Holy @#$! Amazing Stories, Vol. 7: The Psychological Immune System

Some emails just stop me in my tracks. This note, from author Gretchen Rubin, choked me up almost as much as Melissa’s story a while back. Why? Because this wasn’t even a patient writing about herself, but a family member who gets it in an extremely rare and insightful way.

Below, the email and Gretchen’s own post. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that we all could use a sister like this!

RubinHello Amy –

I was thrilled to discover your blog yesterday. My sister was diagnosed with Type 1 (they think) about a month ago, and we’ve been reeling from the news. She’s been wanting to get in touch with other people, to talk about all the issues — so how terrific to find your blog that is crammed with so much great information and personal experience.
I have a blog, too, The Happiness Project, and when I posted on about my sister’s diagnosis, two people immediately posted to praise DiabetesMine and suggest checking it out. My post is below, if you’re interested.

Congratulations on a great site! Best wishes, Gretchen Rubin

Trying to stay happy when something bad happens–like diabetes.

A key purpose for the Happiness Project is to be able to cope well with difficult events when, inevitably, they happen.

Well, bad news has come. My sister has diabetes.

The news unfolded slowly. At first, the doctors thought she had Type 2, even though she doesn’t fit the usual profile—she’s young, thin, fit. That diagnosis was a blow, but two things cushioned it.

First, she’d been feeling lousy, and getting her blood sugar under control made her feel much better. So the diagnosis gave her an immediate boost. Also, we were all relieved she didn’t have Type 1, which requires daily insulin shots and can’t be remedied by diet and exercise (some Type 2 cases can be).

Well—she does have Type 1. And the times we’d said “Thank goodness it isn’t Type 1!” made the diagnosis seem all the worse.

So how to cope? She’s so far away—she’s in L.A., I’m in New York—I felt helpless. What to do? I bought a book to understand the issues (I admit that I got Diabetes for Dummies, but it was just the right thing for my level). I investigated the state of medical research, and that was encouraging.

It took me a while to grasp just how tough diabetes is. I thought you had to eat healthfully, exercise, and give yourself a daily shot; I assumed that taking the shot and never eating dessert were the toughest parts. But it turns out that, for my sister at least, those aren’t the real challenges.

What’s harder is the constant monitoring and adjustment—her blood sugar is up, or worse, it’s down. And even when she eats the same things, her body may react differently, so she can’t just settle on a routine. The response isn’t predictable.

With a writing partner, my sister writes for the TV cop drama The Shield and is writing the sequel to her new young-adult novel, Bass-Ackwards and Belly Up. So she’s typing for about 10 hours each day. Already her fingers are sore from being pricked for blood tests. Not a big deal when you think about complications like amputation and blindness, but it’s the kind of minor discomfort that can make you crazy.

And diabetes is relentless. There’s no respite. My sister’s getting married in May, and she can’t have a raucous, indulgent bachelorette party or eat a big piece of wedding cake. She can’t take a day off for her birthday or New Year’s.

Her doctor told her, “I can help you manage it, but I can’t get that monkey off your back.” My sister says she’s fine day-to-day, but thinking about the years stretching ahead makes her feel overwhelmed. And all the complications that can arise …

Daniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness explains that when we’re faced with serious setbacks, a mechanism which he calls the “psychological immune system” kicks in to help us make the best of it, to help us see ways in which a situation has positive aspects.

I could feel myself starting to do this. “Well, you’ll be eating well and exercising regularly,” I said to her. “Once you get this under control, you’ll do great.”

Also, people feel more fortunate and happier when they compare themselves to those who are worse off than those who are better off. My sister deployed this strategy.

“Yes,” she said. “And think about all the other things it could have been. It could be a lot worse.”

What she didn’t say, and I didn’t say, was that it could have been a lot worse – but it could have been nothing at all.

After college, my roommate was in a bad car accident, and I flew out to Hawaii to see her. She was wearing a halo brace with bolts drilled into her skull.

“Do you feel lucky to be alive?” I asked.

“Well, actually,” she said, “I feel like I really wish I hadn’t been in a damn car crash.”

It’s not easy always to stay focused on the positive. Psychological immune system–do your stuff.

Reprinted with permission from The Happiness Project.


7 Responses

  1. Kerri.
    Kerri. August 17, 2006 at 12:50 pm | | Reply


    I also rec’d an email from Gretchen a few weeks ago – apparently someone had posted Diabetes Mine and Six Until Me. as sites for her to check out.

    It feels good to have this cumulative blogosphere serve as solace for the newly diagnosed (and for those of us who have been at this for a while, too!).

    Pleasure to be mentioned alongside your blog once again. :)

    – Kerri.

    (Are you back from Europe? How was your trip?)

  2. Justlittleme123
    Justlittleme123 August 18, 2006 at 5:29 am | | Reply

    I love technology when it can bring people together like this.

    Gretchen, as a wife of a diabetic, I highly recommend that your sister and her fiancé check out the myriad of websites for diabetics. It has been an incredible wealth of information for me.

    On a side note – not every glucometer needs blood from the finger tips – there are many that allow you to use the palm and the back of the wrist area – much easier (not as many nerve endings) than the finger.

    Good luck to your sister – hopefully we’ll hear from her here.

  3. Susan M.
    Susan M. August 19, 2006 at 2:16 pm | | Reply

    It has been nearly ten years since my son developed this disease. Even after all this time, the only way I deal with it is to compartmentalize it…constantly. It has changed our relationship, and it has changed the way he goes through life. Support from others is a good thing…a very good thing. However, we needed a bit a realism at the time he was dignosed. His IQ is 154 and colleges all wanted him. What they did not want was his disease. That became clear after he entered school. I’m not talking about “rights” and “accommodations.” FYI, he also has ADD. And had a 4.4 GPA. I’m talking about day-to-day existence for a kid leaving home. This seemed like a safe place to let go a little. Thanks for the vent.

  4. carol
    carol August 21, 2006 at 10:33 am | | Reply

    Hi Amy, It was me! I commented on Gretchen’s site and it is so cool to see the link made. I am the anon. lurker mom who asked Kerri about celebrating anniversaries earlier this year. Stay well!

  5. ksc
    ksc August 22, 2006 at 2:43 pm | | Reply

    Thanks for posting this letter, its wonderful. I hear what she is saying, there are times when I need to stop being optimistic so that I can let the “diabetes is hideous” sentiments fly before they build up. Thanks again.

  6. Kim
    Kim August 29, 2006 at 11:46 pm | | Reply

    When hubby was diagnosed with Type 2 a few months ago, my first response was “well, this sucks”.

    He’s lookin’ good, blood sugars are better and better, we’ve both lost weight…

    But it would be a heck of a lot better if he didn’t have it.

    We went through the “whew, at least you don’t have to take insulin” period. The “it could be worse” phase.

    And it could be. But for now, the specter of diabetes and its complications are a permanent part of our lives and we are learning to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.

  7. Anne
    Anne September 12, 2006 at 1:38 pm | | Reply

    Hi there,
    I have had diabetes since age 14 (type 1) and should let you know that it has not stopped me from reaching any of my goals. And I think your sister should be able to manage a piece of wedding cake–it might just take a little extra insulin and monitoring. I use an insulin pump, and hold down a good job at a university, run marathons and compete in triathlons regularly. It takes extra planning but it can be done!

    It’s really scary at first and it is a pain sometimes, but it is a manageable condition and doesn’t need to dominate your life in a negative way… (in my opinion).

    Best wishes to all,

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