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Heather Stuckey was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1982 when she was 12 years old. “It was a negative experience,” she says, “They basically taught me to shoot into an orange and said ‘good luck with that.’ I was thinking-this is horrible and no one was talking to me about how to deal with my feelings. From 15-20 years old I basically pretended that I didn’t have diabetes. I was out of control.” Heather says living with diabetes was an emotional experience, but no one was asking her how she was feeling. Instead, the doctors and nurses asked about numbers. She loved to write and studied arts in college, but it wasn’t until she was working on her doctorate in adult education that she realized she could form a connection between arts education and diabetes.

Heather is now a professor at Penn State studying the healing properties of arts. I talked with her recently about her paper, “The Role of Creative Expression in Diabetes: An Exploration Into the Meaning-making Process.” Following a group of 8 women with type 1 diabetes, researchers explored the role of creative expression in helping women ‘make meaning’ out of a life with chronic illness. Using narrative interviews, visual arts (photography) and creative writing, researchers found that “creative expression gave space to literally and physically make meaning through the use of artistic forms.”

Make Meaning=a search for understanding and meaningfulness that assists individuals in finding a sense of purpose in their lives.

The study showed that: The use of narrative and creative expression encourages people to recognize their emotions and attitudes about diabetes, make meaning, and creatively express how they are going to live with a chronic illness. (…) By engaging in creative expression, participants were able to share their experience of diabetes in a positive way and exert (nonclinically) a sense of control.

We are so much more than our numbers and Heather’s research is helping people with diabetes live happier and healthier lives. She offers a few tips to incorporate creativity into our diabetes management:

  • Do what you love and figure out how this can relate to diabetes.
  • The beauty of creative expression is that it doesn’t have to be “art,” it can be found anywhere.
  • Take a walk, be attentive to nature.
  • Take a gardening, creative writing, painting, or cooking class.
  • Explore the connection between doing these creative activities that you love and diabetes.
  • Talk to your doctor about how you feel, and tell he or she that you are more then a number!