Diabetes and Relationships: A Vicious Cycle

At six, I was diagnosed with Juvenile (Type 1) Diabetes. Suddenly, my universe went from waiting for the ice cream truck to asking heady questions about life, death, and illness. Talk about change!

In 1977, the emotional aspects of chronic disease were very much under the rug. My doctors encouraged me to “tough it out.” In my teens, I translated that nebulous instruction into a life adrift between blood sugar levels and corresponding emotional extremes. I found my way. Unfortunately, many people with diabetes suffer from denial and shame.

There are over 27 million individuals in the U.S. with diabetes. The disease triggers a lifestyle transformation; it requires 24/7 vigilance and monitoring. On top of that, blood sugar levels impact people’s moods, affecting how they think and learn. Understanding the effect of blood sugar levels is the first step in understanding your mental state.

The Vicious Cycle of Diabetes
When you’re in a depressive rut or feeling “foggy,” it may not be in your control—it’s your body’s chemistry. The brain requires 25% of the body’s glucose stores in a state of rest to function properly. Low blood sugar reduces the flow of glucose to your brain, leading to poor memory, decreased judgment and difficulty learning. High blood sugar is no picnic, either; it causes the blood density to thicken and oxygen levels to reduce. Causing a reduction in memory, ability to learn, poor judgment, over emotionality and extended periods of high blood sugar leads to increasingly difficult emotional and relationship issues.

I’ve seen people lift their spirits and gain their energy back, simply by getting a handle on their blood sugar levels. Conversely, I’ve seen people destroy their lives and relationships by letting things go unchecked. The result? Resentment, denial and low self-worth.

Bob: A Tale of a Ravaged Marriage

Family quarrel. Woman having problems with her husband at homeLet’s take a look at Bob (name changed). Every morning, the type 2 diabetes patient lies in bed, struggling to open his eyes. He’s under the impression that he’s an early riser, choosing to fall back asleep; meanwhile, his wife, who has already showered and dressed, resents his laziness. Neither he nor his wife recognizes his lethargy as a consequence of disease.

An hour passes. Bob forces himself up. He doesn’t feel well, and discovers that his blood sugar is high at 250 mg/dL, so he administers a corrective dose of insulin. Moments later, his wife shouts that breakfast is ready. Not wanting to cause trouble, Bob eats without waiting for his blood glucose to return to normal.

And so, Bob’s day begins with the dulled, persistent sickness that comes with improper health management. His physical and emotional symptoms begin to blur—am I feeling sick? Maybe I’m just depressed, he thinks. Then, in comes the guilt and shame.

Bob’s wife leaves to run errands; Bob has plans, too, but the combined stress and guilt leave him cemented to the couch. Two hours later, listless, he checks his blood sugar, which has spiked to 280 mg/dL.

His wife comes home and asks if he did the grocery shopping. He said that he didn’t feel like going today, which he’ll do it tomorrow. His wife is fed up.

  • “What am I supposed to cook for dinner?” she asks pointedly.
  • He looks at her, dazed, and says, “I don’t know.”
  • She responds,“You don’t care about our marriage. Do you think I spent all day running your errands because I ‘felt like it’? Maybe we should just end it.”
  • Bob gives her a bewildered look. “End what?”
  • She fires back at Bob,“Our marriage. All you do is lie around the house all day. What happened to you?” she says, incredulous.
  • Hurt and confused, Bob shouts, “I do plenty!” and storms to another room.

There are two ways to tell Bob’s story. The first is one of mysterious tragedy: Five years ago, after 20 years of blissful marriage, Bob began to change, losing interest in his wife and his daily routine. His diagnosis was the coup de grace, extinguishing whatever vitality was left.

The second story is the truth, and provides hope for Bob’s future. Bob is sick, and has been for a long time. His illness could have begun up to fifteen years ago. In those years, it took its toll, altering his personality and ravaging his body. At diagnosis, his blood sugar was three times the normal level. Terrifying. Bob’s journey is just beginning, but he’ll need coping tools—and the support of his loved ones.

Next post, I’ll share the means of dealing that I’ve collected in my experience and from others living with diabetes. These techniques will help you break the cycle of suffering, bringing long-term emotional relief and strengthening your relationships.

For information on Diabetes-Focused Psychotherapy and how it might help you; go to my website, www.diabetictalks.com today.

Medical Disclaimer:

All the advice included in this blog is therapeutic in nature and should not be considered medical advice. Before making any changes to your diabetes maintenance program, please consult with your primary physician or endocrinologist.

Published by Eliot LeBow LCSW, CDE

Eliot LeBow, LCSW, CDE, is a diabetes-focused psychotherapist, diabetes-coach, presenter, and writer. His private practice, located in New York City and is also available via Skype. LeBow, who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1977, treats the many diverse cognitive, behavioral, and emotional needs of people living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes-Focused Psychotherapy takes a holistic approach combining traditional talk therapy with diabetes education and management help. It addresses both the physical and emotional aspects of living life with diabetes while still addressing other non-diabetes related life problems to create a unique holistic approach to helping people with diabetes thrive.

2 thoughts on “Diabetes and Relationships: A Vicious Cycle

  1. I have also been battling type 1 diabetes since I was 5. Will be 49 this June. I have been experiencing mood swings brought on by sugar level changes, and sometimes miss timed comments from family members/ or anyone sets me into a rage. Which in turns causes more long term stress and anguish, it’s terrible to deal with. My A1c’s are in the high 6’s to low 7’s…….

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