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This content originally appeared on Beyond Type 1. Republished with permission.
By Kayla Hui, MPH
From being called “cyborg” for wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to facing criticism for eating sugar, that is the grating reality experienced by some folks with diabetes. While bullying may seem like an issue that occurs among adolescents or young children, it is an event that carries into adulthood.
In 2008, Sheri Byrne was eating lunch in her workplace community kitchen. As a man or woman living with type 1 diabetes, Byrne tested her blood sugar regularly to not only maintain tight control of her diabetes, but in doing so, to prevent complications, which can include nerve, kidney, eye, foot, and skin damage, if diabetes is left unmanaged.
Byrne would later be informed that she had a complaint against her from a colleague at work for testing her blood sugar in a communal space. “Somebody filed a complaint against me with HR, because I had tested my blood sugar in front of them in the community kitchen. Apparently, that just disgusted them,” says Byrne, an accessibility architect at VMare.
Krystle Samai, vice president of mission at College Diabetes Network, says that one form of bullying is when men and women categorize people as “other” and heal them differently because of an individual’s differences. “The idea of othering when they’re different is a societal problem,” Samai says. “And when they don’t understand something, people will often approach the difference from a place of fear.”
Despite informing the human resource department of her diabetes, Byrne was still asked to not examination in public spaces where her colleague would be present. “I would have thought they would have been more sensitive to that type of situation.”
Health Impacts of Bullying
Mark Heyman, PhD, diabetes psychologist and CEO of the Center for Diabetes and Mental Health tells Beyond Type 1 that stressful events like bullying can make glucose management more difficult. Research shows that bullying is associated with worse glycemic control in children with type 1 diabetes. “When your body responds to stress, your blood sugars are going to rise,” Heyman says.
Bullying also makes diabetes management in public spaces more difficult to manage. “When somebody is experiencing bullying, they want to avoid that. So they’re going to do what they can to hide their insulin pump or their CGM or their insulin pen,” Heyman explains. If sugar levels are not corrected, there can be serious health consequences that follow.
As Shadi Vahdat, MD, chief medical officer at the Create Cures Foundation, previously told Beyond Type 1, when blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dL, it can be dangerous, leading to hypoglycemia and other complications. If hypoglycemia is left untreated, it can result in seizures, unconsciousness and sometimes death.
People with diabetes also experience mental health issues as a result of stigma, especially when it comes to eating. Samai says that people make a false assumption that diabetes is a result of consuming exorbitant amounts of sugar. “This perception and misunderstanding that diabetes is caused by eating sugar or eating high-fat foods or not taking care of your body, is a huge basis of bullying,” Samai tells Beyond Type 1.
Byrne was not immune to being bullied for her drink choices. She recalls an event in 2015 when her manager yelled at her for drinking soda. “One time I had low blood sugar, and so I grabbed a Coke. My boss actually gave me grief for drinking the Coke,” Byrne says. “Once my blood sugar was back to normal and I had a chance to think about it, I was really upset. It made me wonder what other bad assumptions he had made about my actions in the past.” Byrne says that she ended up leaving her job that year.
Heyman says that bullying is an example of when people have crossed personal boundaries. To combat bullying, Heyman suggests using an education framework. “One is to be able to provide education saying, hey, you know, the reason why I’m wearing this device on my arm is not because I’m a cyborg, but because I have diabetes and it helps me and my blood sugar,” Heyman suggests.
“Boundaries are important for healthy relationships, no matter what kind of relationship you have. The purpose of boundaries is to make sure that we stay safe, and that we have adequate separation between other people,” Heyman says.
Despite having to negotiate with the human resource department to avoid testing her blood sugar in front of her colleague, Byrne continued to advocate to examination her glucose levels in the community kitchen. “I absolutely wasn’t going to say that I was never going to test in the kitchen,” Bryne shares. “I told HR that I wasn’t going to do that.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, US employers may not discriminate against a qualified person with a disability (of which diabetes qualifies) and must provide reasonable accommodations. You can learn more about your rights here.
If you or someone you love is experiencing bullying due to diabetes, know that it’s not right. If it feels safe to do so, find a trusted individual who can help you advocate for yourself. If you need the support of other people who may be experiencing the same thing, lean on our Beyond Type 1 and Beyond Type 2 community apps.