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On Being Brave.

February 16, 2010

Last week, at the ACT1 Diabetes support group for women in Manhattan, the topic of being brave briefly came up in conversation at dinner. One girl said was recalling an incident where someone had exclaimed, “Oh I could never do that!” when she tested blood sugar and of course she responded, “You would if your life depended on it.”

Back when I was in therapy (I went a tiny bit nuts in college… though, honestly, didn’t we all?), I was complaining-slash-explaining to my therapist, Scott, everything I had to do in my day-to-day life with diabetes. Not just the blood sugar tests and wearing the insulin pump and the counting carbs, but the other things that made up my life: the speaking, the educating, the feeling like I was on a pedestal because of my diabetes advocacy.

Scott told me that he thought I was brave.

I laughed. I was not brave.

And it wasn’t the first – nor the last – time someone had told me that they thought I was brave. It was difficult at the time to imagine myself as being brave in anything. Being in therapy, I felt weak and at my all-time low. I hadn’t even been managing my diabetes particularly well for most of college, having knocked down my daily average of blood sugar tests to just a handful and my meal boluses happened eventually but not necessarily when they were supposed to happen. When I did test my blood sugar or take my insulin, it didn’t seem to be this great act of courage. I was doing what I needed to do to survive. To make it to the next day, to make something of my future. There didn’t seem to be anything brave in doing what I had to do. Managing my diabetes, to whatever degree of success I could manage, didn’t seem like an act of bravery, it felt like an act of necessity.

But bravery – and its synonym courage – means overcoming hardship or difficulty, and in some ways, I do think I’m brave. Not in the fighting dragons with plastic swords kind of brave, but the kind of brave that helps me make lemonade out of lemons. Bravery is an attitude, not an action. Bravery is not testing your blood sugar; bravery is not letting it dictate how you feel about yourself, to not let it convince you that you are a failure, and to decide to do it again. The hardship in my life isn’t the day-to-day managing of my diabetes, but the strength to not let it destroy my character and my hope for my future. Because it is so easy to let something like a chronic illness completely overwhelm who you are. Bravery to stay true to yourself. But to me, there is no choice in managing diabetes.

I’ve always thought of bravery as someone who does something they don’t need to do but wants to despite how dangerous it is because it’s the right thing to do. Running into a burning building to save a baby. Travel thousands of miles from friends and family to fight in a war. Heck, I even consider people who participate in the Olympics to be brave because they sure as hell don’t need to fly down a mountain at ninety miles an hour but they do it anyway!

Sometimes I am not brave. I am scared. I am anxious and worried. Sometimes I am ambivalent. Sometimes I go through the motions. Sometimes I do not face danger or hardship. I skip testing my blood sugar. I forget to take my insulin. I walk out of the house without grabbing another juice box. Perhaps the reason why I am reluctant to consider myself brave is because it is another designation, another label, another expectation that I have to live up to. If I acknowledged that I am indeed brave, that means I cannot be weak. And to not ever be weak is not something I’m sure I can do.

But these are just my thoughts, reactions to be called brave. I’m certainly not married to my idea of what bravery is, and it changes every time I think about it! So I want to know, what do you think? Do you consider yourself brave for managing your diabetes? If you don’t have diabetes, do you think I’m brave? Why or why not?

21 Comments
  1. February 16, 2010 10:32 AM

    I am totally with you on this. I am not “brave” for doing something REQUIRED to LIVE.

  2. February 16, 2010 10:57 AM

    Count me in too. I am not brave. I just survive. (queue the music Beyonce!)

  3. February 16, 2010 11:16 AM

    Bravery is all in the eyes of the person who ISN’T performing the action. We call soldiers brave because they fight in a foreign country away from their families. They call it doing their job. We call a firefighter brave for running into a burning building. Same thing: they call it their job.
    We call a person with cancer brave because they have to endure treatments and sickness and fear. They do it because they want a chance to live.
    I think our diabetes is the same thing. I don’t think of myself as brave, but I too have been told that I am brave by many people. I only do what I can to live the best life possible.
    If that’s brave, I guess I am. But I just do what I do to try to live.

    • February 16, 2010 11:27 AM

      The only thing I’d say with soldiers and firemen is that they CHOSE to have that be their job. Diabetes isn’t a job for me. I didn’t apply to be a diabetic.

      I’d say we’re much more like someone with cancer, but I wonder if the person with cancer thinks they’re brave because they are doing what they consider to not be optional. Fighting in a war is optional. You don’t HAVE to go. Living with diabetes is not optional.

  4. February 16, 2010 11:19 AM

    I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that when one is given the choice, you can call it bravery, but mostly, this is more of a marathon than a race, and that’s a big difference. Its about dealing with it long-term and doing so successfully, but I’m not sure how much of that can be considered bravery — probably only bits and pieces are, the rest is not a choice.

  5. Kassie permalink
    February 16, 2010 11:33 AM

    At first, I thought we were sort of brave (http://noncompliant.blogspot.com/2007/01/bravery-question.html) but now, I think we are brave (http://noncompliant.blogspot.com/2009/11/yes-we-are-brave.html) (not trying to drive traffic, just have given this lots of thought)

    • February 16, 2010 11:39 AM

      Thank you for the links! This is definitely one of those “in process” kinds of opinions. What I got out of Jake’s experience though was more of the fact he overcame an initial fear, and was brave to do something he knew would hurt. But I have never really been afraid of needles, and I certainly don’t fear them now. So I don’t really consider pricking my fingers to be all the fearful. But I suppose it depends on who you are… maybe there are people who have overcome greater hurdles than I have in dealing with this disease. I certainly wouldn’t want to belittle anyone’s experiences!

  6. February 16, 2010 11:52 AM

    I agree, thinking about it it seems that “stubborn” or “obstinate” might be a better word for it than brave.

  7. February 16, 2010 12:03 PM

    To be honest, I don’t think of managing diabetes as brave. It’s just another obstacle in life. Some people manage it with a negative attitude. Other people don’t let it alter the lives they want to lead. If anything is brave, it’s making the choice to not let it define you. And then living that choice.

  8. February 16, 2010 12:07 PM

    This is a hard one. I don’t feel brave, but all of us with diabetes have to deal with a lot more, and keep on top of it, than those without. But it is true, that it is just what we have to do as our life depends on it. Now that’s a motivator! But sometimes you don’t know if you are brave until you are put in the position to act brave. So I think we all are a bit brave, especially to try new technologies, like the pump and CGM, and the longer, thicker needles that come with that, all in a quest to get the best possible control of our diabetes. I have trouble myself with the CGM sensor needles…they hurt! and I tend to get pretty whoosy for a bit after putting them in. So I am proud of myself for sticking with them and working past the pain. With all we have to deal with, it’s helpful to feel good about what you are doing, and the steps you take to be in the best possible health. Essentially we are doing the work of our pancreas, that’s our job, and not an easy one!

    And I agree that a lot of it is having the strength to not let diabetes overwhelm you, to not hold you back from anything. Diabetes can bring fear, that you will be so tired from having high blood sugars or feel too shaky and weak from low blood sugars to do something you want to do. I don’t want my diabetes to make me scared to do anything. I hope that makes me brave, if even in a small way. And I don’t believe being brave is something you do all the time…even those who are brave will have times of doubt, fear and weakness. It’s working past all that which makes someone brave.

  9. February 16, 2010 12:10 PM

    Bravery is attributed to those who are put in life or death situations, and face said situations with the conviction that they will make it through. What makes you guys brave is that these kinds of situations are put in front of you every day. You make a decision every day to live, and like you said Allison, you don’t let it overcome you.

    I agree with Cara, bravery is often attributed to those who accomplish great feats. But in reality…that is not the case. In reality, those who are brave are also human. They do things that they don’t want to for a bigger cause…for a better future. And just because that future is for yourself, it doesn’t make what you do any less valiant.

    I watch what my boys endure, and maybe I’m just a mom, but their courage overwhelms me. They keep themselves composed in the worst of situations. Luckily, since we don’t live in comic books, it is OK to be brave and to be human too. Brave people can still break down and have moments of weakness.

    And seriously, can any of you say that bolusing for Chinese food isn’t brave?

  10. tmana permalink
    February 16, 2010 12:16 PM

    I’ve said many times, any one person’s life reads like a Hero Cycle. Most of the time, the Hero is living his normal, everyday life. But then something comes up and forces the Hero to make a change. (Note: this is not something he wants to do, but something he has to do, because his own — or others’ — lives are at stake.) Part of that change puts his life in danger, often to the point of death. The Hero “goes through the Crucible”, in which he is Challenged and his mettle is forged into something stronger. If/when he emerges from the Crucible, he is considered victorious, the Hero.

    The Hero is only a Hero, is only Brave, is only Just and Righteous, because he met the challenge and emerged from it, and is viewed by those who have not experienced the same challenge, those who have deliberately avoided the challenge, and those who have not met the challenge as successfully. It is not because the Hero is inherently braver, more just, or more righteous than the Everyman.

    Some time after the “victory”, the “happily ever after” becomes “life as normal”, and continues until the next Challenge enters the Hero’s life-journey. This cycle of everyday-challenge-victory-everyday continues through the entire Hero cycle.

    The moral is, we are all brave, yet we are none of us brave. We are meeting the challenges that life has set before us. We seem brave to those who do not have the same challenges, to those who would avoid those challenges, to those who do not sense the obligation to meet those challenges. For the most part, cops, firemen, and soldiers have a calling to those professions, just as do construction workers, demolition experts, and others in professions that may threaten their lives on a daily basis.

  11. February 16, 2010 12:43 PM

    Hmmm. Maybe “strong” is a better word than “brave”? But either way… definitely admirable for the way you handle it.🙂

  12. February 16, 2010 1:04 PM

    I always think of someone who is brave as a person who is faced with a challenge and rises to the occasion. Not necessarily by choice. Like the man who jumped onto the subway tracks to save a stranger.

    I wrote the following post called “Bravery”: http://www.d-mom.com/bravery/

    (It was in reaction to a huge problem I was having with another parent.)

    I can only speak as the parent of a diabetic child, but since they have no choice in this and have to put up with a lot of things other kids don’t have to, I think it is perfectly appropriate to call them brave.

    If there is a better word out there, I would certainly adopt it’s use.

    • February 16, 2010 1:19 PM

      Well, a man who jumps onto subway tracks chose to do that. Diabetes was forced on to me. I suppose some people see taking care of diabetes as a choice. I don’t. Choosing between life and death isn’t much of a choice! But I think this might be different between PWDs and PoPWDs (Parents of People with Diabetes). However, I think children who do not complain and become advocates and get up and speak about diabetes are brave. They *don’t* have to put themselves out there, they don’t need to draw attention to themselves. And those children who use themselves as an example to help others are brave, because they’re opening up their lives to be criticized and examined. That’s brave.

      • February 16, 2010 1:52 PM

        I guess I meant that as an example of someone who acts without forethought and who didn’t wake up one day and think “Today I think I’ll do something brave.” As opposed to a firefighters, police, or soldiers who actively make decisions to seek out dangerous situations. (Though they are also courageous, but because they *choose* to be.)

  13. Kelly permalink
    February 16, 2010 1:19 PM

    I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself brave. I do, however, consider myself strong. I have to be in order to survive. Since I don’t remember any other way of living, I don’t think I’m brave for waking up and doing what I do every day. Just like someone wihtout diabetes probably doesn’t feel brave for waking up and doing what they do every day. It’s just life. It’s just another step down my path. 🙂

  14. Tina permalink
    February 16, 2010 6:00 PM

    Allison, I am so sorry I didn’t make it to the meeting. I would have loved to have seen you.
    I believe you are brave. I agree, that what we do everyday, we do to survive. Still, so many people with Diabetes don’t do it.
    Sometimes I think the bravest thing I do is read the number on my glucometer. Damn, that can be a lot scarier than dragons and monsters! I would prefer to fight a dragon now and then.
    Yes, Strong is probably a better description. However I don’t think “brave” is inappropriate.

    • February 16, 2010 6:05 PM

      No worries! I won’t be there next week because of the NYC Type 1 Meet-up group dinner, but I’ll be at the next one.🙂

  15. Colleen permalink
    February 17, 2010 7:51 PM

    Hm that’s a tough one. I’ve certainly had many a person exclaim, “Oh I could never do that!” and I always think, or say, “Oh yes you could!” It’s different when your life depends on it.

    I don’t really think I’m brave, I think I’m strong. I think we all are, greatly so. But while there is a very strong life or death element to this, we do have a choice in how we approach it. Whether you speak out as an advocate, or just living each day with this disease and not letting the medical devices, highs and lows, frustrations and emotional toll beat you down or dominate your life, there is a certain choice. And maybe that does make us brave.

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