The Hidden Trauma of My Chronic Illness

The trauma of my diabetes diagnosis began to manifest in the perfect storm of adolescence. I was experiencing new stressors: my mum’s mental health struggles, and, having managed my own care for a couple years now, diabetes burnout – a term used to describe feeling emotionally fried by the around-the-clock management. Never-processed traumas billowed up into waves of anger, terror, self-loathing, and, though I couldn’t name it then, grief – for the body, the health, the easy relationship with food, the self-trust, and the potential future I had lost. At 13, for the first time, I grappled with the magnitude and permanence of my disease.

“Once my parents were out of earshot, my sister hissed at me, ‘Don’t you think Mom and Dad want to get away from worrying about you and your diabetes for once?’”

I blamed myself for getting diabetes. I believed my existence was a burden on everyone, a feeling I can trace back to a specific memory from a few years earlier. On a family vacation in Utah one summer, we were trying to figure out who was going on a hike with my parents and who was staying back, and I volunteered to join. Once my parents were out of earshot, my sister hissed at me, “Don’t you think Mom and Dad want to get away from worrying about you and your diabetes for once?” The guilt crushed me, and I didn’t feel like going after all.

Paralysing fear and morbid assumptions clouded my visions of the future. These core beliefs have been the hardest for me to recognize as traumatic residue because for many years, they were simply the lens through which I saw myself and the world. Beliefs like: I will probably experience complications like going blind and kidney failure by the time I’m 30. I shouldn’t have children because they will be sick and hate me. I will die young.

I was besieged not by traumatic flashbacks, but traumatic flash-forwards into a coffin of sickness and suffering. Depression and anxiety consumed me. Intrusive thoughts and a sense of impending doom kept me up at night as I googled phrases like “average life expectancy female type 1 diabetic.”

I eventually started attending therapy and taking antidepressants. With a body I saw as fundamentally, irreversibly broken, I readily accepted that my brain was broken too. I started to numb out with sugar, an exceptionally self-destructive impulse for a person with type 1 diabetes. I developed a binge eating disorder – which wreaked havoc on my blood sugar – that I hid from everyone.

“The physiological experience of living with diabetes triggered me constantly.”

Oftentimes people with trauma will come to see the world as a scary place and avoid the triggers – people, places, and situations – that remind them of the traumatic experience. For me, the root of my trauma was lurking in my body like a ticking time bomb I couldn’t escape. “When a person has a chronic medical condition, they’re destined to persistently re-experience the traumatic event every day…because you’re continuously living with it,” Dr. Nadkani explains.

The physiological experience of living with diabetes triggered me constantly. High blood sugar harms your body over time, while low blood sugar induces a terrifying survival response: shakiness, faintness, and an inability to think as your system screeches for sugar. Monitoring for these danger signals led to hypervigilance of my own bodily sensations and I became fixated on possible signs of peripheral nerve damage. Whenever I felt the slightest tingle or numbness in my hands or feet – after crossing my legs for a while or on a cold January day – panic and dread flooded my system. I ultimately disconnected from my body to avoid these internal triggers.

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