When 27-year-old exercise physiologist Andrew Harrisberg was diagnosed with type 1 four years ago, at the age of 23, he felt as though his world had caved in. "I had been losing weight and feeling weak when training at the gym,’ he recalls. "I also had other classic signs of type 1, like thirst and going to the toilet often, but I never suspected I had diabetes. So the news that my blood glucose levels were 16 was a massive shock – particularly as I was very healthy. I exercised every day, ate well and barely drank alcohol, so I was shattered to learn I had a chronic illness."
For a few weeks Harrisberg felt depressed, teary and hopeless. But knowledge was his way out of that dark tunnel. He started reading everything he could about diabetes, which inspired him to take charge of his health. "I reduced my carb intake and that really benefited my self-management," he explains. "Then I acknowledged and changed all the lifestyle factors pushing my blood glucose levels up, including overtraining, under-sleeping and stressing about the small stuff. Diabetes has taught me to maintain perspective and be flexible, which has been very liberating. I stopped being so regimented about things like never missing a day at the gym, and instead started listening to my body’s needs. I also learned mindfulness and breathing techniques, which have become invaluable calming tools that benefit every area of my life."
Thanks to his diabetes, Harrisberg says he has found a new identity and direction. He went back to university to become a diabetes educator, which he now combines with his exercise physiology work. A year ago he started a blog, Drew’s Daily Dose, which already has more than 12,000 followers. He is also about to start online counselling for others with diabetes. "Diabetes was my wake-up call,’ he says. ‘It has helped me get my priorities straight and opened my mind to how lucky I am just to be here. It led me to adopt self-help strategies that allow me to really thrive."
Though diabetes is no fairytale, it can create a little magic sometimes – providing the catalyst for self-growth and a re-evaluation of what really matters in life. "Sometimes when people are diagnosed with diabetes, they anticipate, perceive and experience real negative impacts on their life," says Dr Jessica Browne, senior research fellow at the Australian Centre for Behavioural Research in Diabetes at Deakin University. "But that doesn’t mean they feel emotional distress all the time. That distress is also less likely to be overwhelming if diabetes is not seen as a barrier to life goals and personal values. This mindset encourages active problem solving that helps build positive coping skills."
It’s at this point that many people discover unexpected benefits, which can include:
1. Feeling more resilient: "After learning to manage the difficulties of diabetes, some people feel stronger and more resilient," says Dr Browne. "This gives them newfound confidence that they can manage any challenges life throws at them." This inner strength is bolstered by self-help strategies that include:
● Seeking counselling and reading self-help books.
● Acknowledging and addressing anxiety and depression triggers.
● Making lifestyle changes in relation to food, exercise, sleep and stress.
● Adopting mindfulness and meditation techniques.
● Reaching out to others and asking for help.
2. Expanding and strengthening social networks: When people are first diagnosed with diabetes, they often feel isolated, alone and unsure about what lies ahead for them. But when they start to reach out to others and look around for information, they often begin to tap into the diabetes community. Diabetes may then become a catalyst for communicating, socialising and camaraderie. "The person with diabetes can find a strong point of connection with others who have been through the same difficulties and health issues," says Dr Browne. "Through that community, new friendships and support networks emerge. Those relationships can lead to a lovely sense of belonging to a big, new family with a feeling of “we’re all in this together”."
Meanwhile, during diagnosis or when diabetes complications arise, people in your intimate circle may rally to support you and show they care. "If you’re lucky enough to get that support, diabetes can lead to a deepening of relationships and give you a sense of how much you really are valued," says Browne.
3. Setting up new priorities: "A diagnosis of diabetes or a close call with a health complication can give a person pause to re-identify what their priorities are in life," says Dr Browne. "Sometimes this can lead to profound shifts as people change their lives to reflect what they value." Those newfound priorities often include:
● Spending more time with friends and family.
● Learning to put yourself first.
● Taking responsibility for your health.
● Realising what really matters in life.
● Changing to a job that more closely reflects personal values and passions.
Four years on from his diagnosis, Harrisberg has definitely found his happy place. "Diabetes didn’t destroy my world, but it has made me see things in a different way," he says. "It led me to make positive changes to the way I eat, move and approach life. It has given me new direction, purpose, perspective and even a new career path. It has also taught me how to live in the moment every day and how to step up in the face of adversity. "I can honestly say I am happier and healthier today than I was before my diagnosis. In some ways, diabetes really has been the best thing that ever happened to me."
REAL-LIFE READ: Yvonne's story
"When I was diagnosed with type 2 in 2011, I wanted to get fit so I took up dance – something I’d wanted to try since I was young," says receptionist Yvonne Appleby, 52. "I was so shy when I attended that first class that I hid under my hoodie. But I was pleased to find I was actually good at dancing." Yvonne now enjoys 10 hours of dance classes every week and has become an ambassador for the Diabetes NSW Move For Diabetes campaign. "I enjoy everything from Latin, ballroom and burlesque to lambada and I also want to try pole dancing," she says. "Dance allows me to lose my worries and embrace life. It has helped me come out of my shell and find a new community of friends. My new confidence has led me to take up study to become an early childhood teacher. My work as a diabetes dance ambassador also led to the opportunity to dance with the incredible Robbie Kmetoni, winner of the third series of So You Think You Can Dance. It was an absolutely amazing day that I will never forget."
By Stephanie Osfield