucose levels or give myself an injection.  It’s not a lot of fun for me either. Checking blood glucose and taking medications are things I must do to manage Diabetes well. If I have to hide while I do so, it makes it much harder for me.
  4. DON’T offer thoughtless reassurances.  When you first learn about my Diabetes, you may want to assure me with things like, “Hey, it could be worse; you could have cancer!” This won’t make me feel better. And the implicit message seems to be that Diabetes is not a big deal. However, Type 1 Diabetes (like cancer) IS a big deal.
  5. DON’T ask me “how my Diabetes is coming along.”  The management of Type 1 Diabetes involves more than taking shots and watching what you eat. It is a complex balance of three things: insulin dosage, exercise and food. Growth, illness, stress, changes in activity level, changes in where shots are given and other factors can effect this balance. On-going adjustment is needed and my numbers will fluctuate (sometimes in extremes) every day.
  6. DO realize and appreciate that Diabetes is hard work.  Type 1 Diabetes management is a full-time job I didn’t apply for, didn’t want and can’t quit. It involves thinking about what, when and how much i eat, while also factoring in exercise, medication, stress, blood glucose monitoring and so much more – each and every single day.
  7. DON’T try to find a “reason” that I have this disease.  Type 1 is not caused by being overweight. It is not caused by eating too much sugar. It is not contagious. Children do not outgrow Diabetes or their need for insulin. Nothing that my parents did or did not do could have prevented the onset . Insulin does not cure Diabetes, it controls it.
  8. DO offer your love and encouragement.  As I work hard to manage my Diabetes successfully, sometimes just knowing that you care can be very helpful and motivating.

They say that every person is going through a journey no one knows about. I’m certainly not sharing this to make anyone feel sorry for me or to complain. But like with every other serious medical condition, education is the key towards understanding this one. For more information, feel free to visit http://www.diabetes.ca, http://www.getdiabetesright.org or visit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at http://www.jdrf.ca

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Way of the Empty Hand, Way of Life…

Someone asked me when I started studying the martial arts and what style I practice. The answer is a bit convoluted, and dates back to quite a while ago…

I’ve technically been interested in the martial arts since I was four years old. I had access to a lot of reading material as a child, since my father was almost as much into books then as I am now. I had started reading about traditional martial arts in general. This is also around the time I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I had a significant number of medical complications in those first few years, including being comatose on more than one occasion. I wasn’t a sporty kid when I was young. Unlike most kids my age, I wasn’t involved in soccer or hockey and preferred to spend most of my time reading books and watching documentaries (yes, I know what that makes me sound like!). I had taken swimming lessons and even started the advanced training to become a life guard, although I didn’t stick with that.

Training for my black belt in Okinawa, circa October 2001.

At seven years of age, I joined one of my friends at a local Tae Kwon Do class. I thought it would be a good way to get some exercise and it would allow me to satisfy my curiosity about the martial arts. I attended several classes over the course of the first year and started to enjoy it quite a bit. My parents didn’t approve of my choice to join martial arts as they felt that my Diabetes made me too vulnerable to be involved in rigorous physical activity. In some ways, they were very right. However, given how my body would react to Diabetes in the very near future, they were also very, very wrong…

Tae Kwon Do was fun, but it wasn’t quite right for me. For those of you who don’t study martial arts, or never have, allow me to explain; there are hundreds of different martial arts styles in the world, originating from different cultures, backgrounds and perspectives. From these styles, multiple offshoots of each style have emerged over the past centuries. Some more popular than others, some better known than others. I needed to find a style that would provide what I needed physically as well as spiritually.

In 1988, I started having more difficulties with my blood sugars and further complications arose from my Diabetes. I had an adverse reaction to extreme high blood sugar while sleeping one night and slipped into a coma. My parents found me in my bed, foaming at the mouth and my eyes rolling into the back of my head. I was rushed to the local hospital via ambulance, where they put me on an insulin drip and slowly lowered my blood sugar over the course of the following twenty-four hours and treated me for Diabetic Ketoacidosis (I ain’t explaining that one, that’s where Google comes in handy!). I was comatose for about three days. I woke up with the worse case of body pain and confusion I have ever experienced, even to this day. Further tests and a few days later, my doctors explained that I had insulin resistance. Basically, my cells were incapable of using insulin effectively, causing the high blood sugars that led to my coma. It was made quite clear that if we couldn’t find an insulin my body wouldn’t reject, my life expectancy was about three years. I was ten years old at the time.

I knew I would have to take matters into my own hands and do something. If being a child who was afraid of dying wasn’t bad enough, it often seemed as though the medical industry could do nothing to help me. Even at a young age, it appalled me that they could send a man to the moon but they couldn’t find a way to balance out my blood sugars. In the Spring of 1989, one of my best friends from childhood was studying karate in my home town. After a bit of inquiring, I learned that his father was the head instructor of the karate school, or dojo, and that it was a school of traditional Okinawan karate called Uechi Ryu. My parents were still sensitive from my coma, which had happened less than a year prior. They put a strict hiatus on my physical activities for fear that my waning health would suffer further. I ended up telling them I was quietly hanging out with friends when I attended my first karate class. I walked into that class full of hope and promise. It would ultimately lead to one of the best decisions of my life…

Practicing forms in Okinawa, circa October 2001.

Those first months in karate were rough. I had to attend classes and squirrel away my allowances to pay for tuition, all without my parents finding out. But the ruse paid off. Within the first year, my metabolism and immune system improved. I started to gain some mass and my insulin resistance began to dissipate. My parents noticed the improved blood sugars and health and I made my way forward.

By the time I had reached the point where I had to test for my green belt, it had become time to tell my parents. Considering that it would be a four hour test on a Saturday, it would be a little difficult to hide. My parents were NOT pleased with the fact that I had been keeping this from them for so long. But when weighed against the fact that it had helped towards improving my health to its current point, they agreed to allow me to continue training in karate as long as it didn’t affect my grades and schooling (which it hadn’t to this point). This solidified my martial arts lifestyle for the rest of my life.

Meditating on the mats after a two-hour workout in 2017.
Photo shoot at the RIOKK 30th Anniversary celebration in 2017.

I’m not going to say that karate changed my life, but… Okay, karate changed my life. Karate saved my life. I’ve been doing it ever since and its been an important factor in every aspect of my life. Its helped maintain my health, discipline and got me to where I am today. It also helped peak my interest in my current career direction. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of amazing people through karate and have experienced wonderful things. I began studying Buddhism in 1998 and it followed me all the way to Japan in 2001 where I had the opportunity to visit and study with Buddhist monks and train with the karate masters in Okinawa.

These days, I’ve been training in Kempo karate and furthering my martial arts training. I’ve been chatting with my karate instructor about testing for my next grade of black belt and my wife and son have started to train with me.

My three year old son and I training on the mats.
My son and I, sparring at home. Karate is in his blood!

I often wonder how far I would have made it through life, had I not started martial arts. I once heard that “we often find our destiny on the road we least thought to travel”. I have no idea who passed on the quote, but I know it’s stuck with me all my life. These days, I leave myself open to all schools of thought and train with people of all styles and backgrounds. After all, I was born with two ears and one mouth, so I tend to listen twice as much as I speak.

Feel free to leave me a comment if you’re a practitioner of the martial arts and would like to discuss.