Two weeks ago, I tore the meniscus of my right inner knee as I got off my stationary exercise bike. The pain of the injury didn’t show up until a few mornings later — getting out of bed, I set my foot onto the floor and immediately raised a yelp of misery.
At the orthopedist office, the doctor drained fluid from the knee and injected cortisone with the largest needle I had ever seen. Thankfully, the injection worked, and after a few days of ice and rest, I was cleared to return to my regular activities.
But I didn’t. Instead of returning to my daily exercise routine, I stayed put as my bike and weights gathered dust. I didn’t take walks outside; I didn’t hit my yoga mat.
It wasn’t only exercise I abandoned: I didn’t take my blood sugars. I stood in the kitchen and — ignoring years of “clean eating” — downed six homemade chocolate chip cookie bars. I pushed the scale into the closet and avoided mirrors.
I had hit the wall when it came to my diabetes care. I was officially burned out.
What is diabetes burnout? It’s when the emotional toll of taking care of your disease becomes overwhelming and, for whatever reason, you give up. In my case, my knee injury was the final straw that sent me over the edge; but the truth is, but there had been so much else leading up to it. The long pandemic months that kept us mostly inside, unable to visit family or friends. The death of my sister’s mother-in-law earlier that week (a lovely, warm woman who dealt with her own late-in-life diabetes by permitting herself two — exactly two — Raisinets a night). The frustrating inability of my husband or myself to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine in our state despite our eligibility. The 21-degree weather with more snow and ice headed our way; the very notion that my beloved Bruce Springsteen had sold out and narrated an ad for the Super Bowl. The masks. The handwashing.
There are many, many reasons for diabetes burnout. For some, it arrives when you get a complication even though you’ve done your best to take care of your disease. Or when despite every effort, the scale refuses to budge. Or high-sugar readings never drop. And it can take many forms: You might refuse to go to your doctor. Or stop monitoring your food. Or “forget” to renew your medications.
Most of us experience diabetes burnout at some point. No matter the cause, the signs and symptoms are the same: You’re sick of being sick, and you can’t take it anymore.
For a week, that was me. So how did I deal? I made myself some rules:
1. No beating myself up. I gave myself the right to be sick of my disease.
2. I acknowledged that it couldn’t last forever. As delicious as it was to pretend that I didn’t have to care for my diabetes, I knew it couldn’t last. I decided to call my time away from diabetes a vacation. Since I couldn’t take a vacation during the pandemic, I reasoned, a short escape from diabetes might be the best I’d get.
3. There were limits. I didn’t down sleeves of Oreos or gallons of ice cream, but I did let loose: making spaghetti for dinner one night (white pasta!) and adding a glass of wine or two (or three). I exercised if I felt like it, but I didn’t push myself to get a certain number of cardio minutes. If I felt like stopping, I did.
4. Medications were non-negotiable. I continued to take my medications (some habits survive burnout), but I ignored my sugar readings. (I really didn’t want to know.)
5. I reached out for support. I talked to a friend about what I was going through and let her remind me of how careful I normally was, and how, maybe, I had needed to take a break to power through.
At the week’s end, I had put on a few pounds. When I got back to testing my sugars, my first reading wasn’t great — but it wasn’t horrific either. I dumped the cookie bars and went food shopping for new items that were healthy, low carb, and a little off the beaten track: Japanese eggplant, portobello sliders, low-carb tortillas, a bottle of oyster sauce — to regain my interest in healthy food.
Let’s be clear: Burnout sucks, and it can hurt your health. Diabetes care is best when it’s consistent and ongoing. If you find yourself experiencing diabetes burnout, contact your doctor or diabetes educator. They can help you get back on track by reminding you of your earlier progress or setting you up with a regular support group. In these difficult days, we need all the help we can get.