When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, one of the (unhelpful) responses we often get is “well, at least it’s not cancer.” Why do people focus on this particular comparison, minimizing the impact of diabetes? In the theatre, one of the things I’m fascinated by is the concept of the illness narrative – whether it be AIDS (The Normal Heart, Angels in America), Cancer (Wit is probably the most famous) or mental illness (Proof, King Lear, 4.48 Psychosis, too many to count), among others. These narratives show us how people and society deal with the concept and reality of illness.
The comparison between cancer and diabetes intrigues me, because cancer is far more traditional from a narrative standpoint, and perhaps that’s why it gets so much attention and sympathy (and is popular in theatre, novels, etc.) – there’s a bad guy, your life is on the line, you fight him and either lose bravely as a martyr or emerge victorious as a hero. The plot is traditional and as potentially satisfying as a narrative can be.
Diabetes is a non-traditional and frustrating illness narrative because it is chronic. At least, with cancer, you can WIN. There is no winning in diabetes. There is doing better, and doing worse. And it’s a fatalistic narrative that you have to fight against mentally, because there is an almost 100% chance that, no matter how long you live, the “bad guy” will quietly win – diabetes will at least be partially if not fully responsible for your death. People with chronic conditions have to adapt to the nontraditional illness narrative, the one where illness becomes static and isn’t filtered through a satisfying narrative goal. People thrive on creating stories for and about themselves. That’s why stories are there; they shape our lives, and how we understand ourselves. And that’s why there is so much diabetes burnout- the “goal” isn’t victory, it’s daily survival. It's also why it's harder to fundraise for chronic conditions, unless you show pictures of adorable children. A vital community is necessary when it comes to diabetes – it must be continuous, always there, flowing like the condition itself. It’s why people blog – they are creating and sharing their stories.
So with diabetes, there is no large, exciting battle, only many everyday ones. It’s not Harry Potter. It’s not Spider-Man, Transformers, or The A-Team.
It’s Office Space, and your diabetes is that annoying boss, Bill Lumbergh, and man, do you ever have some TPS reports to file. And just like you can do the same thing with diabetes day after day and totally different things happen, today you need a cover for your TPS reports and you didn’t realize it. Didn’t you get the memo?
Yes, diabetes isn’t Frodo vs. Sauron. It’s more like a terrible buddy-cop-romantic comedy movie starring a bumbling Owen Wilson.
Stick with me on this one.