Some people with type 2 diabetes don’t want to accept their diagnosis. But this denial—or “deniabetes”—can be life-threatening. The mind is powerful. If we don’t like what’s happening in our lives, we can try to forget about it. Sometimes it works—for a while.
For two years, Bev Brezina of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, denied her type 2 diabetes diagnosis. The 63-year-old knew diabetes ran in her family, but when her doctor gave her the news, she told herself she didn’t really have it. Her blood sugar level was just slightly elevated at 126 mg/dl. She felt fine. Bev signed up for a series of classes for people newly diagnosed with diabetes, but she attended only one. “I wasn’t like the others in the room—my blood sugar was only 126,” she says. “And quite frankly, the reality of complications scared me.”
Fear is often the main reason people deny their diabetes—fear of being different, fear of change, fear of complications, you name it. “Change is scary, and we run from what we fear,” says Susan Renda, NP, CDE, of the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center in Baltimore. “When we first learn about diabetes, we hear about fearful things.”
Denying type 2 diabetes can be easy at first because there might be no outward signs that something is wrong. Almost any health care provider can tell stories of patients who come in for help years after a type 2 diagnosis only because they are having complications. Some people tell friends and family they have been diagnosed with diabetes, but then do nothing to treat it and even act cavalier about it, says James R. Gavin III, M.D., Ph.D., chief medical officer of Healing Our Village, an Atlanta company that provides diabetes education and health screenings to minority populations.
This was true for Stuart Pryke, who didn’t know much about type 2 diabetes, so he wasn’t fazed when his doctor told him he had it. But as the 31-year-old from London began to fill prescriptions, the reality of the diagnosis set in. He later found that not taking his medication and testing his blood sugar made life feel more normal. Plus, he was losing weight.
“When I was diagnosed, I weighed 280 pounds. Within a year, I was down to 182. People kept telling me I looked great, and that kept adding to my denial,” he says. Stuart soon met the woman who would become his wife, and shortly after getting married she became pregnant. “My wife wrote me a letter explaining that I was a very selfish person—that I wasn’t taking into account anyone else’s feelings,” Stuart says. “She wanted me to be around for our son’s life. She wanted him to have a father.”
People have different ways of putting off acceptance. “Blame gets placed on being too busy or having one too many social events to begin new habits,” Gavin says. “People essentially rationalize their behavior.” Yet they are among many who face lifestyle changes due to type 2 diabetes; more than 26 million Americans are living with the disease. “Thousands of others have gone through this and are currently going through this, and there are lots of opportunities that exist now to help people,” Gavin says.