I was in elementary school when I went to McDonald’s with a classmate, who had Type 1 diabetes, and her mother. We all ordered a burger, fries, and a drink—and I remember thinking that the mother was so mean because she told her daughter that she couldn’t order any fries. In my naïve mind, I thought “Yo momma is mean!” “Who doesn’t let their child have fries?” “Where is the sugar in fries?”
My father was diagnosed with Type II diabetes before I was born. As a child, all I understood about his disease was that he couldn’t have candy and HAD (emphasis on HAD) to drink Diet Coke. As he explained it, my siblings and I were never to let a drop of Diet Coke touch our lips because “it’s not good for you but it’s good for me.” So, we proudly served him can after can, with a cup full of ice, thinking we were helping him get better. As kids growing up in the ’90s the only health education we received was from corny (yet classic) sitcoms and PSAs about cigarettes, drugs, and bicycle helmets. Since my parents never really talked about my father’s diabetes, we concluded that Diet Coke and hiding the candy (our mother told us to hide it from him), was the best way to treat his “sugar allergy” (this is how I understood the term “diabetes” as a child).
I was about 11 or 12 years old when I started to see my dad slow down and his swag started to wobble a bit. Then, out of nowhere, he started leaving work early to pick me up from school to take me along to classes that taught him how to self-administer several medications. After the first class, I remember getting into the car with him and refusing to speak to him. I was filled with so much anger and resentment toward him and my mother; because during that class, I had learned that his diabetes wasn’t an “allergy” but a possible death sentence, if not managed properly. He had roped my siblings and me into possibly sending him to an early grave with every Coke that we served him.
After attending more classes, I realized that my classmate’s mother wasn’t being mean. She was actually a fantastic mother, who was teaching her daughter to properly manage her diabetes. Before those classes, I didn’t know that fries (potatoes) can raise your blood sugar and that high levels of potassium should be avoided. All that side-eye I gave my classmate’s mother, should have really been given to my own parents for sending me out into the world ignorant of something that could someday change life as I knew it. Maybe in their own way, they thought that they were protecting us, or thought maybe we knew more than what we did, but I wish that they would have done things a bit differently.
As a child of a chronically ill parent, I wish my parents would have:
Told us what they knew about his disease
If my parents knew everything there was to know about diabetes, they should have told us. If they knew nothing at all, they should have told us that too.
My dad should have never told us that Diet Coke was helping him. He used us to get contraband and justified it in a deceitful manner. My mother should have never taught us to hide food or candy because we didn’t understand what we were doing. My parents should have also told us when my dad had undergone treatments.—like when he had an eye surgery that we didn’t find out about until my siblings and I were adults.
Taught us better habits knowing that it could be hereditary
Diabetes runs on both sides of my family. While my mother was monitoring our food intake when we were kids, I also saw a double-standard on how they were caring for themselves. Since we were told what to do, rather than being taught what to do, as adults, my siblings and I still struggle to take better care of ourselves.
Educated themselves more
I wish that my parents (especially my dad), would have educated themselves more on my dad’s condition. They could have, then, passed that education on to us.
Realized that it wasn’t just about him
This one is obviously geared towards my dad. My dad had a mindset that only HE had diabetes; but actually, we all had it (figuratively speaking). His condition affected and affects all of us, not just him. He should have been honest with himself and us about the management of his diabetes.
As a parent myself, I understand and respect my parents’ perspective. I understand that my dad didn’t want us to look at him any differently, or be fearful about his future. I understand that my mother was just trying to allow us to be kids while helping him manage his diabetes. Even in understanding all of that, I still wish they would have done things a little bit differently.