For many, the hardest part of living with type 2 diabetes isn’t managing but accepting the diagnosis in the first place.
Unlike many other life-changing conditions, type 2 diabetes often comes with two additional obstacles: denial and shame.
For those with type 1 diabetes, denial isn’t really an option because without insulin and checking your blood sugar, you’d get extremely sick extremely quickly. Quite simply, you would die within a few months of developing type 1 if you truly denied your diagnosis.
For those with type 2 diabetes, however, the disease is so gradual and the symptoms are often so subtle (at first) that it can be easier to ignore, hide from, and avoid for a long time.
In this article, we’re going to look at the denial that comes with a diabetes diagnosis.
Denial after your type 2 diabetes diagnosis
“That initial denial after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is very common,” explains Alexis Elliott, LCSW, LISW-CP, CDE, a health coach with specialties in diabetes, eating disorders, and nutrition.
Elliott shares some of the common things people say about diabetes that indicate they may not be fully accepting and acknowledging their diagnosis:
- “I’m just borderline.”
- “It’s just prediabetes, I don’t have to worry yet.”
- “They just started me on metformin as a precaution.”
- “My doctor is just watching it.”
- “I’ve just got a touch of the sugar.”
Usually, when someone is in that denial phase, they’re coming for weight-loss help, not help with their diabetes,” says Elliott.
Diabetes itself isn’t a physical trait and the symptoms are less noticeable than, for example, being overweight. But their weight is more obvious and harder to ignore because your clothes aren’t fitting well and you can see the evidence of it.
“Even if people deny their diagnosis or don’t take care of it, they often still end up with complications from years of high blood sugars — and even then, sometimes the doctor doesn’t even connect the dots, explaining that your vision problems or kidney failure or the amputation of your toe is because of high blood sugars,” says Elliott.
Accepting your diagnosis also means accepting the way it changes your life, and fear of those changes can be enough to keep you from facing it.
Some of the most common fears include:
- Fear of giving up the foods and habits
- Fear of needles if you think you’ll need to start insulin
- Fear of taking other diabetes medications — even pills
The 5 stages of grief start with denial
“A diabetes diagnosis always comes with a stage of grief but some people get caught up in the first stage of handling grief: denial,” says Elliott.
The 5 stages of grief:
“You can get caught and stuck in any of those phases, and it’s understandable that someone might experience denial for a little while, but if you stay there for too long it holds you back from doing what you need to do to care of yourself.”
Sometimes, the fuel behind a person’s denial is because a family member may have struggled immensely with their own diabetes, and the newly diagnosed person watched how much it impacted their life.
“They’ve seen a family member go through losing their vision or needing an amputation or being in kidney failure because of diabetes, so they believe this is what will happen to them. Instead of learning that they can do things differently and prevent those complications, they freeze and get stuck in denial, believing that their future will be like that, too.”
And sometimes, when no one in the family has diabetes, a person newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes simply says, “Well, no one else has it, this must be a misdiagnosis,” and they ignore it for as long as they can.
When you are stuck for too long in the denial stage
Elliott says the consequences of staying in denial too long means a future overwhelmed by diabetes complications — which cannot be ignored as easily as the initial symptoms of the disease.
“When you don’t acknowledge your diagnosis, you don’t go to the doctor. You don’t get screened for the earliest signs of neuropathy in your fingers and toes or signs of your kidneys struggling to work or signs of bleeding in your eyes,” says Elliott.
Missing these early stages of diabetes complications means missing the opportunity to prevent them from getting worse, which can lead to an amputated toe or foot, kidney failure and dialysis, and losing your vision.
Helping yourself or a loved one stuck in that stage of denial after a diabetes diagnosis means helping them prevent the most devastating consequences of living with diabetes.
How to move past denial
It may sound simple, but the first step to moving past denial is to acknowledge your denial.
Whether you write in a journal, write a letter and burn it, or sit down with a friend and cry, it’s about taking time to take the denial you’re feeling on the inside and put it outside of you.
Eventually, once you begin moving forward, you may even find yourself feeling empowered as you face your diabetes because there are so many things you can do to protect yourself from those daunting complications.
The more you embrace what you can do to live a long and healthy life as a person with diabetes, the more confidence and pride you will feel in your ability to face it.
Reader comments, included with permission:
Yes – For nearly 23 years, I have been in a state of denial about my diabetes. An A1C score of 11.2 scared me into change… Amazingly, I have had no (seeming) health problems, but daily sugar spikes (up to 400) on those rare times I would test my BG, started to penetrate even my deep denial.
About 90 days ago, I started researching on the internet (mostly youtube) and followed their advice about TWO-UP testing (just before eating and then about 90 minutes later……. WOW – what an eye-opener. Since then I have totally kicked bread/grains to the curb, nearly all fruits, and ABSOLUTELY no sugar added, factory foods… PLUS, no more snacking and restrict my eating to hours between 9 am and 6 pm…..
WHAT A DIFFERENCE…. Average spikes under 159 (highest was 204, and that average is going down).
Diet is mostly meats (red meat, chicken, oily fish, and plenty of deep green, leafy vegetables)… I have lost about 49 lbs (probably much of it is water, but much of it is fat (Had gotten up to 284 lbs)….Drink up to 6 quarts/water/day – and not pushing it.
BEST OF ALL – I am, more committed, each day, to lowering my average BG reading, to a healthy level.….
PS: I am hoping I am in time to avoid serious consequences of the disease…. WISH I could help others wake up
Wow, Jason, what a great story. Thank you for sharing it with me. I am cc’ing Ginger so she can read it also. Would you be OK with our adding your story to the end of the article? I think it would be powerful for others to read. — Martin
Anything that would help wake other Type-II diabetics up, would be great. Of course, you have my permission to use my story in any way that would be helpful.
The biggest problem (in my opinion) is that Diabetes is a relentless, and remorseless killer… It is coming, as surely as a freight train, and it is determined to kill us. It will rob us of our vision, it will take our toes, feet, legs, hands, and absolutely wipe us out… But it is silent, and (until the end) painless. But a simple look at the statistics (DIABETES is a PROGRESSIVE disease), should dissuade anyone from “taking it for granted”/// Please – do use my experience, to help others.