When a Diabetic Dates a Non-diabetic
One morning when my older brother Mason was in college (I have two brothers, and all three of us are diabetic), his girlfriend received a strange phone call from an unknown number. She picked up, and a voice belonging to Mason’s roommate explained that he’d just found Mason passed out, naked, on the floor. He’d woken up low and disoriented, and had decided that the only way to get down from his top bunk was via front flip. He failed to land the flip. He lay on the floor with a broken tailbone, and that’s how his roommate found him. Mason’s girlfriend immediately went to check on him, skipping class.
Years later they would marry, so this story ends happily, but that particular moment demonstrated why it’s hard, as a diabetic, to date.
Any nascent relationship is fraught with anxiety as each party tries to present themselves in the best possible light. Each person tries to hide their blemishes, and I suspect that most diabetics fear that their disease will be perceived as a blemish. Of course, you can’t hide your diabetes. Not for very long, anyway. Nor should you try.
Once your partner or date knows you’re diabetic, you have to explain to them what this will mean for the relationship. Low blood sugars, high blood sugars, stress regarding meals, random and frightening episodes involving you naked and injured on the floor: all of these things will complicate an already complicated mode of human interaction. They must grow into this knowledge.
As your partner starts understanding the disease and its effects, you must also begin to negotiate how you will and won’t let diabetes come between you, which is tricky. There have been times when I’ve had to dismiss myself from an argument because I could tell that a high sugar level was making me ungenerous.
So when you quarrel and you realize your sugars have elevated, how often do you want to blame your high blood sugar? It seems like you can only do this so many times before it becomes a rote excuse, easily dismissed. Diabetes itself is not, however, easily dismissed. High blood sugars can ruin days, conversations, and dates. There’s no easy way to navigate this problem: deemphasize your hyperglycemia and you imply that you’re just being a jerk, but blame it and you’re shirking the responsibility of your own behavior.
Maybe it’s useful to think of diabetes as a third party in the relationship: one who needs attention, patience, and a great deal of understanding. Both you and your partner must make sure you acquaint yourself with diabetes, and make sure its hunger for attention remains sated. Perhaps you’re out on a date, engaged in a compelling conversation. Diabetes whispers: You’re having fun, but have you checked your blood sugar since you ate?
Diabetes can deflate spontaneity. You can’t simply decide to drive somewhere; you must plan ahead, bring supplies, and bring sugar.
Diabetes can even take the shine off of some romantic gestures. Perhaps your partner surprises you with cookies, but you’re hyperglycemic, and you must find a way to accept them gratefully without eating one. These are small moments, but it’s at times like these when diabetes can drive a wedge between couples. If you think of diabetes as that attention-hungry third party in the relationship, perhaps it becomes easier to approach these moments with the patience they require.
I’ve been with my girlfriend for six years, so I’ve only gone through the awkward diabetes-education phase once. It was painful, in an adolescent way, to have her watch me while I did peculiarly diabetic things, like eat the dust from the bottom of a bottle of glucose tablets when I battled a stubborn low. I was too embarrassed to explain much to her about diabetes, but she learned quickly anyway. An attentive student of the disease, she now knows Type 1 well enough to explain it to other people. When she hears any mention of diabetes, her ears perk up.
This brings me to another thing about dating a non-diabetic: you must preserve a modicum of compassion for your partner. It’s not their job to understand everything about the disease, and expecting them to monitor your behavior for minute signs of glycemic change is unfair. It’s difficult, but you must bear in mind that diabetes isn’t just inconvenient and scary for you.
Mason’s mishap terrified us at the time—and diabetes does bury a kernel of fear in daily life—but in retrospect it was also funny. Diabetes beat him up and stole his clothes. What a strange thing for a new girlfriend to see, and what a singular story to tell now that they’re married.
Diabetes can be an obnoxious third wheel when you date, but it won’t ruin anything as long as you pay it adequate attention. Non-diabetics can learn and understand. And if you and your partner are willing to give diabetes a place at the table, who knows? It might tell a funny story.