Kelly Love Johnson is a freelance journalist, editor, author and award-winning writer who lives and works in Austin, Texas. She was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in May of 2006. Find her online at www.kellylovejohnson.com or www.microfamous.blogspot.com.
Kelly is also a friend and someone I credit as helping to launch me into my writing career. I remember the time when Kelly was diagnosed because I had been writing for her at skirt! magazine where she was the managing editor, and I was so impressed with how she seemed to jump into action when it came to taking care of herself. Kelly has moved from Charleston and I miss reading her essays and having her involved in the lowcountry literary community, but it sounds like she is doing just fine without us
1. You were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in your thirties, in the midst of a busy career life. Can you tell me what your first reaction to the diagnosis was? Were you caught off guard? Scared? How did you handle the emotional impact of your diagnosis?
I was stunned at first—and scared. The only thing I knew about diabetes was from someone I once dated who had Type 1 and he had to carry insulin everywhere and inject himself; he ended up with failing kidneys and was having dialysis last time I ran into him. No-one in my family has diabetes.
When I regained my composure, the first question I asked my doctor was “do I have to inject myself” (no) and the second was “how do I stay off of insulin.” Her response: Lose weight and change your lifestyle immediately.” The not drinking was the hardest change I made because all of my social activities revolved around cocktail hour. I actually had friends stage an “intervention” because they thought I “wasn’t fun anymore” and they all knew someone with diabetes who could drink. I could drink too if I went off Metformin or went on insulin. However, my goal is no medication and I don’t miss the happy hour “friends” I lost. It was a great way to cull the inauthentic relationships in my life and keep the authentic ones. I still don’t love having to explain to people why I don’t drink. If you say “I quit,” they assume you’re a dry alcoholic. If you explain further, it gets complicated. I usually order a club soda with lime so it looks like a gin & tonic and people leave me alone about it.
2. How did your diagnosis change you in the short term? For example, I know you are a writer and big reader, did you look to books to learn about diabetes, did you change your eating habits?
My doctor sent me to a “diabetic nutritionist,” but by the time my appointment rolled around I had already read everything I could get my hands on about type 2 and ended up telling the diabetic nutritionist that she was terribly wrong. She handed me a stack of pamphlets on how to eat and care for yourself as a diabetic. Sadly, all of the information was for Type 1. Type 2 is different and should be treated differently. I think (and this was in 2006) I was the first person ever to tell her that type 1 and type 2 are not the same disease, just in the same classification.
I started taking Metformin (Glucophage), which helped my insulin-resistant body respond to the insulin I produced, which in turn kicked my metabolism in (I hadn’t had one for a year), and I lost 50 lbs. in six months. I also quit drinking alcohol and have kept up with healthy eating habits for over six years now. I weigh around 70 lbs. less than I did at diagnosis, haven’t had a drink in six years, and feel healthier than ever. I’m still on low-dose Metformin, but my goal is to go off of that this year—hopefully with my next lab results.
3. What is the biggest challenge to living with type 2 diabetes as a woman? What, if any, has been positive about living with diabetes?
It changed my life for the better. It was the wake-up call I needed to start paying attention to how I treated my body. Alcohol, junk food, lack of sleep, fasting to lose weight, and more junk food—I was on track for a lot of diseases; diabetes just happened first. I’m lucky it wasn’t cirrhosis of the liver or heart disease. I wish I’d been smart enough to change my habits BEFORE I ended up with diabetes, but I’m glad I was diagnosed when I was still healthy enough to make these changes. Whenever someone I know finds out that I have diabetes (they see me test or ask me why I don’t drink alcohol), they always say “I’m so sorry.” I say, “I’m not.” It was a kick in the pants that I needed to make a complete lifestyle change. I feel younger and healthier now than I did six years ago.
4. You’ve lived with diabetes for several years now, looking back, what was the best piece of advice you received? Or if you didn’t hear any good advice, what advice would you offer another woman?
Educate yourself, don’t be ashamed of your disease, don’t blame yourself (specifically for Type 2 diabetics, this one’s important because often our weight or unhealthy habits put us at risk), don’t be embarrassed or uncomfortable talking to people about diabetes. I spent about a year in a “shame spiral,” brutally blaming myself for becoming diabetic. I regretted binge drinking on weekends when I was in my 20s, eating fast food, not exercising. My refrain was “it’s my own fault.” If I could do it over again, I would skip that part. It happened, there isn’t anything I can do to change it, but what I can change is what I do moving forward. Blame doesn’t matter. The change is what matters. Be proud of yourself for working hard to make those lifestyle changes. Don’t deprive yourself as “punishment.” No-one should have to live that way. I did and it’s sad. Now I celebrate each year of being healthy, I don’t feel deprived or wish I could “eat like normal people.” This is MY normal and I get to enjoy it. I’m proud of myself for maintaining wellness, for choosing healthy options, for losing weight in a healthy way.