National Diabetes Month: My path to a sweeter, sugar-free lifestyle

In all my years on this planet, I had never fainted. Sure, there were a few stressful moments that caused my head to feel like it was soaked in club soda, but I never once succumbed to the lightheadedness.

On January 12, 2017, I fainted. And I have two scars to prove it. One on my head, the other on the remnants of my former sedentary, careless, "regular guy" lifestyle.

That morning -- just a day removed from an otherwise normal checkup -- I was working from home, while simultaneously planning a righteous birthday celebration, replete with friends, beer, televised sports, and piles of indistinguishable fried brown foods.

In other words, a normal celebration for a man approaching middle age with a decided lack of grace, and a bad case of arrested development.

Then the phone rang. It was my doctor -- undoubtedly to tell me all was well, and that I was just a few pounds shy of perfect fitness. Right? Right?

Wrong. Instead of joyous celebration, she asked me to sit down. Then, with all the subtlety of a trombone, she bluntly stated that my blood tests confirmed what I already knew deep down. I was a confirmed diabetic.

The next 10 minutes were a blur. After years of being coddled by a well-intentioned, doting family that always implied bad things happen to "other people," a wash of emotion made me come to grips with the reality of my situation. My life was about to change entirely.

Oh, I would continue to exist for years with the proper treatment. But I truly believed my days of living were suddenly -- and sadly -- over. Gone were the large meals, mindless snacking, care-free menu selection and weekend football parties. It was all going to stop, immediately, for fear of the absolute worst.

Thankfully, those around me had different plans.

An immediate change of direction

When my wife heard the news later that day, she was a bit more pragmatic. Instead of showering me with trite declarations of "it will be okay," and "we'll beat this," she took me to the kitchen, handed me an industrial-sized trash bag, and proceeded to clear the shelves of anything and everything I enjoyed eating.

Carbohydrates -- delicious, seemingly wonderful carbohydrates -- all had to be discarded, as they were a primary source of my diagnosis.

It wasn't just the obvious culprits that took the fall. Sure, the candy, chips and snacks were the first to go. But so did those starchy breads, potatoes and fruits. Yes, there were fresh fruits I could no longer eat on a regular basis for fear of blood sugar spikes and drops.

(And for those taking notes at home, beer qualifies as a VERY starchy, sugary food. That had to go, as well.)

My wife did her research, and proceeded to empty my pantry in grand fashion. We were starting over -- it was the only way she knew to right my lifestyle.

Now, don't get me wrong -- my wife is about as nurturing as they come. However, instead of blaming me for poor decisions, she turned this life-event on herself, accepting responsibility for buying, stocking and cooking me carb-heavy meals for years.

But this wasn't her fault. Or that of my genetics. Diabetes may run in my family, but this was my fault and my fault alone, thanks to years of ignoring obvious dietary missteps and making knowingly bad choices. Yet "alone" is the one thing I never felt as I adjusted to my new reality.

A long-term plan for healthy living with diabetes

Over the course of the next few months, I endured my wife's iron-clad menu plan, and countless panic attacks about high A1C (blood glucose) readings -- the key indicator of diabetes. But I soldiered through the stringent nutrient counts, and stress from potential pharmaceutical side effects, and lost nearly 40 pounds, reducing my bad sugar levels to near-normal totals.

It worked. By the next visit, my doctor was floored, and prescribed me a well-earned cheeseburger, a beer, and a chance to exhale.

But I didn't use this hall pass. Instead, I stayed the course. While my two children were becoming cranky about having to eat "diabetic stuff," and I was also beginning to have old cravings, I remained steadfast through a range of meals that met all my requirements, lowering my numbers even further.

In just four months, my once-towering A1C had decreased to a completely normal level. My cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, which were also elevated from my previous diet, quickly followed suit. My exercise regimen improved, and I was now back to my high school graduation weight.

Finding happiness within change

My doctor first complimented me. Then, because she had known me prior to the diagnosis, asked if I was happy. As great as I felt about the accomplishments we made, I gave her an honest answer -- "Not even a little bit."

She offered an understanding nod of the head. I explained that prior to my diagnosis, I ate and drank without concern, finding happiness in ignorance. Following my diagnosis, I ate like a dutiful soldier, doing only what I was told, and finding happiness solely in achieving results. But now that my numbers were where they needed to be, there was seemingly no motivation to continue -- no reason to keep living like this while my friends continued looser, less-restrictive lifestyles.

It wasn't that my previous lifestyle was driven by food and beer. It wasn't that I wanted to be overweight. It wasn't even that I missed eating carb-heavy items. It was that someone told me, for the first time in my life, that I COULDN'T have these things. Even after making such progress.

So, she and I talked. Not as doctor and patient, but person to person. We talked about giving myself some freedoms. She talked about how to go to bars and restaurants and "live a little." We talked about realistic options for a full life.

She then gave me another cheeseburger and beer prescription, with a mandatory follow-up chat each week to talk about choices. I learned it was okay to have a slice of pizza once in awhile. It wasn't okay to have an entire pizza. It was okay to have a few beers with friends. It wasn't okay to have a few beers six nights a week.

I wasn't being told to live like a monk. I was told to live like someone who wanted -- and needed -- to be healthier.

Embracing a fresh perspective

Now, I look forward to my Thursday heart-to-hearts with a doctor who somehow took my life away, then taught me it was okay to live it again. Just with a much more disciplined approach to those moments I feel like stepping outside the lines.

Today, my levels remain good. I occasionally slip up, because I'm human. And I'm allowed to be one.

The difference is that the "old me" would have continued to be too lenient, just as my family had placated me before. The "new me" realizes that mistakes happen, but mistakes made more than once are choices. And bad choices for diabetics now could lead to worse things down the line. Much worse.

It's not just about balance - it's about paying closer attention to how you feel, and how you want to feel. And there's no burger or beer that could ever replace how I feel each day, thanks to a revamped diet, a revitalized approach to health, and two people who helped me learn to live a better, sweeter life.

Make a change for yourself and others

This is National Diabetes Month. If you, or someone you love is affected by this disease, please research our Learning Center for information about products and services for diabetes care, eligible to purchase with your FSA funds.

And if you have your own story to share, please don't hesitate to reach out on the FSAstore Facebook page. We'd love to hear about your own journeys to healthier lifestyles.

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