December 15, 2015

Diabetes Burnout

I’ve seen it before. Nine years back, slumped on my kitchen floor, unable to move another step. It got me so good, I couldn’t even figure out how to get up.

I sat there in a puddle until my husband recognized what was wrong and what needed to be done.

It wasn’t low blood sugar that demolished me, though. It was burnout. And at that moment in time, it had burnt every last piece of me.

I had been fighting diabetes for a solid twelve years without any support. Sure, I checked in with my doctor every three months to have my efforts graded based on one solitary blood test and then sent away. But that was the closest I ever came to talking to any person besides my husband about diabetes.

I was fighting alone and I was starting to lose. The fix was to find other people to fight alongside me.

After my husband demanded that I take the day off work and spend some time for myself, I went online to find other people who were fighting diabetes the same way I always had, through adventure.

Over the next few years, I dove in deep with the amazing crew of people living right around the corner from me who were running marathons, racing Ironman, and going on climbing adventures as a way to deal with diabetes.

Over time, the diabetes burnout faded and was replaced by a fellowship that, not only increased my knowledge of the disease, but surrounded me with people who understood the emotional aspects of a life-long situation that has the ability to suck the life out of the best of us.

I began to share my story with people who might not have had the built-in community that San Diego is so blessed to have. And for the past seven years, I have been going on outrageous adventures and sharing them with anyone who wants to listen.

In 2011, I sailed 100-miles down the Florida Keys alone because my first endocrinologist told me that as a person with diabetes, I would never be able to sail alone again. In 2012, I wrote and published a book about that first trip, Islands and Insulin, an adventure in itself. In 2014, I led a team of Type 1’s in a 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West. 2015 brought another 100-mile trip, this time on stand up paddle boards in the Intercoastal Waterways of North and South Carolina.

Every adventure gave me a year of intense physical training, which, as we all know, is essential to having good blood sugars. Each one introduced me to a new group of people.  And each stretched me as a person as I learned to share my story with larger audiences, a very difficult thing to do as a naturally introverted person.

Now as I finish out 2015, I have begun to notice the signs again. Each September, I begin to dream and plan for the next summer’s adventure. This year, I couldn’t decide on an adventure. The natural excitement this time of year usually brings was noticeably missing.

I stopped writing. I stopped posting anything on social media. I stopped reaching out to make plans with friends. I climbed further and further into my introverted cave.

I let myself off the hook and decided that, for all of October, I would not do any work for the Sea Peptide Salties, the website I run as a vehicle for sharing my story. When October passed, and I still had no excitement, I finally realized the scope of what I was dealing with.

In endurance training, athletes walk a fine line of pushing their bodies to their max without pushing too hard for too long. Without any athletic stress the human body will not get any stronger. Runners run longer each week. Weight lifters increase their weights and reps. Paddlers will paddle more and more miles.

But, if too much stress is applied, athletes will go into the dreaded “over-training.” Their bodies no longer get stronger and faster; they get weaker and sicker. It can take three to six months of serious rest to get back to training again. There are no short cuts.

However, if an athlete recognizes the signs of impending over-training, a zone doctors call “overreaching”, and can rest appropriately, they can avoid a six-month hiatus. A few days or a few weeks off, followed by a redesign of the training plan that brought them to the brink of over-training in the first place, will fix the problem before it becomes disastrous.

My lack of interest in next year’s adventure and my desire to drop off the face of the diabetes world were early warning signs of impending over-training.  After spending every waking moment fully invested in my day job, in helping my kids to grow, in enjoying my relationship with my husband, tending to my diabetes, and in going on and sharing my wild adventures, I was overreaching.

If I kept up that pace, I would burn out. I would throw in the towel on the Sea Peptide Salties. I would have to take off years to recover. And we all know, with a disease like diabetes, you don’t get to take years off without some horrible consequences.

If I was going to do a good job with my health over the next 58 years of life that I have left, and continue to try to help others, I had to do something before I got to over-training.

As soon as I discovered this, I scrapped my plans for another 100-mile adventure in 2016. But I can’t motivate myself to exercise unless I have some sort of adventure on the books, so I had to do something.

I needed something simple. Something more medium-sized. Something that takes about ten minutes to plan. And I needed to do it with someone I know so well that I won’t be stretched to be outgoing with people I don’t know.

With those requirements, the adventure I had to go on became clear. It would be an overnight backpacking trip with my best type 1 adventuring buddy, Michelle.  After an afternoon planning, the trip was set.

Hundreds of hours planning, training, building a team, securing sponsors, and getting media coverage had now been taken off my schedule for the next year. I was left with the unheard of “Free Time.”

After making this decision, the first time I found myself sitting and not doing anything, I realized it had been about three years since I spent any time doing nothing. Every minute had been utilized to accomplish one goal or another. Most days it was well after nine at night before I sat down for the first time. Well, more accurately, collapsed.

And now I was watching TV, playing with my kids more. This November, I turned off my automatic sprinklers and watered my yard with a hose, just because I had the time to do it and because it was so relaxing. I sat in the sun, and just sat. I didn’t return emails or write blogs or work on the Adventure Academy. I just sat and did nothing.

So far it has been amazing. My desire to go out and paddle again is coming back. I am excited to start writing again. Slowly I can feel the overreaching start to fade. I am coming back out of my cave.

We all walk a fine line between wanting to do everything we can to combat this disease and doing too much. And we have to walk this line for the rest of our lives (or at least until one of the many cure possibilities makes it through the FDA and we get our insurance to cover it).

There are so many amazing things we can do to stay healthy. We test. We shoot up. We analyze data that would make any statistician cry. We worry and cry. We exercise and stress. We share our heartache publicly. We support others in our community. We fight our insurance companies to do what is right. We fight our politicians to do what is right. We fight employers to treat us with dignity and compassion.  We try not to worry our loved ones with our ups and downs.

But if we fight too hard, if we don’t look up once in a while to notice when those first signs of over-training arise, we will burn out.

With all we have to carry, we need to remember that it’s ok, every once in a while, to let ourselves off the hook and just kick back. To sit in a chair and enjoy the beauty around us. To surround ourselves with people who let us be ourselves without having to try.  To not accomplish anything for a day, or at least for an afternoon. To do nothing.

As this year wraps up, it may be a good time to take stock of your current level of burnout. Are you at a point where it may be necessary this year to let go of a few things that you have convinced yourself you have to do, so that you can still do diabetes well? Maybe you just need a good weekend off. Maybe you are at your prime right now and can carry a few more burdens for those of us who need a momentary rest.

Whatever your level of burnout, take stock this year. Take stock every year. Don’t let diabetes burnout sneak up on you. Attack it before it gets the best of you.