Recognizing What You Need: The Art of Flourishing with Diabetes
This interview was published August 26, 2021.
Diabetes isn’t just about checking blood sugar and counting carbohydrates; it’s a complex health equation that requires multiple practices to make sure you stay not only physically healthy, but mentally and spiritually healthy too. Over the course of our spirituality and wellness interview series, we’re speaking with just a few members of our diabetes community to learn what they do to stay well.
Riva Greenberg is an author and leading global expert in the art of flourishing with diabetes. Living with type 1 diabetes for almost 50 years, Riva holds the 2015 distinguished Lecture Award from the International Diabetes Federation for her education and advocacy. As a health coach, online influencer and inspirational speaker, she is an advocate for those impacted by diabetes to thrive alongside it, rather than fight against it.
Beyond Type 1: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What does self-care look like for you? How does it work in sync with your spirituality?
Riva Greenberg: I never look at self-care as [what’s suggested by] commercialism; I look at it as recognizing what you need, like taking a break, getting together with friends and what feeds you emotionally. I do see the spiritual arts in the self-care realm, and there’s nothing commercial about meditation, yoga, qigong, or whatever spiritual practice you may have. I started transcendental meditation when I was 20 and I kept that up for about 30 years, on and off. I did yoga on and off and about two years ago I started doing qigong, which has become my dominant practice.
I have an overall spiritual practice of being present and aware. We’re constantly sucked into the world’s distractions. More and more, we are becoming less present with other people. When I close my eyes, I can feel that inner energy and I’ve realized that spirit, it’s really me. So I try to be within that place more of the time.
The idea of presence and being present has opened me up to the idea that I’m here to serve a purpose; even as a kid I knew that, I just didn’t know what it looked like. With the work I do, the bigger goal is to be an uplifting spirit in the world. If I can do that, then I’m happy.
Your book The ABC’s of Loving Yourself With Diabetes mentions powerful words like patience, forgiveness and reawakening to help with diabetes management. In your own journey, how were these specific words prevalent in your own diabetes management?
Early on, Ginger (Vieira) wrote about people being works in progress and I find that very true. We live in a culture that’s constantly trying to define, box and categorize us. If we attempt something and we don’t do well, we’re considered failures, but we’re really works in progress. Everything about our lives is a work in progress.
If you look at everything you attempt to do as an experiment, you can’t fail. Then words like patience, appreciation and gratitude come into play. If I can be patient when I’m looking at my blood sugar and think about why I got that number, rather than being angry and blaming myself, I can do better. When I appreciate what I have in life, I can have a generally more positive frame of mind about everything.
When you do feel frustrated with your diabetes, how do you shift your mindset to be softer with yourself?
I allow myself whatever time necessary, whether it be a day or two, to be sad or angry or whatever. My husband is extremely supportive and I may reach out to friends just to get away from myself. I may even dive right into a Netflix binge about a Scandinavian crime series.
If I’ve been off my routine, I try to get back to it. Being 67, I’ve had friends die. So you can choose to look up or look down, some people have it better, some worse. So it’s important to go do stuff that gives you pleasure and, although it’s hard to do, give that critical voice in your head a little less attention. The mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy and you have to steer it, guide it, work with it, and have it work for you.
For those looking to bolster their mental health alongside diabetes, what advice do you have?
Depending on the scale of support you need, seeking a therapist may be a good idea. For me, I take my attention from the outside world and bring it into the quiet within myself. I heard once from a podcast that it helps to imagine your eyes moving to the back of your head. In a way, you’re receding. You’re giving yourself a little distance between the outer world and what’s inside.
Energetically, you can also close your eyes and feel your body. Feel the energy in your hands, your arms… and feel the energy in your entire body. Withdrawing into this quiet, energetic field helps you realize that all things come and go. In this calm space, upsetting feelings are soothed, and you can more easily and more positively, flow back into managing your diabetes.
Your quote,“This I know for sure—You can have a great life, not despite but because of diabetes,” speaks volumes. If you weren’t diagnosed, do you have any idea how your life would look?
None. I started my career in advertising because my talent was writing, and didn’t know how else to make a living, although advertising can sometimes be bs. I haven’t spent any time thinking about it, but, for me, this work is so fulfilling and satisfies a huge sense of purpose…you wonder if it’s destiny…
If you’ve had the chance to work alongside the [diabetes] community, you know it’s such a generous community because most of us are touched by [diabetes] personally. It attracts a different kind of person than you’d find in an advertising business. I’m blessed and that’s not to say that there isn’t frustration. There are times I’m worried, but I can connect with gratitude and believe I’ve made lemonade out of lemons. Some remarkable things have happened along the way, some things I wasn’t even able to predict.