Top 5 Faux Pas People Make When Relating to Diabetics (& How to Avoid Them)

Diabetes can feel like a minefield. It’s tough to know what to do and say when dealing with sensitive topics like the health issues of those we love. The same is true for those we encounter only briefly in our day-to-day lives.

If, like me, you have loved ones whose been affected by diabetes, it can be difficult to know how best to approach the topic of diabetes with them.

I love a lot of diabetics. What can I say? We’re sweet as pie! But that doesn’t always make things easy. Like many of us, I make mistakes. When my twin was diagnosed with Type 1 at age eight, I didn’t know what it was and told all the kids at school that my sister was in the hospital because she had diarrhea. I thought that was what it was. I still haven’t lived that down!

At sixteen, I had my first serious boyfriend. He had Type 1 diabetes. By that time I did, too, but it was still really hard for me to watch him (not) take care of it. It wasn’t the reason we broke up, but it definitely put a strain on things. And my best friend has had Type 2 diabetes for years. Another dear friend of mine recently had to start taking insulin to help lower bloodsugar levels after a surprise A1C of 10+.

Ohhh, how I wish I had been more empathetic at times. Softer. I didn’t mean to, but I hurt them–and our relationship–by my misguided behaviors. I really really want you to avoid all that. Why not learn from my mistakes?

Caveat: Obviously, diabetics are not clones. While my twin sister and I share the same DNA, even we are not carbon-copies of each other–and handle our diabetes–and lives–differently. Still, I’m confident that avoiding the following faux pas will absolutely not harm you—or them–and will likely help you alleviate unwanted stress and unnecessary difficulties in your relationships with the diabetics in your life.

While I can only speak for myself, when it comes to building trust and intimacy, avoiding these five things would definitely tip the odds in (y)our favor:

  • 1.) Operating from an “I am here to scare you straight!” mentality.

While I love The Office, who wants a real life Prison Mike in their lives? Most of us with a chronic illness don’t respond well to scare tactics as a form of motivation. Think about it: Would you appreciate hearing about your friend’s grandmother who lost her foot because she had “the really bad kind of diabetes?” Would you want to share more or less about your challenges with diabetes if your colleagues or partner kept bringing up how Grandma wouldn’t have diabetes if only she wouldn’t have gone to Denny’s so much? (hint: I don’t think so!)

Hint: Just ASK.

By admitting you’re not sure what to say or how to approach their diabetes, you’re showing you care, and admitting you don’t have all the answers. You show you’re receptive to honoring their feelings and understanding their personal approach to diabetes (even if you don’t always agree with it). While the golden rule is good to keep in mind, my philosophy is not “treat people how you’d like to be treated, rather, treat people with diabetes how they would like to be treated. And the best way to honor this is to ask.

  • 2.) Asking “Should you really eat that?”

Um, really? Should you?

Diabetics are not so different from non-diabetics. We’re more alike than different. It’d help to remember that. Be honest, you know better than having that third slice of pizza, but sometimes you do it anyway. And it’s not my place to judge you for that–nor would I. So why judge others unnecessarily? Who wins in that scenario?

Asking a diabetic if they should eat something is not only unhelpful, it comes across as rude and is definitely misguided. When faced with judgments loosely disguised as questions, I often respond with “Are you asking that for your benefit or for mine?”

Hint: Ask yourself that same thing before launching into a diatribe on the evils of pastries. Putting the diabetic on the defensive is never the way to go. Don’t make assumptions (ass/u/me)! I count carbs and have an insulin pump and test my bloodsugar 5-10 times a day, and while coffee and a doughnut may not be the best breakfast choice, I can cover the carbs in the doughnut rather well with my pump, and I make sure to keep an eye on my bloodsugar levels.

  • 3.)  “You’re really moody. Is your bloodsugar low? Maybe you should grab a candy bar!”

As a diabetic, this one comes up a lot for me. From my mom especially, believe it or not. While it’s true that spikes and dips in glucose levels can affect mood, framing your concern about a diabetic’s behavior in such a way is not only insulting, it’s counter-productive.

Hint: Putting someone on the defensive will rarely, if ever, produce the results you want. If you’re frustrated or genuinely concerned, remember it’s to your advantage and theirs to come from a place of love.

For me, this most often translates into the person without diabetes not taking a low bloodsugar seriously because I appear to be fine.

Hint: We are not fine! Hypoglycemia is a life-threatening occurrence and one that happens more often than a Type 1 diabetic would like. It’s tricky: not all hypos are created equally. Sometimes I barely feel a low—other times I’m shaking and sweaty and fuzzy-brained and am operating on only one cylinder.

Better safe than sorry. Bring the person with diabetes a Coke or OJ. Swedish Fish work especially well for some reason. This is one time when it’s worth it to stay vigilant and insist the diabetic eat/drink something and re-test in no more than 15 minutes. Help ‘em out.

Hint: Don’t let them fall asleep without knowing their bloodsugar is stable. Stay with them. Please don’t hold their poor or baffling behavior against them. It’s almost always the low bloodsugar making them loopy, not some inherent character flaw.

  •     5. “You can’t go wrong with sugar-free!” (Wrong-ola!)

Hint:  Pay attention to the carb count, not just the sugar content.

I personally detest almost all sugar-free food products. Not gum. Not iced-tea. Not soda. But chocolate? Eiey! Not only does it taste like pud, they tend to be relatively high in calories and higher in carbs than the original. Plus, they’re filled with a bunch of fake foodstuffs that tend to leave you on the toilet for the majority of the day if you eat more than one.

Hint: Avoid giving sugar-free chocolate/candy/cookies unless you know they like them. It’s healthier to have a little of the real deal than to gorge on sugar-free foods that are high carb and high cal.

So there you go! Though diabetics expect to face confusion and misinformation, it helps when at least some folks get it right. Failing that, it matters that you’re trying. Kindness and empathy go a long way. Diabetics know most people in the world do not have diabetes. We know it’s easy to be confused by all the half-truths out there. Sometimes, we’re just as confused—especially in the beginning!

We may not always act like it, but we know you’re doing your best. We are doing our best, too. You won’t do things perfectly. Neither will we. Still, I might hug you just a little bit closer for asking about things in an informed and loving way.

What faux pas should others avoid? What are YOUR Golden Rules? Let me know!

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Comments

  1. Hi Cat,What a coincidence! That’s so cool! I’m glad we found each other online! I’d love to hear how things are for you two–the dynamics and such. Perhaps shoot me an email if you can? amylia@diabetesdaily.com. Thanks!!

  2. Hello- I just happened on this blog for DBlog day and I LOVE your posts. I also have a twin sister with diabetes- I just passed my 21st year, she 20. Everything you said sounds like it’s coming straight from my sister’s mouth. I’ll definitely be coming back!!

  3. Sounds like you might be the one to do it. I have no pain like the pain described but I do know you are correct that diabetes can hurt. I see the Cymbalta commericals all over with the tagline “Depression hurts” and think “Diabetes Hurts” is equally true. Some psychiatrists actually put diabetic patients on Cymbalta which is used as an anti-depressant b/c it is also used to help with diabetic neuropathy pain. They’re not sure why it works, but it does. May I ask what kind of pain meds you are on?

  4. One thing that I never hear from almost all the Diabetes Information sources, is that Diabetes Hurts. I am Type 2 diabetic and stick as close as I can to “correct” food, exercise,rest, and self examination for “at risk” portions of my body. I take my medications as prescribed.I am on Lantus and it is not the injections that really hurt. My body pain from all the peripheral nerve neuropathy has now required me to take medication for pain.This has helped quite a bit. I do not abuse my pain medication, I take it as prescribed. In between doses, or close to the next dose the pain begins become quite noticeable.The pain medication does not make sleepy or “foggy”, unless it is close to bed time or I have over worked my self.I hope that these Diabetes information sources, whether from a drug company or independent Diabetic support sites, would really emphasize the progression of of the disease and the pain that will come, sooner, if you don’t follow the guidelines!I do not mean this as a scare tactic. I mean it as a factual outcome if you don’t take command of the disease as early as you can and stick to the guidelines. It is an incentive to a more serious reality of a less painful life with diabetes.

  5. I always love when I see old friends and they always want to tell the story of “when”…..Remember that time when you were really low and you were just sitting there staring and we were all talking to you and….blah blah blah blah..and we got you something….blah blah blah….and we saved you man….we saved your life man…..remember thatummmm yeah I remember …thanks I didnt remember THAT time but thanks …i did want to revisit that….same story you tell every time I see you. Good Grief!……………………jeeeesshh

  6. I don’t really have any golden rules, but I have a ready response for the “Should you eat that?” people. It’s always about junk food, so I always respond with, “No, but neither should anyone else who wants to be healthy.” Never had any arguments so far.

  7. @Mark-John: Thank you! Sound advice. Like I alluded to in my post, we’re more alike than different and it’d behoove us (everyone!) to concentrate on what we have in common instead of all the things that separate us from others.

  8. Golden Rule:#1 If you are living with diabetes then live life and enjoy as does everyone else in this world.#2 If you don’t have diabetes then refer to rule #1 and do it!Loved your post Amylia and always look forward to reading them. Thanks for everything.Mark

  9. Awwww, thanks Lee Ann–that’s awfully kind of you. I’m sure your post is awesome–I love reading d-poetry! Will check it out now. .

  10. My Golden Rule is to love you and your awesome posts. Happy D-Blog Day to one of my most favorite D-Gals.P.S. I wrote a poem for D-Blog Day, and it nicely showcases how you’re the poet in this operation, not me 😉

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