Diabetes is Different for Young Women
Amy Mercer, an American author, dedicated a chapter to the subject in her most recent book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Diabetes.
Mercer, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 14, says women with diabetes face unique and significant challenges, from body image to sex and sexuality to pregnancy and motherhood.
“Living with it is so much easier now that I’m 40 years old,” she says. “But diabetes stinks, and I feel like the issues (women) have with it are different than men.”
It’s hard to feel sexy with a pump attached to your body, for example, says Mercer. As a teenager, she just wanted to be like everybody else. Her diabetes limited the degree to which she could be spontaneous. And, if it made her grow up faster, it also catalyzed a certain amount of self-consciousness when she was younger……
Tell us about your diagnosis.
I was 14 years old. I was six weeks into a new school, a private boarding high school in New Hampshire. I was thrilled to be there. I grew up in this tiny town in Vermont, and it just opened up this whole new world to me. I had joined the field hockey team.
I [went through] five days of not feeling well: I remember sitting in class and I couldn’t see the board. I had all the typical symptoms—so thirsty, going to the bathroom all the time. The nurse said, “Oh, you probably just have the cold that’s going around.” I remember asking the nurse, “Is blurred vision part of symptoms?” She said, “Sure, sure,” and gave me some Tylenol. The next day I went to a game, and I remember lying on the grass by the bench and thinking, “I don’t know if I can get up off the ground, I’m so tired.” [I went back to the nurse and] I could hear her calling my mom on the phone and say, “You need to come see your daughter at the school. We think she’s anorexic.” I remember being so stunned and confused. My mom came to the school and she recognized the symptoms right away—my little sister had been diagnosed six months before. I spent the week in the hospital.
What inspired the book?
This is the book that I was always looking for since I was 14 years old. Every time I was getting ready for a new challenge, whether it was moving away from home or traveling overseas or trying to get pregnant, I would look for a book, and I was always disappointed. When I set out to write this book, it was to answer those questions and to write the book that I wanted to read. I didn’t start it thinking that I was an expert by any means, even though I have lived with diabetes for 25 years.
So why write it now?
I think being a mother [inspired the book]. I’ve got three boys under 10, and I reached the 25-year milestone [with diabetes]. I think when I reached 25 years in October 2010 . . . that seemed like an important milestone to me. I had just graduated with my [master of fine arts degree]. My thesis was a coming-of-age [story] about growing up with diabetes.
A big part of it was timing, I think. I actually started to write this book before I went back to school. It was going to be an anthology of stories written by women with diabetes . . . [but] everybody said no. I talked to some of the teachers at school and told them what I had heard. One of the teachers gave me great advice. He said, “Don’t do an anthology; just write the book and interview women and write their stories.”
It’s written by a real woman for real women. I wanted it to sound like you were in a coffee shop chatting with your friends. I definitely didn’t want it to be too perky-happy. I wanted it to be real, both good and bad.
I like to say it was like my fourth pregnancy. That’s how it felt.
How many women did you talk to for the book?
I talked to almost 100 women. The majority of the women were “real women” living with diabetes, and probably 25 percent were professionals. I really tried to find endocrinologists who were also diabetic, diabetes educators who were diabetic, nutritionists who were diabetic.
One of the things that was so interesting about talking to so many different women [was] there are so many different stories about what happens when you’re first diagnosed. Parents are either overprotective and the child is in the hospital for a week or so, and I think there are some parents who are like mine and are more hands-off. That was a really interesting learning experience for me. That kind of sets the stage about how you feel about diabetes and the diagnosis.
What was the most common theme from the interviews?
I think probably the thing that sticks out in my mind the most was “Don’t beat yourself up” or “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” It’s really a powerful message because I think diabetes is such a disease where you really can put a lot of the blame on yourself, where you take responsibility for your day-to-day life and your doctor is more like your backup. There really is no such thing as a perfect number, which I think is a positive message. All you can do is the best you can do at that time. That’s something that I want to get across to women.
And what surprised you?
You know, what surprised me was what an emotional journey [it was] for me to write the book. I was surprised how much I grew personally, listening to these women’s stories, recording their stories..
Diabetes is such a lonely, isolating illness, and I think we often feel like we’re the only one out there dealing with this stuff every day. Then you open the book . . . and it’s so comforting to know there are women who are just like you—or are different from you in many ways—but yet we share this one commonality with diabetes. That was just very comforting.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope they feel less alone when they read it. One of my biggest issues was always feeling like I was the only one out there with diabetes. It’s ironic because my sister has diabetes, but the big picture was that I always felt very isolated. It was before the Internet. A lot has changed and I’m grateful for that, but I think the Internet can be more “surface” than a book. In the book you hear real stories of people who have walked in your shoes and, to me, that’s very validating. When they’re feeling alone, they can pick up the book and know someone else has walked in their shoes. I hope this will make them feel less alone.
The Smart Woman’s Guide to Diabetes: Authentic Advice on Everything From Eating to Dating and Motherhood is available on amazon.com (in paperback and for Kindle) and at the author’s website, amystockwellmercer.com