I'm Still Disabled (And I'm Okay With That)

My diabetes diagnosis hit me like a bag of bricks. It followed months of increasingly terrifying panic attacks coming on any time I ate or drank. I thought I was dying. I left notes to family members and friends in case I didn’t make it through the night. I was terrified of laying down to try and sleep because I was convinced it’d be the absolute death of me.

I told myself it was just anxiety, something I’ve grown up accustomed to having in one form or another. I shuffled through different supplements and magical practices, treating it like anxiety, and as such, never experiencing resolution. I couldn’t afford a doctor and hadn’t had health insurance for years, so there was no just ‘getting it checked out’ option for me. I suffered more or less alone through what I would later learn was the near total shutdown of my pancreas, as well as damage to my kidneys and liver—not to mention the psychological toll I now consider akin to PTSD.

When my aunt finally made me go to the emergency room during one of these episodes, my blood pressure and anxiety were so high, I can only recall my admittance to the hospital from outside my body. Finally pushed so far to my edges, I encountered an odd serenity. Before the doctor even came back with a diagnosis, I’d made a pact of peace with myself. Part of me died there. But if any part of me left, it’d be a stronger, newer me than the me who’d entered.

Are you the man with the really high blood sugar?

They gave me a shot of insulin and sent me home with a prescription for the maximum dosage of Metformin, a drug commonly prescribed in treatment of type 2 diabetes. Before I even saw another doctor or the diabetic coach who helped me reorient my understanding of healthy meal sizes and carb content away from the standard American diet, I’d already made the decision that I was going to beat this. I knew I’d been eating poorly. I’d guessed that not exercising at all might lead to health problems later down the line. I just hadn’t taken any of it seriously enough in the context of my family’s medical history to prevent it. And of course, not having the capacity to pay for any medical care without help from the local healthcare network’s charity assistance program hadn’t helped catch it before I was really in trouble either.

But the new me was leaving all these things behind. From then on, my life was going to be healthy eating, regular exercise, coming off the meds, and entering full remission as soon as possible.

The first three months were terrible. Metformin, the medicine I’d been prescribed, caused severe stomach cramps for me. I frequently found myself unable to do anything but lay in bed and hurt for an hour or two after each dose. Coming up to the full dose I’d been prescribed took almost four agonizing weeks, and it was several more after that before I reached a degree of acclimation. I put on almost twenty pounds (contrary to the weight loss many people experience), even though I’d started a routine walking regimen three times a week.

Yet I refused to be defeated. I joined a gym. And despite caution from those around me, I started exercising every day of the week. I meticulously counted carbs and ate smaller meals. I decorated my car with a bumper sticker that read ‘Attitudes Are the Real Disability,’ and I acerbically voiced my intention to stick to the low-carb diet plan I’d been given whenever other diabetics in my family choose instead to eat whatever they wanted.

I developed a weird relationship to the term ‘disabled.’ On the one hand, it suddenly felt like the most accurate identity term I’d ever applied to myself. It encapsulated the alienation from society I’d felt growing up asthmatic, and later through mental illness, neurodivergence, or whatever it is that just makes me seem so different and abnormal to how everyone else is functioning. It communicated the severity of living with conditions which rob you of an ease in life which others take for granted—of having to count pills and fight pharmacies for refills when hurricanes are coming, of having to medicate (whatever the side effects) in order to eat, in order to breathe, in order to even exist in the world where everyone else just begins.

I am disabled. My fingers are visibly callused from daily, repetitive pin pricks to monitor blood sugar. I am disabled. The color in my face evaporates when I open the refrigerator door and find I haven’t planned my meals well enough, that I will have to go out into traffic and into a race against time before I blackout to try and find something I can eat to stay conscious. I am disabled. In the disappointment and frustration others experience when I have to suddenly change or cancel dinner plans. In all the love I miss out on, waiting for me to show up at restaurants and bars. I am disabled. By the way our food system is mapped out on the zip codes I can afford to live in, in all the obstacles still preventing me from getting adequate care, in the intergenerational health of families and ecosystems raising my blood sugar like tides, swallowing my organs despite seawalls, collapsing my lungs like dilapidated apartments, failing, changing, being, trying….

I am disabled. I say it, voice trembling with ownership of all that word invokes—the shame, the fear, the courage. But here I’m getting ahead of myself. Because, you see, I’m not some well-adjusted and empowered disability activist.

In my other hand is a relationship to that word that’s been defined by hatred. The first four years of my coming to terms with it (and the first twenty-five years of living it) have been at least subconsciously about defeating it. Having spent most of my childhood as a transplant living in Baltimore, I’ve learned to resent and repress all those things that mark me as a Southerner, i.e. backwards, i.e. poor, i.e. stupid. And the ultimate caricature of Southerners is the fat, immobile, asthmatic, diabetic—my body. My body is the joke we tell to reckon with the persistence of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, gun violence, and more. Of all the restrictions in diet and lifestyle diabetes disables me with, the cultural shame around it is perhaps the heaviest burden I carry.

‘Disabled’ then is also my shield against laughter, a safer, more anonymous distance between myself and the particular conditions of working class people found hilarious in this country. And I would be omitting some significant truth of my journey if I didn’t tell you I push myself to exercise, to hyper-restrict what I eat, and to do whatever it takes to minimize and not be medicated for these conditions as a sword to fight back at the intersection of being working class, disabled, and Southern. Sometimes that battle is internal. I fight hatred of myself, project it onto the comfort other disabled friends and family seem to have with themselves, and slip defensively into wanting to be one of the ‘good disabled’ people who laughs at my body too.

I am disabled. And my disability comes with many complications like these.

What Does Healing Even Mean?

In February of this year, I finally hit remission, which is to say I no longer require medication for diabetes. But let me tell you, I never planned or really thought about what my life would be like after that until I got here. In my mind, I was going to be another inspirational success story. I was going to be another guy who beat the fuck out of diabetes with a plant-based vegan diet, regular exercise, and a whole lot of commitment to turning my life around.

In part, I am that guy. But I’m also the guy who now realizes that he only traded one form of treatment for diabetes for another, who doesn’t use pharmaceutical medication now, but who does still have to count carbs, exercise everyday, and sometimes despite all that, still live with blood sugar highs and lows that fluctuate. I haven’t returned to what we consider the ‘norm’ of not having health problems related to the standard American diet and lifestyle, but I have gained a lot of insight into how destructive and unhealthy that ‘norm’ can be. Is being non-diabetic really the standard of health we want to measure everyone by when the food and environmental conditions we expose especially poor communities and communities of color to are so horrific? From here, it seems to me that not being diabetic is more accurately the abnormality than having a body which finds these objectively unhealthy conditions intolerable.

If that’s the case though—if, to paraphrase Jiddu Krishnamurti, being well-adjusted to a profoundly sickening society is no measure of health—what does that mean for the healing journey these conditions set us on? Or the healing professions people like me work in?

For the last four years since my diagnosis, my most salient visualization of healing has looked like being off medication. To some degree this is still the case. But over the last few months, I’ve come to understand that the key dynamic there is not that healing means being able-bodied. Rather, it means being in control of how I relate to disability. Remission is honestly just a side effect. The real healing I’ve been pursuing, the real healing work I’m still doing, is about bringing my ethics into alignment with my diet, and about balancing the care I love to provide for others with the care my body needs me to cherish with itself. This alignment, this balance is not about undoing my disability, but about more deeply rooting with it. When I own my power in the relationships I want to have to disability and treatment, I think I’m better prepared to uproot and overgrow those infrastructural design flaws that make society so disabling. The focus is no longer just on me—what I’m doing right or what I’m doing wrong—because those relationships are at peace. The ‘new me’ is adjusted to living in accordance to how he wants to live, not how he is prescribed to live, not how society is laid out for him to live, nor how others would have him live.

The next chapter of this journey doesn’t begin with a return to any ‘norm’ or being able-bodied again having kicked diabetes to the curb. Instead, it’s about integration. It’s about accepting that being disabled is part of my political, economic, and personal orientation in this world. And it’s about healing the agency I have in determining what kind of relationships I want to my conditions and their ongoing treatment.

Especially as my practice is evolving in a direction of providing more health-oriented coaching for clients who are also disabled, chronically ill, or neurodivergent, I want to be clear to myself and to all my readers and clients out there that I don’t offer pathways out of these experiences, towards cures, or towards ableist ideas of healing. What I do offer is solidarity, coaching, and compassion drawn from the insight of my own complex and continuing journey. For so much of my life, the model has been to ‘fight off’ the disabilities of my body. For nearly all of my life so far as a diabetic, the goal has been the same. But I am seeing more clearly now. This is who I am, this is my body’s experience.

I am (still) disabled. And that’s okay.

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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.

Get connected with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com